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Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens

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Some of the most pressing questions in the Middle East and North Africa today revolve around the proper place of Islamic institutions and authorities in governance and political affairs. Drawing on data from 42 surveys carried out in fifteen countries between 1988 and 2011, representing the opinions of more than 60,000 men and women, this study investigates the reasons that some individuals support a central role for Islam in government while others favor a separation of religion and politics. Utilizing his newly constructed Carnegie Middle East Governance and Islam Dataset, which has been placed in the public domain for use by other researchers, Mark Tessler formulates and tests hypotheses about the views held by ordinary citizens, offering insights into the individual and country-level factors that shape attitudes toward political Islam.

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1 A Two-Level Study of Attitudes toward Political Islam: Data and Methods

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UNTIL A DECADE or so ago, the investigation of individual attitudes, values, and behavior patterns was the “missing dimension” in political science research dealing with the Arab and Muslim Middle East.1 Such research, although not completely absent, was limited to a very small number of American, Arab, and Turkish political scientists. It was also limited with respect to the countries where systematic survey research could be conducted, the degree to which representative national samples could be drawn, and the extent to which sensitive questions about politics could be asked.2

There are complaints about the paucity of research in this area going back to the 1970s. A major review of the scholarship on Arab society, published in 1976, called attention to the absence of systematic research on political attitudes and behavior patterns. The author of this review, I. William Zartman, stated that “the critical mass of research [in the field of political behavior] has been done outside the Middle East” and “data generation and analysis in the region remain to be done.”3 Malcolm Kerr, another leading student of Arab politics, offered a similar assessment a few years later. Writing in the foreword to Political Behavior in the Arab States, Kerr stated that there is a need for much more research in which the individual is the unit of analysis in order “to bring a healthier perspective to our understanding of Arab politics . . . and so that we may see it less as a reflection of formal cultural norms or contemporary world ideological currents and more as [the behavior] of ordinary individuals.”4

 

2 Islam in the Lives of Ordinary Muslims

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IN ORDER TO fully understand the way that ordinary citizens think about Islam’s place in government and political affairs, it is important to understand as well the degree to which, and the ways in which, Islam plays a broader role in people’s lives. The extent and scope of Islamic practice, involvement in Islamic study groups, and other personal religious activities have varied over time in the same way that the strength of Islamist movements and the interest in political formulae with an Islamic dimension have varied. Moreover, religion is by no means absent from the lives of men and women who do not believe that Islam should play an important role in government and politics. On the contrary, Islam is one of the most important factors shaping the overall character of Middle Eastern Muslim societies. Even many Christians in the region say that the civilization of which they are a part, and with which they identify, cannot be understood without reference to Islam. The way that Islam has shaped, and continues to shape, society and culture in the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere in the Muslim world is nicely described by Bernard Lewis in The Shaping of the Modern Middle East:

 

3 Why Individuals Hold Different Views about Islam’s Political Role

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Debates about Islam’s role in governance in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa are not new, and thinking about Islam’s role in political affairs has evolved over the last half century. The experience has not been the same in every country, of course, and the distribution of attitudes about Islam’s political role is not the same in every country at the present time. Overall, however, questions about the place that Islam should occupy in government and political affairs continue to be debated and contested.

This division of opinion about Islam’s political role is reflected, in the aggregate, in the survey findings presented in table 3.1. Drawing upon all of the 62,097 Muslim respondents in the dataset,1 based on forty-two surveys in fifteen countries, and with the findings weighted to correct for sample size differences and population overlap, as described in chapter 1, the table shows a wide divergence of views about three propositions concerning the relationship between religion and politics. Specifically, 51.1 percent agree or agree strongly that men of religion should have no influence over the decisions of government, whereas 43.3 percent favor or favor strongly the exercise of such influence by men of religion, and another 5.6 percent neither agree nor disagree. With regard to the statement that religion is a private matter and should be separated from sociopolitical life, 55.5 percent agree or agree strongly, whereas 39 percent disagree or disagree strongly, and another 5.5 percent neither agree nor disagree. With regard to a third statement, that it would be better for their country if more people with strong religious beliefs held public office, 52.3 percent agree or agree strongly, whereas 42 percent disagree or disagree strongly, and another 5.7 percent neither agree nor disagree.

 

4 How and Why Explanations Vary across Countries

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The views of ordinary citizens about the role that Islam should play in government and political affairs are not monolithic. On the contrary, many men and women in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa believe that Islam should occupy a place of importance in the political life of their society; many others disagree, believing that religion is an essentially private matter and should be separated from politics; and still others hold views that place them at some point in between these two poles of opinion. This division of opinion was illustrated in the preceding chapter in table 3.1.

Against the background of this division of opinion, chapter 3 sought to move from description to explanation and asked why individuals hold different views about Islam’s political role. The focus was on individual-level dynamics shaping predispositions and preferences, on causal stories and the associated pathways that might, in the language of social science, account for the observed variance in attitudes toward political Islam. Toward this end, the chapter sought explanatory insights by formulating four sets of hypotheses. The first of these proposed that an individual’s views about the political role that Islam should play are shaped, in part, by his or her cultural values. A second hypothesis proposed that attitudes toward political Islam are determined, in part, by judgments about the regime by which an individual’s country is governed. A third hypothesis proposed that an individual’s economic circumstances and level of economic satisfaction are among the determinants of views about political Islam, and a fourth proposed that explanatory power is also to be found in an individual’s level of education.

 

Conclusion: What We Know and What Comes Next

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AMONG THE VARIOUS traditions in scholarship about Islam is the view that the religion imposes a common ideological imprint on Muslim societies, or at least on those where Muslims are the majority, and that, as a result, it is possible to talk in broad terms about an “Islamic personality” and a collective predisposition that “Islam” produces among Muslim publics. This approach assumes that there is a widely shared understanding of Islamic doctrine, that this in turn fosters uniformity through the institutions and symbols that it embeds in Muslim society, and that for this reason religion is the principal determinant of the way that Muslims think and act. Scholarship in this essentialist tradition has become somewhat less common, and more frequently challenged, in recent years, but is reflected in studies by prominent analysts who have been and frequently continue to be influential. Thus, for example, in seeking to explain historical trends and differences between the Muslim world and the West, various scholars have looked to Islam and argued that the religion is hostile to capitalism and to democracy.

 

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