Are Islamists in the Middle East more Pro-Democracy than Seculars?

The recent decades have witnessed an increase in the visibility of political parties with conservative backgrounds in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia or AKP in Turkey, the parties experienced external restrictions in maneuvering within the political space, encouraging the scholars to focus on the interplay between “seculars” and “Islamists” to understand the governance dynamics. As an extension of these debates, recently, Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at Brookings Institute, and Mustafa Akyol, a Senior Fellow at CATO, expressed their views that “Islamists are more pro-democracy (in a procedural sense) than secularists in the Middle East[1]”. Does such a claim have an empirical basis at the mass level?

The most common definition of Islamism is “a shared commitment to the implementation of Islamic Law in all spheres[2]”. Seculars are often referred to people who adhere to secular principles, which may include nature, reason, science without recourse to religion.

Considering preference for religious-oriented parties as a proxy for Islamism, in this essay I utilize the Arab Barometer Wave V, conducted in 2018 and 2019, to compare the attitudes of respondents who prefer religious-oriented political parties and non-religious-oriented political parties towards democracy. I rely on two questions from the survey. The Arab Barometer asks respondents whether they strongly prefer/prefer a religious political party over a non-religious political party. I classify those preferring/strongly preferring a religious political party as “religious party supporters” (n=11,747, 56.63%) and preferring/strongly preferring a non-religious party as “non-religious party supporters” (n= 8997, 43.37%).

On preference for democracy, the Arab Barometer asks respondents to choose among whether “(1) Democracy is always preferable to any kind of government”, “(2) Under some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”, or “(3) It doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. I classify the responses between those who (always) prefer democracy (Statement 1) and those who do not always prefer democracy (Statements 2 and 3). Overall, 57.3% (n=13,702) of the respondents indicate they always prefer democracy (Statement 1), whereas 42.7% of the respondents (n=10,211) do not. The following graph provides an overall distribution for those preferring democracy among religious party supporters:


Graph 1: Percentage Preferring Democracy (Religious Party Supporters)

A high level of variation exists for the preference of democracy among religious party supporters. The highest level of support comes from two North African countries: Tunisia (69.64%) and Libya (68.82%). In contrast, the lowest levels of support come from Algeria (34.38%) and Egypt (39.72%). The graph below presents the distribution for preference for democracy among non-religious party supporters:


Graph 2: Percentage Preferring Democracy (Non-Religious Party Supporters)

The highest levels of support for democracy among non-religious party supporters is in Tunisia (72.15%) and Yemen (67.94%). In contrast, the lowest level of support is in Sudan (49.83%) and Egypt (52.02%). I present below the percentage difference for the preference of democracy between the two groups, obtained through the subtraction of percentage values of religious party supporters from non-religious party supporters:


Graph 3: Differences for Preference in Democracy

In eight of the ten countries supporters of non-religious parties indicate higher percentage points of preference for democracy. The highest levels of difference are in Yemen (19.84%), and Algeria (17.94%). The negative differences are in Libya (-4.05%), and Iraq (-3.22%). Interestingly, in Tunisia, the only success-story of the uprisings, the difference is much lower (2.51%) compared to values in Egypt (12.3%). This could suggest a retreat among many religious-oriented Egyptians from the idea of democratic governance after a brief experience that ended with disappointment.

Overall, findings suggest that in at least eight of the countries, there is no sufficient evidence to suggest that religious party supporters have higher levels of support for democracy than non-religious party supporters. However, is it not appropriate to conclude that in MENA often seculars are more pro-democracy than Islamists for multiple reasons.

First, preferences for religious/non-religious parties are imperfect ways of measuring predispositions towards Islamism and secularism, which can have different dimensions[3]. Second, the identity of individuals and their disposition towards institutions are context-dependent by time and place, limiting the ability to generalize. Third, a majoritarian approach in comparing groups, which attributes small differences to the groups as wholes (ex: if the difference is positive, X is more pro-democracy than Y), miss out the variation and clusters within groups, and the fact that many within each group still prefer the variable of interest (democracy).

A deeper problem comes with arbitrarily attributing “secularists” and “Islamists” labels for defining groups. In fact, in the Arab World people who share norms associated with secularism often prefer not to use the term secular- العلماني- derived from the root علمن-to secularize- in describing themselves due to the stigma attached to the term. They rather define themselves as -المدني-, meaning “civil” derived from the root مدن-to urbanize-. Similarly, “Islamists” may not be a very useful terminology for classification as some religious-oriented movements explicitly renounce their attachment from political Islam[4], which may extend to the individual level as well. Given that individuals do not utilize these terms in describing themselves, it is a question mark whether scholars studying the region should do so.

The Arab uprisings increased the interest in MENA scholarship to examine the compatibility of political Islam with democracy. However, a theoretical compatibility between democracy and Islamism is independent of whether “Islamists” in the region are more pro-democracy than “secularists”. As authoritarian governance creates challenges for individuals from different walks of lives, scholars could spend more effort to understand how chronic problems due to authoritarian governance, such as unemployment, corruption, wasta and censorship, influence the interaction of individuals with different forms of governance rather than putting people into arbitrary boxes that do not seem to resemble the reality.