The Arab spring has been marked by the revolutionary downfall and removal of autocratic leaders in Tunisia (President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), Egypt (President Hosni Mubarrak), and Libya (President Momar Gaddafi). Major protests, strikes, and demonstrations have occurred throughout the region, destabilizing regimes in Syria and Yemen. Stirrings of popular unrest during the 'Arab spring' have renewed debate about the regimes most likely to replace traditional autocracies in the region. These events have encouraged many commentators to hope that the Middle East and North Africa is experiencing the gradual transition from autocracy to secular democracies, where moderate Islamic parties, new constitutions, and elected governments gradually expand human rights, including religious freedoms, pluralism, and tolerance of diverse faiths. Preliminary results from the October elections in Tunisia suggest victory for the moderate Islamic party Ennahda. Yet it remains unclear whether the outcome will be similar for moderate forces in Egypt and Libya. Contemporary events remain in continuous flux, the final outcome of these developments are far from settled, and other commentators fear that the instability caused by the popular uprisings will allow openings for conservative and more extremist religious forces to come to power, enforcing stricter interpretation of Islamic law.
Do Muslim publics want secular democracies, characterized by religious pluralism, separation of religious and government authorities, tolerance of diverse religious beliefs and practices, moderate parties, and constitutions where no single type of faith is privileged, following the Turkish model? Or do they prefer regimes where constitutions reflect Islamic principles, spiritual authorities predominate in politics, conservative Islamic parties prevail, and religious courts enforce Sharia law, reflecting the Iranian model? Or, alternatively, do many Muslim publics fall somewhere between these two poles?
Many factors will probably determine the final type of constitutional settlements and the regimes which develop in the countries in the Arab region which are currently experiencing challenges to autocracy. The new settlements will be shaped by historical traditions, the type of political elite, levels of economic development, the power and role of the armed forces, and external pressures from the international community, among many other factors. But preferences in the mass culture are also likely to play a role in any constitutional settlement, especially where these are subject to popular referendum, as in Tunisia. It is therefore important to determine whether the general public in Muslim-plurality nations favors the Turkish model of secular democracy, the Iranian model of religious autocracy, or another type of constitutional settlement located between these poles.
Regimes can be classified using a four-fold typology which distinguishes preferences for liberal democracy (on the horizontal axis) and preferences for secular states, defined here as those favoring high levels of religious pluralism and freedom, on the vertical axis. Comparison of Muslim-plurality societies suggest that they are governed today by diverse types of regimes, which can be illustrated by the contrasts among Mali (exemplifying a secular democracy), Chad (classified as a secular autocracy), and Tunisia (as a religious autocracy).
Low << Liberal democracy >> High
Low <<Religious pluralism>> High
Public preferences for each type of regime
What type of regime do Muslims publics prefer? The World Values Survey 1999-2007 provides data in a wide variety of societies to examine the distribution of public opinion towards secularism and democracy.Preferences for a secular state are measured by two items: "How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?(i) Religious leaders should not influence how people vote in elections; (ii) Religious leaders should not influence government decisions."
Support for democratic principles is measured by the question: "I'm going to describe various types of political systems and ask what you think about each as a way of governing this country. For each one, would you say it is a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing this country? (i) Having a democratic political system. (ii) Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections; (iii) Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country; (iv) Having the army rule."
Figure 1: Public preferences for regimes
The results of the comparison in Figure 1 shows that the publics in Muslim-majority societies displayed diverse preferences; hence people living in some countries, such as Tanzania and Morocco, favored secular democracy, while others such as Albania and Indonesia proved slightly less supportive of democracy although equally secular, and still others, such as Algeria, favored religious autocracy. Overall, therefore, although some assume commonality, the contrasts among Muslim-plurality societies stand out.Source: More details can be found in Pippa Norris. 2011.
'Muslim support for secular democracy'.