Until recently, political scientists still spoke of the “Arab-Democracy-Gap” (Stepan and Robertson 2003), pointing to the fact that all Muslim-majority democratizers were notably countries outside the Arab world.

The Arab spring has changed this image. With Tunisia and Egypt having conducted relatively free parliamentary elections and embarking on processes of constitution-rewriting soon, the two countries could possibly join the group of those in the Muslim world that have – all notions of the alleged incompatibility of democracy and Islam notwithstanding – undergone processes of democratization for quite some time. Mali, Senegal, Indonesia, Turkey and Albania are the handful of Muslim-majority states that for the last decade have led the international indices on democratic governance in the Political Science literature (see Tables 1a and 1b).

Table 1a.   Countries of the Non-Arab Muslim-majority world and their Democratic Rankings: Freedom House, Polity IV, BTI
 CountryFH score 1 (2011)Polity IV 2 (2010)BTI Democracy Status 3 (2010)
The non-Arab Muslim majority WorldIndonesia2/377.0
Sierra Leone3/376.32
Burkina Faso45/305.77
Table 1b.   Members of the Arab League and their Democratic Rankings: Freedom House, Polity IV, BTI
 CountryFH score 1 (2011)Polity IV 2 (2010)BTI Democracy Status 3 (2010)
  1. 1 Since 1972, Freedom House has annually classified the status of political rights and civil liberties in most countries around the world on a scale between 1 (free) and 7 (unfree). The scores are listed here as political rights, civil liberties (for instance, 2/3 indicates 2 on political rights and 3 on civil liberties).

  2. 2 Polity IV captures the degree of contestation and freedom in political systems. The measure given here is the ‘polity 2’ variable that classifies countries on a scale between −10 to +10 annually. Countries with a score of +7 and above are generally considered to be democratic.

  3. 3 The BTI Status of Democracy-Index measures the progress towards democracy along five criteria (stateness, political participation, rule of law, stability of democratic institutions, political and social integration) and 18 indicators. Scores given along each of the 18 indicators range from a minimum 1 to a maximum 10. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index has been published thus far in 2003, 2006 and 2008 (biennially hereafter).

  4. 4 Although the Muslim population of these three states is numerically majoritarian, other religions and beliefs have large percentages of adherents. Burkina Faso: 60% Muslim, 40% indigenous beliefs; Chad: 53.1% Muslim, 20.1% Christian; Guinea-Bissau: 50% Muslim, 40% indigenous beliefs.

  5. Source: BTI (2010); Freedom House (2011); Polity IV (2010).

Members of the Arab LeagueComoros4/49
Saudi Arabia7/6−102.87

While Mali and Senegal are the most long-standing among these with democratic transitions in the early 1990s, Indonesia followed suit in 1998 and Albania in 2002. Turkey presents a more complex case in its democratic path: though multi-party elections have been in place since 1945, regular military coups and party bans have brought four democratically elected governments to an end. Certainly since 2008, however, when the attempted ban on the ruling AKP failed, the chance that nonelected veto actors will bring governments to a fall has sharply decreased. Tables 1a and b show the assessments of Freedom House, Polity IV and the BTI Democracy Index of all Muslim-majority states in comparative perspective. Bangladesh might join the ranks of the democratizing five if its positive trend from recent years continues. Tunisia and Egypt rank in the lower mid-range – something that will likely change in the 2012 assessments. Table 2 illustrates the upward trend of the five Muslim democratizers during the last twelve years.

Table 2.   Scores for the five Muslim-majority democracies from Freedom House, Polity IV and the Bertelsmann Transformation Democracy Index
  1. Sources: BTI (2010); Freedom House (2011); Polity IV (2010).

Freedom House
Polity IV

What could be valuable lessons from the five Muslim democratizers for Tunisia and Egypt, as the two countries embark on their democratic experiment? Which challenges did they face during the transition process, and have successfully averted? Which factors remain threats to democratic consolidation?

