Islam, Authoritarianism and Intolerance  
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Yesterday’s news might be seen as a confirmation of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations idea, pitting Islam against the West.

First was the headline news that Islamist militants, angered by a trailer posted on YouTube depicting Prophet Muhammed as a sexual predator, homosexual and child molester, attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi, set the Consulate ablaze, and killed ambassador Christopher J. Stevens and three members of his staff. There were violent protests elsewhere, including in Egypt.

Second was the perhaps equally disturbing news from Pakistan of an 11-year-old illiterate Christian girl (described as “slow” by the news reports) now freed from jail but still running from the mob, threatening to kill and burn her and her family, because of “blasphemy” (she’s accused of burning pages from an Islamic textbook).

Add to this the general poverty and authoritarianism of the Middle East and North Africa and other Islamic countries (especially if you leave out oil wealth), the case seems open and shut.

There are many versions of why Islam is at the root of authoritarianism, backwardness and poverty in these countries. Perhaps the most famous one argues that Islam, by failing to recognize the separation of religion and state, naturally leads to authoritarianism. In a now famous book, What Went Wrong, historian Bernard Lewis popularized a version of this idea. He wrote, for example:

The idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to the Muslim thought (page 100).

He went on to compare Islam to Christianity in this regard:

From the beginning, Christians were taught, both by precept and practice, to distinguish between God and Caesar and between the different duties owed to each of the two. Muslims received no such instruction. (Page 103).

Though popular, this view doesn’t seem entirely well grounded in history or scripture.

First, as we argued in Why Nations Fail, there is another obvious explanation for extractive economic and political institutions in the Middle East and North Africa: the legacy of Ottoman rule and institutions.

Second, the close relationship between politics and religion is not confined to Islam. Rulers have used religion to cement their power or support their attempts to conquer new lands throughout the ages. For example, though colonialism was not a religious endeavor, religious rhetoric and the project of converting heathens to Christianity did play a role in motivating the Spanish and the English alike and provided a pretty good “cover story”.

Third, it is true that secularism, in any of its forms, has been all but absent in Muslim lands, but this is at least as much because politics has co-opted religion rather than the other way around.

Fourth, there is really nothing in the Koran or even the Hadith about constitutions or how the government should be organized and operated.

But the question remains: it’s unlikely to be a coincidence, nor easily explained by the Ottoman legacy, that most Muslim countries are not democratic and almost totally lack civil society, and most branches of political Islam are intolerant and often violent.

Jean-Philippe Platteau suggests that this is in part because the particular organization of Islam has led to an “obscurantist deadlock” in which various individuals, parties and social movements compete for legitimacy by arguing to be the ones that are true to the faith — and often subscribe an extremist version of the faith in doing so. He writes:

… when despots use religion to legitimize themselves in a highly contested environment they may provoke a counter-move in the form of religious backlash in which the ruler and his opponents compete to demonstrate their superior fidelity to the faith.

This equilibrium is made possible by the fact that, just like Protestantism, Islam does not have a centralized authority with which rulers can make exclusive deals (in the way that European rulers did with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages).

This would be consistent with the patterns emphasized by Gilles Kepel in his insightful book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Many rulers with secular backgrounds — whom we would call extractive — have tried to use Islam and co-opt a subset of the Islamic scholars, the ulema, to gain legitimacy and suppress democratic, often left of center or socialist, movements. This includes Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, Houari Boumediene in Algeria, and the military junta under the leadership of Kenan Evren that came to power after the 1980 coup in Turkey. In each case, the strategy worked for a while and ultimately backfired. Bhutto’s cynical policies in Pakistan, for example, paved the way for the religious fanaticism and repressive dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq, with disastrous consequences for Pakistan and for the region.

But why is it that we see this sort of dynamics in Islam but not in Protestantism? Though it is true that protestant radicalism emerged during certain periods, for example in the run-up to the English Civil War as documented by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down, many of these radicals such as Roger Williams fought against authority and for freedom rather than for a world order in which they would get to repress others and dictate to them what to do (see this interesting book on Roger Williams).

Here is one idea: as we argued in our previous post, Muhammed develop his teachings and Islam in the context of a state building project. This may have made Islam and Islamic scholars particularly receptive to calls by rulers or would-be rulers. The general tendency of Islamic scholars towards state authority is well captured by the famous Islamic scholar and philosopher al-Ghazali (cited in Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, page 144):

the tyranny of a sultan for a hundred years causes less damage than one year’s tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another.

This combined with the powerful role that Islamic scholars occupy in Islamic societies, particularly in view of the fact that the Koran leaves a lot unspecified and open to interpretation, may have paved the way for a subset of the scholars to make deals with any despotic ruler or any usurper to suppress dissent. This sort of intense repression, especially shutting off any legitimate political organization opposing the authority of the ruler, may have left religious rhetoric as the only channel through which people could formulate and partially voice their grievances. The decentralized organization of Islam and Islamic scholars may have then created a platform in which another subset of the scholars would support movements using this channel to oppose the ruler; and what would be more natural than claiming greater purity and devotion to Islam in the circumstances, thus leading to Platteau’s “obscurantist deadlock”?

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
See website for complete article licensing information.