Aug 12th 2013

The Problem is Authoritarianism, Not Islam

by Dani Rodrik

Dani Rodrik, Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the first recipient of the Social Science Research Council’s Albert O. Hirschman Prize. His latest book is One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth.

PRINCETON – Is Islam fundamentally incompatible with democracy? Time and again events compel us to ask this question. And yet it is a question that obscures more than it illuminates.

Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia are very different countries, but one thing that they share are Islamist governments (at least until recently in Egypt’s case). To varying degrees, these governments have undermined their democratic credentials by failing to protect civil and human rights and employing heavy-handed tactics against their opponents. Despite repeated assurances, Islamist leaders have shown little interest in democracy beyond winning at the ballot box. 

So those who believe that the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s government was justified have a point. As the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule became increasingly authoritarian, it trampled on the ideals and aspirations of the Tahrir Square revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Nonetheless, the support that the military coup received from many Egyptian liberals is difficult to fathom. Clever word games cannot hide the essence of what happened: a government that came to power in a fair election was overthrown by the army. 

Some believe that military interventions can serve as a useful course correction. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Egyptian army was “restoring democracy.” And the former US ambassador James Jeffrey drew on Turkey’s experience, and the 1980 coup in particular, to argue that the military could help in “moderating Islamist movements.”

The notion that a politically transcendent impartial arbiter can step in to prevent abuse of power and reinvigorate democracy is an attractive one. But it is belied by Turkey’s own history. True, the Turkish military was not interested in governing directly, and handed power back to civilian governments after its coups. Even so, its repeated interventions greatly harmed the development of a democratic political culture. 

Ultimately, democracy relies on an implicit quid pro quo among contending groups, according to which each agrees to protect the others’ rights in exchange for recognition of its entitlement to govern should it win an election. Constitutional provisions alone cannot ensure such an outcome, for those in power can easily override them. Instead, norms of proper political behavior must become embodied in the polity’s enduring institutions – its political parties, parliaments, and courts – in order to prevent abuse of power.

What sustains these norms is the knowledge that undermining them will have consequences that are damaging to all. If I do not protect your rights while in power today, you will have little reason to respect mine when you come to power tomorrow. 

When an outside force such as the military interrupts this game, either directly or because one of the parties can rely on its intervention, the dynamics of political behavior change irrevocably. The loss of continuity in political parties, parliamentary procedures, and judicial processes encourages short-term calculation and spawns illiberal practices. This is exactly the malady of young democracies.

It is also the problem that plagues Turkish democracy, despite its longer track record. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it not only lacked a democratic culture, but also had much to fear about how the secularist-military old guard might react. So it behaved exactly according to its fear, launching a series of show trials targeting senior military officials and other perceived opponents. When Erdoğan’s government eventually lost the support of liberals who had initially supported it, it cracked down on the media and freedom of expression. 

Given this backdrop of repression and punctuated democracy, the failure of Islamists in Egypt and Turkey tells us less about Islam’s compatibility with democracy than we might think. Did Morsi and Erdoğan behave as they did because of their religious ideologies, or would most political leaders seeking to retain power have acted in similar ways in their position? Latin America, where Islam plays no political role, has no shortage of populist strongmen who routinely violate civil liberties and political rights.

 

None of this is to condone the abuse of power by Islamist leaders. But, just as the Turkish military’s repeated interventions against a perceived Islamist threat have impeded democracy, so the Egyptian military’s toppling of Morsi will not help to restore it. An entity that is authoritarian and hierarchical in nature cannot be relied on to protect and promote a democratic transition. A case can be made for military intervention when a country finds itself on the edge of civil war, as Turkey was in 1980 (and as Egypt arguably was in July); but one should not confuse restoring order with restoring democracy.

While the battle for democracy must be won or lost at home, outsiders do have a role to play. International actors such as human-rights organizations can usefully document and publicize rights violations and other abuses of power. 

Democratic countries – particularly the United States and members of the European Union – can denounce authoritarian practices with a clear voice and resist the temptation of cozying up to regional bullies for short-term strategic advantage. Given economic globalization and global communications, autocratic rulers derive almost as much strength from their international standing as they do from their control of domestic institutions.

What does not help – and in fact backfires – is for outsiders to view the political crisis of Middle Eastern societies as the result of an Islamist-secularist divide. This perspective plays directly into the hands of authoritarian rulers like Erdoğan, who can leverage the perceived Islamophobia of foreign powers to mobilize their political base. Human-rights abuses and violations of the rule of law should be denounced for what they are – without linking them to culture or religion.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org





 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself? Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.........Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So all that is why Cramer is talking about the death knell of petroleum stocks. We probably agree on almost nothing else, but when people are right, you have to give them credit. He is right."
Feb 3rd 2020
EXTRACT: "........as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it."
Feb 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Senators will soon decide whether to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump without hearing any witnesses. In making this decision, I believe they should consider words spoken at the Constitutional Convention, when the Founders decided that an impeachment process was needed to provide a “regular examination,” to quote Benjamin Franklin. A critical debate took place on July 20, 1787, which resulted in adding the impeachment clause to the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, the oldest and probably wisest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that when the president falls under suspicion, a “regular and peaceable inquiry” is needed."
Feb 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor."
Jan 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Switzerland and Denmark have gone furthest into negative territory, both offering unprecedentedly low rates of -0.75%. The Swiss National Bank, which has kept its rate at this level since 2015, signalled recently that it intends to stick with this experiment and is not ruling out going even more negative. It has said that negative rates were boosting the economy and that the country’s fundamentals were not being significantly affected."
Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."