Paul Kubicek on Islam, Political Islam, and Democracy
Date: July 12th, 2015

Can Islamic nations craft functioning democracies?  While a cursory glance at the Arab Middle East would suggest the difficulty with such a task, Dr. Paul Kubicek, professor of political science at Oakland University, discusses his comparative research that shows a number of tentative successes with democracy in the Muslim world.  We discuss Turkey and a number of other countries that receive little attention in the popular media such as Senegal, Mali, Tunisia, and Bangladesh.  While many of these countries have experienced democracy in the past decade or so, and some of them (e.g., Bangladesh) still face significant challenges, Prof. Kubicek’s research shows that Islam and democracy are not necessarily incompatible.

As per usual, Tony asks Paul about his background with particular attention to how someone who studied post-communist nations in eastern Europe would end up taking a job in Istanbul at Koc University, especially since he had never visited that nation prior to his job interview and did not know Turkish.  We chat a bit about his time there and his reflections on being a “stranger in a strange land.”  It was his three year stint as a professor at Koc that created the seeds of interest that eventually became the basis of his book Political Islam and Democracy in the Muslim World.

We then take care of a few definitional issues talking about what democracy is and where nations in the Muslim world — stretching from Morocco to Malaysia — fit in comparative perspective.  Paul notes that on empirical scores of democracy (mainly from the Polity data set), Muslim countries score significantly lower (i.e., less democratic) than the non-Muslim world.  He reviews a number of reasons other scholars have advanced for this “democratic deficit,” including theories about poverty’s relationship to democracy, the “resource curse,” and some political culture factors, as well as hypotheses linking Islam’s incompatibility with democratic governance.  We then talk a bit about the variation within Islam — not a monolithic religion by any means — and briefly explore the topic of political Islam.

The last half of our interview surveys a number of countries that have had some success with democratization.  We start with Turkey, the country that was Paul’s home for three years.  He reviews the history of that nation and notes how religion was removed from political consideration during and following Kemal Ataturk’s rule.  Paul then talks about the democratization process and how it has opened up to individuals who want a more public space to express their religion and the rise of the Justice & Development Party (AKP).  While there has been a few steps backwards in terms of free speech and other civil liberties, Paul does not attribute this to Islam per se, but rather just the natural desire of governments to want more power.  We also discuss the pull that Europe has had on the political landscape of Turkey, and Paul notes that while Europe did exert some influence towards democratization in the 1990s, this influence has faded in the past decade.

We then move on to a number of lesser-known countries, starting with Senegal — a west African nation that has shown considerable success with democratic governance.  Again, Paul reviews the history of this country (a former French colony) and explains how the “national brand” of Islam, which is Sufi-based, assisted (or at least did not inhibit) the process of democratization.  Paul points out that a great deal of toleration for other religions exists in this country and a number of the first presidents were, in fact, non-Muslims.  We then travel a bit to the northeast to look at Mali.  Of all the countries examined in his book, Mali would appear to be the least conducive to democracy given its low GDP per capita and high rates of illiteracy.  Nonetheless, beginning in 1992, the country moved in a democratic direction with competitive elections.  A brief military coup in 2012 prompted by separatist unrest in the north was short-lived as the generals handed back power to civilians.  Bangladesh is then offered up as a case where things have not progressed as well and Paul explains how “creeping Islamization” from Pakistan has caused backtracking on a variety of civil liberties.

We finish off the interview with some discussion of the Arab Spring, a movement starting back in 2011 that offered hope for political liberalization in North Africa and the Middle East, but which has not been as successful in that area as was hoped.  Paul points out that Tunisia, the point of origin for the Arab Spring, is doing well with respect to democratic liberalization but other countries have floundered, including Egypt.  Paul offers up some final thoughts on the political future of the region.  Recorded: July 2, 2015.



Paul Kubicek’s bio at Oakland University (MI).

Political Islam and Democracy in the Muslim World, by Paul Kubicek.

From Solidarity to Infirmity: Organized Labor in Post-Communist States, by Paul Kubicek.

Unbroken Ties: The State, Interest Associations, and Corporatism in Post-Soviet Ukraine, by Paul Kubicek.

The European Union and Democratization, edited by Paul Kubicek.


 Ani Sarkissian on Politics and Religious Civil Society in Turkey.

Karen Elliott House on Journalism and Saudi Arabia.

Kevan Harris on Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Green Movement.

Ann Wainscott on the Politics of Islam in Morocco.

Alessandra González on Islamic Feminism.

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