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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
Why aren't Muslim countries more democratic?

Unelected governments whose leaders are kings, military, and ex-military men rule the majority of countries in the Muslim world. However, in recent years competitive elections have occurred in countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Senegal. The absence of democracy in the Muslim world today has led many to ask whether there is something about Arab or Muslim culture that is antithetical to democracy. The answer to this question lies more in history and politics than in religion.

While the West has had centuries to make its transformation from monarchies and principalities to modern democratic states, a process that was marked by revolutionary and civil wars, the Muslim world has struggled with several centuries of colonial rule followed by authoritarian regimes installed by European powers. If we ask why much of the Muslim world today is underdeveloped or unstable, we must remember that most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and that they were carved out by European powers.

In South Asia, the British divided the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, giving portions of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir to each of them. The conflicts that resulted from these actions have led to the deaths of millions in communal warfare between Hindus and Muslims, the civil war between East and West Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh, and conflicts in Kashmir over Indian rule that persist to the present day. In the Middle East, the French created modern Lebanon from portions of Syria, and the British set the borders for Iraq and Kuwait and created the totally new country of Jordan. Such arbitrary borders fed ethnic, regional, and religious conflicts including the Lebanese Civil War between Christians and Muslims, the occupation of Lebanon by Syria, and the Gulf War, which resulted from Saddam Hussein's claim to Kuwaiti territory.

In addition to influencing who came to power in emerging modern Muslim nation-states, Europe and later America forged close alliances with authoritarian regimes, tolerating or supporting their nondemocratic ways in exchange for their allegiance during the Cold War or to ensure access to oil.

Not surprisingly, Muslim rulers have been plagued with issues of identity and legitimacy. The artificial nature of many modern states and the weak legitimacy of rulers have resulted in nondemocratic governments, societies in which state power is heavily reliant on security forces, police, and military, and where freedoms of assembly, speech, and press are severely limited. Many Muslim states operate within a culture of authoritarianism that is opposed to democratization, civil society, independent political parties, trade unions, and a free press. When useful, some rulers use religion to legitimate themselves and their policies. At other times, as during the aftermath of crises like the Gulf War of 1991 and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001, they also use the threat of “Islamic extremism” to justify increased suppression or repression of any and all opposition to their undemocratic rule.

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