While democratization scholars have written extensively on factors capable of jeopardizing nascent democratization processes – such as economic crises, undemocratic veto actors, and weak rule of law – how religion and religious actors may play into these processes has received relatively scant attention. Have they lent credence to the democratization process by way of their moral authority? Have they spoken out in favor of equal citizenship regardless of religion? Or have they obstructed the democratization process, for instance, by securing political veto privileges, or by entering alliances with undemocratic actors? Although the theoretical debate about Islam and democracy could fill entire library walls today, few studies examine how the five Muslim democratizers have crafted the relationship between religion and state since embarking on the democratization process.1 How have they reconciled the demands of a democratic state with the demands of religion placed on the individual believer and the community as a whole? To what extent does the state guarantee religious freedom, and conversely, interfere in the internal affairs of religious communities? Do religious authorities enjoy special political privileges? Is religious freedom fully guaranteed to all groups in society, the majority religion as much as the minority religions? Do religious minorities enjoy full and equal citizenship rights? To what extent is religious law part of the legal system?

Drawing on the comparative experience of the five Muslim democratizers, at least three observations regarding religion-state relations appear instructive as we follow the political developments in Tunisia and Egypt.

  • 1
    Religion-state relations differ vastly across extant democracies. This is the case both for long-standing as well as newer democracies, regardless of the majority religion of the country. While some entertain relatively strict separation between religion and state, such as the United States, South Korea, and Senegal, others allow for a variety of partnerships between the two realms (Fox 2007b). For instance, three quarters of all EU member states, offer (non-devotional) religious education in public schools. So does the world’s largest Muslim democracy, Indonesia. India, another long-standing democracy, offers state funds to support religious pilgrimages of its citizens, including to the Vatican and Mecca. Most long-standing democracies, including the United States, fund the employment of religious authorities in the army, and many channel the distribution of public welfare through religious organizations.
  • There are a variety of democratic religion-state models available to Egypt and Tunisia that feature more integration between the two realms than a strict separation does. What is important from the viewpoint of democratic theory is not that religion is excluded from the political realm, but that fundamental rights and civil liberties are guaranteed, for the majority as well as the minority religions, and for women as much as men. In Egypt, this condition is likely to bear more difficulties than in Tunisia. Article 2 of Egypt’s 2011 Constitutional Declaration, according to which all laws must cohere with “principles of shari’a” (which are nowhere specified), raises the question of whether Christian Copts will have full equality before the law, and eligibility for all positions in the three branches of power, as well as in the administration and the army. Moreover, the position of some leading political parties suggest that their interpretation of Article 2 is not compatible with women running for high political office, including the presidency. Significantly, contrary to Egypt where Article 2 shall be retained in a future constitution, none of the aforementioned five Muslim democratizers feature elements of Islamic law in the realm of constitutional law. Turkey’s and Albania’s legal systems are entirely secular, while Indonesia, Mali and Senegal feature elements of Islamic law only in the realm of personal law. In Indonesia’s democratic transition, the place of Islam in constitutional law was hotly debated during the rounds of constitutional reform between 1999 and 2002. Ultimately, it was decided that religious freedom was best guaranteed in a constitutional system based on secular law only. The country also witnessed a fiery debate in 1998–2001 over whether women could run for the presidency. Not the least due to the arguments of leading Islamic authorities in the country, reservations against women running for high office were eventually dismissed, paving the way for Megawati Sukarnoputri to become the country’s first-ever female president. Notably, the constitutions of all five Muslim democratizers guarantee women full civil and political rights, and the countries’ leaders have dismissed arguments that local Islamic legal traditions do not permit full equality.

  • 2
     The importance of designing democratic religion-state relations is even more salient against the background of the high involvement of the state in matters of religion in the previous regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Contrary to the widely held assumption that most countries in the MENA have separated mosque from state formally, the MENA exhibits the highest levels of government interference in religion of any region in the world. Rather than a situation where the state and religion are separated, we find that religion is highly regulated by the state (Fox 2007a). This is the case across diverse levels of political contestation in the region (e.g. Kuwait versus Saudi Arabia), and various types of political systems (republics versus monarchies, multi-party versus one-party states). Secularism in the sense of an institutional separation between religion and state is, in other words, absent from the region. In line with that observation, in Jonathan Fox’ dataset on Government Interference in Religion, Tunisia and Egypt prior to their transitions scored higher than the five Muslim democratizers for all years available.2
  • What emerges from public debates in Egypt and Tunisia is that secularism is more often than not understood as state control of religion rather than a position that aims at the separation of religion and state, which protects both from the potential corruption through the other. The antipathy against the word “secularism” is illustrated in the framing of the debate in Egypt, for instance, around the “Islamic” versus “civil” (as opposed to secular) state. A “secular” state is imagined as a state interfering in the internal affairs of religions to the detriment of the latter’s freedom, while the “civil” state is envisioned as one where the state accepts and protects the freedom of religion. In light of the sensitivity of the language, it appears even more important to look to the five Muslim democratizers for inspiration on “civil” religion-state relations rather than the non-Muslim democracies that are often associated, though inaccurately, with an a-religious, or even anti-religious, West.

