In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democratization in the Muslim World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Quantitative Perspectives and Surveys
  • Domestic Politics: Islamist and Non-Islamist Movements

Political Science Democratization in the Muslim World
Frédéric Volpi, Francesco Cavatorta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0293


The issue of the democratization of the Muslim world has puzzled scholarship since the end of the Cold War, when the third wave of democratization swept across the world but seemed to bypass most Muslim-majority countries, particularly the Arab world. Central to the debate about democratization in the Muslim world is the relationship between the Islamic religion and the political system supposedly bound up with it. As we will see, for some authors there is an inherent contradiction between the precepts of the Muslim faith and the requirements of democracy, while for others the two can be compatible or causally separated. When the debate on democratization is framed in these terms, it becomes very important to specify the definitions, issues, and processes investigated and evaluated to avoid confusion. When discussing processes of democratization—the move away from authoritarian practices to a political system based on political pluralism—there is a tendency in the literature to consider primarily the emergence of a very specific form of democracy: liberal democracy. There is therefore an important difference between democracy and democratization. Democratization is concerned with the introduction of democratic mechanisms and procedures and not necessarily with the granting of extensive liberal individual rights. One can then imagine a democratic political system where individual rights are limited and focus on the minimal requirements for equal political participation. Liberal democracy for its part is concerned with democratic political systems seeking to operationalize the progressive extension of different liberal individual rights. When this distinction is taken into account, it becomes easier to interpret and explain the changes—or absence thereof—occurring across the Muslim world. At this stage, a further distinction is necessary: the one between the Muslim world as a geographical area, in which people belonging to the Muslim faith are the majority or a very significant part of the population, and an Islamic system in which religious precepts actually organize social and political life. In this respect, one finds that a significant number of Muslim-majority countries can be labeled procedural democratic, while authoritarianism characterizes in fact the Arab world (with exceptions) and not the Muslim world per se, suggesting that there is nothing inherently antidemocratic in the Islamic religion. It should also then be noted that an Islamic system is actually in place in a very limited number of countries and that authoritarianism in Muslim and Arab countries is commonly not the product of the adoption of an Islamic system of government.

General Overviews

The debate on the democratization of the Muslim world took off soon after the end of the Cold War, as countries across the globe began to move away from authoritarian rule to embrace, often by default, the political system Western liberal democracies promoted. In this respect, the Muslim world was not exceptional as the democratization analytical framework was employed to explain political trajectories of these countries across the region. What was deemed exceptional, however, was the supposed resistance of Muslim societies to democratic politics. Eickelman and Piscatori 1996 provides a comprehensive analysis of how Islam and its diverse interpretations and philosophical traditions approach politics, highlighting the different ways in which religious discourses are employed in discussing issues related to how a society should be governed. Connected to this wider intellectual debate about the relationship between Islam and politics, there is a narrower and more policy-relevant one about the way in which Islamist political and social actors who emphasize religious language, symbolism, and guiding principles engage with the opportunities and constraints of democratic politics. Esposito and Voll 1996 provides an early analysis of Islamist actors and their internal debates and dilemmas about the compatibility between religious precepts and democratic norms and institutions. The works selected in this section highlight the specificities and commonalities found in Muslim social and political systems, thereby revealing the many shades of gray that characterize the region rather than a black-and-white picture of democracy and democratization.

  • Eickelman, Dale, and James P. Piscatori. Muslim Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691187785

    The book is an in-depth reflection on the characteristics of Muslim politics and the position of Islam within it. The book investigates the different paths for an Islamic religious and cultural heritage to enter contemporary politics in Muslim-majority countries. It highlights how Islamic conceptual and discursive tools are constructed in relation to the dilemmas of governance and the notion of democratic participation.

  • Esposito, John L., and John O. Voll. Islam and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    The book is an overview of some of the key developments in Muslim-majority countries where Islamic-based actors engaged with processes of democratic reform, from the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution to the mid-1990s. It introduces some of the main dilemmas and opportunities for the participation of Islamists in democratic governance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.