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Religion-State Relations and Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia: Models from the Democratizing Muslim World – and their Limits


Religion-State Relations and Democracy in Egypt
and Tunisia: Models from the Democratizing Muslim
World – and their Limits
Mirjam Ku
Princeton University
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 rela-
tively 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 Alba-
nia 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).
While Mali and Senegal are the most long-standing among these with democratic transi-
tions in the early 1990s, Indonesia followed suit in 1998 and Albania in 2002. Turkey pre-
sents 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 de-
mocratizers during the last twelve years.
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 reli-
gion? Or have they obstructed the democratization process, for instance, by securing political
Swiss Political Science Review 18(1): 114–119 doi:10.1111/j.1662-6370.2012.02061.x
2012 Swiss Political Science Association
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.
How have they reconciled the demands of a
democratic state with the demands of religion placed on the individual believer and the com-
munity 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 citizen-
ship 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.
Table 1a: Countries of the Non-Arab Muslim-majority world and their Democratic Rankings: Free-
dom House, Polity IV, BTI
FH score
Polity IV
BTI Democracy
The non-Arab Muslim
majority World
Indonesia 2 3 7 7.0
Mali 2 3 7 7.15
Albania 3 3 9 7.55
Senegal 3 3 7 6.3
Turkey 3 3 7 7.65
Sierra Leone 3 3 7 6.32
Bangladesh 3 4 5 6.05
Maldives 3 4––
Bosnia 4 3)66 6.50
Malaysia 4 4 6 5.3
Nigeria 4 4 4 4.8
Niger 5 4 3 6.25
Pakistan 4 5 6 3.65
Burkina Faso
53 0 5.77
Guinea 5 5 5 3.55
Gambia 5 5)5–
Kyrgyzstan 5 5)9 4.40
Kazakhstan 6 5)6 4.17
Tajikistan 6 5)3 3.67
Azerbaijan 6 5)7 3.92
Brunei 6 5–
Afghanistan 6 6)66 2.80
Iran 6 6)7 3.45
76)2 2.83
Uzbekistan 7 7)9 2.90
Turkmenistan 7 7)9 2.78
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), Ku
¨nkler and Stepan (2012) and
Diouf (forthcoming).
Democratic Religion-State Relations 115
2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(1): 114–119
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 partner-
ships between the two realms (Fox 2007b). For instance, three quarters of all EU mem-
ber states, offer (non-devotional) religious education in public schools. So does the
world’s largest Muslim democracy, Indonesia. India, another long-standing democracy,
Table 1b: Members of the Arab League and their Democratic Rankings: Freedom House, Polity IV,
FH score
Polity IV
BTI Democracy
Members of
the Arab League
Comoros 4 49
Lebanon 5 3 7 6.25
Kuwait 4 5)7 4.68
Morocco 5 4)6 4.05
Algeria 6 5 2 4.37
Djibouti 6 52
Iraq 5 6 3 4.22
Yemen 6 5)2 4.23
Jordan 6 5)3 4.02
Mauritania 6 5)2 3.63
Egypt 6 5)3 4.22
Bahrain 6 5)8 4.42
UAE 6 5)8 4.15
Oman 6 5)8 3.98
Qatar 6 5)10 4.2
Tunisia 7 5)4 3.78
Syria 7 6)7 3.23
Saudi Arabia 7 6)10 2.87
Sudan 7 7)2 3.02
Libya 7 7)7 3.20
Somalia 7 7)77 1.47
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).
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. Coun-
tries with a score of +7 and above are generally considered to be democratic.
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).
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.
Source: BTI (2010); Freedom House (2011); Polity IV (2010).
116 Mirjam Ku
2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(1): 114–119
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, con-
trary to Egypt where Article 2 shall be retained in a future constitution, none of the afore-
mentioned 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 Indo-
nesia, 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
Table 2: Scores for the five Muslim-majority democracies from Freedom House, Polity IV and the
Bertelsmann Transformation Democracy Index
Albania Indonesia Mali Senegal Turkey
Freedom House
2011 3 323233333
2010 3 323233333
2008 3 323232333
2006 3 323222333
2004 3 334222334
2002 3 434233445
2000 4 544334445
1998 4 475334445
Polity IV
2010 9 8 7 7 7
2008 9 8 7 7 7
2006 9 8 7 8 7
2004 7 8 7 8 7
2002 7 6 7 8 7
2000 5 6 6 8 7
1998 5 )56)17
2010 7.55 7.0 7.15 6.30 7.65
2008 7.5 6.45 7.25 7.1 7.05
2006 7.3 6.3 7.4 7.8 7.1
2003 6.4 6.0 7.6 7.2 6.8
Sources: BTI (2010); Freedom House (2011); Polity IV (2010).
Democratic Religion-State Relations 117
2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(1): 114–119
hotly debated during the rounds of constitutional reform between 1999 and 2002. Ulti-
mately, it was decided that religious freedom was best guaranteed in a constitutional sys-
tem 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 de-
mocratizers 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 con-
testation 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.
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 fram-
ing 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 sensi-
tivity of the language, it appears even more important to look to the five Muslim de-
mocratizers 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 democ-
ratization, 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
For more information on the Religion and State dataset, see
118 Mirjam Ku
2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(1): 114–119
AKP, which Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia have not only sought to emulate but,
as we now know, have even surpassed.
But the AKP operates against a legal back-
ground 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 free-
dom 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 sys-
tems, 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
Diouf, M. (forthcoming), (ed). Islam and Democracy in Senegal (Tentative Title). New York: Colum-
bia University Press.
Fox, J. (2007a). A World Survey of Religion and the State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
— (2007b). Do Democracies have Separation of Religion and State? Canadian Journal of Political
Science 40(01): 1–25.
¨nkler, M. and A. Stepan (2012), (eds.). Indonesia, Islam and Democracy. New York: Columbia Uni-
versity 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): 50–63.
Stepan, A. and G. B. Robertson (2003). An ‘‘Arab’’ More Thank a ‘‘Muslim’’ Election Gap. Journal
of Democracy 14(3): 30–44.
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 suc-
cesses under identical electoral frameworks. See Kurzman and Naqvi (2010).
Democratic Religion-State Relations 119
2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(1): 114–119
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Islam and Democracy in Senegal (Tentative Title) Columbia University Press
  • M Diouf
Diouf, M. (forthcoming), (ed). Islam and Democracy in Senegal (Tentative Title). New York: Columbia University Press.
An “Arab” More Thank a “Muslim” Election Gap
  • Stepan
Stepan, A. and G. B. Robertson (2003). An ''Arab'' More Thank a ''Muslim'' Election Gap. Journal of Democracy 14(3): 30-44.