Scholars and theoreticians have long argued about the compatibility of Islam and democracy. In the earliest years of the 21st century, Bush administration support for the export of democracy to the Middle East brought the debate to the forefront of policy circles.
In 2007 The Middle East Quarterly published the results of a scholarly study -- titled "Are Muslim Countries Less Democratic?" -- which examined the varying degrees of political freedom in 162 nations, of which 39 had a Muslim majority. The study found that the greater the percentage of Muslims in a given country's population, the lower was the level of political rights therein.
Among pairs of oil-exporting states with roughly the same per capita GDP -- one predominantly Muslim, the other not -- in each case the Muslim country compared unfavorably with the non-Muslim state. For instance, Algeria was less democratic than Gabon; Syria had fewer political freedoms than Sri Lanka; and Iran did not compare well to Venezuela.
Of the 58 nations classified as having medium or high per capita GDP, only the 6 Gulf Cooperation Council states -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates -- were Muslim. These 6 countries had an average political freedom score roughly one-third that of the remaining 52 nations in this group.
There were some exceptions to the general conclusion that Islam had a negative impact on political rights. In the sample of 39 predominantly Muslim countries, Bangladesh, Mali, Senegal, and Turkey had political-freedom scores in the middle range. The fact that these nations had relatively respectable degrees of political freedom suggests that the overall deficit may not be permanent.
The empirical results of this study do not answer the question of why Muslim states usually have fewer political rights than non-Muslim countries. In part, historical factors are responsible. Islam found root primarily in countries with low per capita GDPs and a deficit of political rights. But Islamic doctrine also places little emphasis on individual rights, especially those Muslim sects such as the Shi'a whose leaders have stressed a theocratic approach toward government. Although the leaders of some Muslim nations have severed the bonds between mosque and state, many of these same rulers have maintained the politically repressive traditions of their countries to enhance their own power.
Adapted from "Are Muslim Countries Less Democratic?" (Frederic Pryor, Fall 2007, published by The Middle East Quarterly).