  •  Relatedly, what is often overlooked in analyses of religion-state relations in the Arab world is that not only are minority rights frequently violated, but the majority religion is also highly regulated by the state. The fact, for instance, that the grand mufti of Egypt and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, two of the country’s leading religious authorities, are both appointed by the president of Egypt is difficult to reconcile with the level of religious freedom demanded by democratic rights and liberties. The same holds for the control and administration of mosques and the employment of prayer leaders, which both in Egypt and Tunisia is in state hands. If Egypt and Tunisia are to pursue the path of democratization, it will need to involve a deregulation of religion by the state, in particular that of the majority religion.

  • 3
     This brings us to a final observation. The country most frequently invoked as a “model Muslim democracy” is Turkey. This is no surprise in light of the electoral success of the AKP, which Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia have not only sought to emulate but, as we now know, have even surpassed.3 But the AKP operates against a legal background that could hardly be more different from that of Tunisia and Egypt, and against a bureaucratic background that more hinders than helps the realization of religious freedom and civil liberties. As mentioned, Turkey does not feature any elements of Islamic law in its legal system, neither in constitutional, nor personal, nor criminal nor other realms of law. Its policies must be seen in that context. While Islamic parties in other political systems may have leeway to expand on elements of Islamic law in their legal systems, the hands of the AKP are constitutionally tied in this respect. Second, the AKP also operates against the background of a massive state bureaucracy for religious affairs, the diyanet, that regulates all fundamental questions of Islam in the country. All imams in Turkey are civil servants, and the khutbas are written in the presidency of religious affairs. It is no exaggeration to state that institutional Islamic authority in Turkey is a product of the state. The latter of course bears enormous democratic deficits in itself that present an obstacle to further democratization of the country. What was claimed above for Egypt and Tunisia then equally applies to Turkey: the realization of religious freedom requires the further withdrawal of the state from the internal affairs of both the majority and the minority religions. Turkey in that respect can hardly serve as a model. As far as religion-state relations are concerned, the more promising lessons can be drawn from Mali and Senegal, where citizenship is not tied to registering with a particular religion, and where the training and employment of Islamic authorities is independent from the state. It would serve the ongoing democratization struggles in Egypt and Tunisia well if the violation of religious freedom by the state were recognized as part of the very legacy of despotic power that the revolutionary movements, for the time being, have brought to a fall.
  • 1

    This may change with the Columbia University Press Series on Religion that includes edited volumes in Turkey’s, Senegal’s and Indonesia’s democratization processes. See Kuru and Stepan (2012), Künkler and Stepan (2012) and Diouf (forthcoming).

  • 2

    For more information on the Religion and State dataset, see

  • 3

    A recent large-N comparison of the performance of Islamic parties around the world from 1969 until today found that “in those Muslim-majority countries where elections were freest, Islamic parties performed worse.” In light of that finding, it may prove difficult for Islamic parties in Tunisia and Egypt to repeat their electoral successes under identical electoral frameworks. See Kurzman and Naqvi (2010).


  1. Top of page
  2. References
  • Diouf, M. (forthcoming), (ed). Islam and Democracy in Senegal (Tentative Title). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Fox, J. (2007a). A World Survey of Religion and the State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fox, J. (2007b). Do Democracies have Separation of Religion and State? Canadian Journal of Political Science 40(01): 125.
  • Künkler, M. and A. Stepan (2012), (eds.). Indonesia, Islam and Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Kuru, A. T. and A. Stepan (2012), (eds.). Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Kurzman, C. and I. Naqvi. (2010). Do Muslims Vote Islamic? Journal of Democracy 21(2): 5063.
  • Stepan, A. and G. B. Robertson (2003). An “Arab” More Thank a “Muslim” Election Gap. Journal of Democracy 14(3): 3044.