Differing opinions among practicing Muslims in Middle East on role religion should play in government

September 12, 2018 by George Diepenbrock, University of Kansas
Protesters in Tunisia on Jan. 22, 2011, during the Tunisian Revolution. Credit: Chris Belsten via Creative Commons

Once a lively debate, scholars more recently have largely discarded the view that Islam and democracy are incompatible, and a new study that includes a University of Kansas researcher reveals there are important differences among practicing Muslims in the Middle East regarding the role religion should play.

These differences are relevant in determining how faith shapes preferences for regime type and in different countries, said Michael Wuthrich, assistant professor of political science.

"Our article was an attempt to take the next step. It was good that scholars showed there's nothing inherent about religiosity that makes it not work with democracy," said Wuthrich, who is also undergraduate studies director the KU Center for Global & International Studies. "Building on this empirical foundation, we started with the assumption that there is pluralism within religious folks in the Middle East. Muslims are not all of one mind, and there's naturally going to be different factors affecting their attitudes of whether they would prefer democracy or not."

The journal Political Research Quarterly recently published the findings of the group that includes Wuthrich, corresponding author Sabri Ciftci of Kansas State University and Ammar Shamaileh of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

A key finding of their broader research was that instead of their level of devotion to practicing Islam, the openness to democratic practices among residents of Arab-speaking countries seemed to be more closely tied to their relationship with the current group in power and the status quo in their country.

For example, the proportion of the devout with religious outlooks that are most supportive of democracy are the highest in Tunisia—the country that initiated the Arab Spring events—and Lebanon. Places like Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco showed much higher proportions of people with outlooks supporting religious conformity and an active place for religion in the public sphere, but they also had higher proportions of pious people supporting democracy who both supported religious pluralism and also greater roles for religion in politics, Wuthrich said.

"There are patterns between how states behave toward their citizens and the frequencies of these different groups," he said. "There has been a longstanding assumption in the West that within Muslim countries that if we find the less , they are the ones who are going to promote the democratic changes we want to see, but our findings actually really challenge that."

In many cases, those who identified themselves as nonreligious had a similar variety of views toward democratic ideas as those who were more devout, practicing Muslims in their country, the researchers found.

"So there are quite a few moderate to nonreligious Muslims in these Arabic-speaking language countries that aren't all that wild about democracy," Wuthrich said. "Their reasoning is, 'We live in a state that is ensuring some secular norms, we're afraid if we give votes to the religious people in society. We like it the way it is and don't want people's free choices and their impact on government to change the practice that exists today.'"

He said a major question for future research is finding out why these attitudes toward democracy vary between countries.

"This is an important issue. We're starting to see relationships between attitudes and state practices, the approaches of the state and how these relate to different proportions in the distinct outlooks among devout Muslims," Wuthrich said. "But what we don't completely have a full grasp on yet—the chicken or the egg question—is how much do people shape the way the regime is behaving? And how much is the regime shaping the people's outlook? That's the key question moving forward."

Explore further: 'European Muslims perceive the EU more positively than other Europeans'

More information: Sabri Ciftci et al. Islam, Religious Outlooks, and Support for Democracy, Political Research Quarterly (2018). DOI: 10.1177/1065912918793233

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