Who Supports Political Islam and Why? An Individual-Level and Country-Level Analysis Based on Data from 56 Surveys in 15 Muslim-Majority Countries in the Middle East and North Africa Background and Significance Islam today occupies a central place in discussions and debates about governance in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, whether, to what extent, and in what ways Islamic institutions, officials and laws should play a central role, or at least an important role, in government and political affairs are among the most important, and also the most contested, questions pertaining to governance in the region at the present time. As Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, wrote in April 2011 in connection with the democratic transition struggling at the time to take shape in his country, Islamist groups can no longer be excluded from political life but neither does one group speak for Islam nor should the nation's religious heritage interfere with the civil nature of its political processes. Thus, he concluded, Egypt's revolution has swept away decades of authoritarian rule but it has also “highlighted an issue that Egyptians will grapple with as they consolidate their democracy: the role of religion in political life.” Concerns about the place of Islam in political affairs, and about the relationship between democracy and Islam, are equally important elsewhere in the region. The Secretary General of Tunisia's Islamist al-Nahda Party, Hamadi Jebali, described the political challenges facing his country in a May 2011 public lecture and asked, “What kind of Democracy for the New Tunisia: Islamic or Secular?” And again, about the same time, an Iraqi constitutional lawyer and media personality, Tariq Harb, wrote that a central element in the struggle to define his country's political future is the question of how “to balance religion and secularism.” These and many similar statements addressed to the question of Islam's role in government and political affairs were made against the background of political transitions set in motion by the spontaneous and frequently massive popular uprisings that shook the Arab world at the end of 2010 and the first months of 2011 – events popularly known at the time as the Arab Spring. Initially in Egypt and Tunisia, but soon elsewhere as well, most notably in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya but also in other countries, protesters came into the streets and public squares to express their anger at decades of what they believed to be misrule by governing regimes that were authoritarian, corrupt, and concerned only with their own privilege and that of their friends. Islamist parties and movements were not in the forefront of these uprisings, although in at least some countries they were involved, sometime heavily, in subsequent political developments. But the questions raised at the time by Gomaa, Jebali, Harb and many others were not only, or not primarily, about the political space that should or should not be given to Islamist movements. These questions were deeper and more fundamental, and they were not new even if possibility of a political transition gave them increased salience and greater urgency in some countries. At most, the uprisings and possibilities for a political transition intensified long-standing and largely unresolved debates about whether, how, and to what extent a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population should be ruled by a government and legal system that are in some significant way meaningfully Islamic. Hypotheses and Analyses It is against this background that my study focuses on the perceptions, judgments and preferences of ordinary citizens about the role that Islam should play in government and political affairs. Drawing on a new dataset constructed by the merging of 56 nationally representative public opinion surveys carried out between 1988 and 2014, I test hypotheses about the explanatory power in shaping attitudes toward political Islam of (1) cultural values, such as those pertaining to the status and rights of women; (2) political evaluations, specifically those concerning the legitimacy and performance of the government in power; (3) economic factors, specifically the degree to which the economic circumstances of the individual are advantageous or disadvantageous; and (4) information and exposure, particularly the variation in the learning experiences associated with education. Judgment about political Islam is the dependent variable in the regression analyses by which these hypothesis and the causal stories associated with each are tested. The analysis includes control variables, including, and particularly, personal religiosity. Although the data are pooled in the initial analyses, they are subsequently disaggregated by gender and age, taken in combination, in order to see if whether or not each hypothesis and the associated causal story has more explanatory power among some subsets of the population than others. These regressions are also run separately for individuals who reside in countries where the government has a strong Islamic connection and countries where such a connection is weak or non-existent. To the individual-level analysis outlined above is added a survey-level, or country-level, analysis in which findings are mapped across countries. More specifically, findings about individual-level relationships, both in general and for demographic subsets of the population, are treated as dependent variables and country attributes are treated as independent variables. Dependent variable measures are both (1) whether or not the individual-level relationship is statistically significant in each survey, and (2) the survey-specific regression coefficients resulting from the individual-level analysis. Independent variables include a large number of political, economic, societal, and demographic country attributes. Information about each attribute at the time the country was surveyed, and also lagged measures for many attributes, was collected and included in the dataset. The addition of this second level of analysis makes it possible not only determine the degree to which various individual-level factors play a role in shaping the attitudes toward political Islam held by ordinary citizens, and whether and how this differs across within-country demographic subsets of the population, but also to identify and characterize the national political, economic, and societal environments in which any of these individual-level causal stories is disproportionately likely to obtain. Data and Measures Space does not permit providing at present a detailed description of the data and a full account of the measures to be employed. Instead, I am attaching a PPT that includes among its many slides: a list of the 56 surveys in the dataset (N = 82,489), giving the country and year in which each was conducted and the sample size; a list of the country attributes on which information has been collected and included in the dataset; and a list of some of the questions about Islam's role in government and political affairs that have been employed to derive a measure of attitude toward political Islam. Almost all surveys contained several of these questions, although in a small number of surveys only one or two were asked. Although beyond the scope of the present discussion, measurement operations included assessments of validity and reliability and procedures to establish conceptual equivalence between measured derived from surveys in which only some of the same questions were asked. Finally, more broadly, the PPT presents preliminary findings from a partial analysis of the data.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...

This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error