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Muslim democracy on the rise

Analysis: The world's Muslim countries are becoming increasingly democratic, rich and corruption-free. What's up?


[progress] A slow, democratic "revolution" is happening in more and more countries with a Muslim majority. Here are the conclusions from this fall's global reports:

Corruption: Last week, Transparency International presented the overview of global corruption. The tabloids focused on Norway in eighth place, but most remarkable is that Turkey, Lebanon and Algeria have the "clearest improvement" in the corruption image. In contrast to the claims of Muslim countries' incompatibility with modernity, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are now among the 40 least corrupt in the world. Thus, the EU countries such as Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland, the latter beats 61. place.

Press freedom: At the end of October, Reporters Without Borders presented their press freedom report. And which country has made the most progress in recent years? Yes, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is now on shared 19. space with Denmark and New Zealand. Muslim Mali comes on split 35. place with France and Australia, ahead of an EU country like Italy in 40 space. And the Arab countries? The report concludes that "the entire Arabian peninsula has significantly improved its ranking," with the exception of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates now have as much freedom of the press as Brazil and Argentina. Of course, there is still a long way to go to Scandinavian conditions, but the progress is evident even in the least democratic part of the Muslim world.

Women's struggle: In last week's Ny Tid, Professor Fatima Sadiqi wrote about the feminists' struggle in Morocco, where a new family law from 2004 ensures increased equality. The reforms are now spreading in Arab countries: in Egypt, Lebanon and Bahrain, the women's movement is now promoting similar demands. In June, women in the patriarchal Kuwait received a vote for the first time, which has resulted in more blood on their teeth. The Pan-Arab Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action announces new actions for women's rights in Beirut on 26 November.

From 1. to 5. In November, Cairo organized a conference on the "women images in Arab media", in collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The studies show that Arab media often presents young girls as "most concerned with weight and appearance". The potential for improvement is still largely Norwegian, but the debates are in full swing.

Development of democracy: Freedom House summarizes the global development of democracy every year. The latest report shows that not a single Muslim country has declined in the past year. Five of the six countries redefined from "unfree" to "partially free" in 2005 have Muslim majorities: Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. This week, Kyrgyzstan's tulip revolution from last spring continued to flourish, after parliament pushed for more power in the new constitution.

Freedom House has now redefined Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim-dominated state – from "partially free" to "free" and democratic. Progress has been formidable since dictator Suharto was overthrown in 1998 and Megawati Sukarnoputri was elected president. Last year, Nobel laureate Susilo Bambang secured peace in Aceh province. Muslim Mali and Senegal are also now democratic in line with Brazil and Mexico, according to the Freedom House survey.

Barely a majority of the world's 1,4 billion Muslims now live in fully or partially democratic countries. Almost all in multi-religious or multi-ethnic states, or in democracies with significant Muslim minorities such as India (12 percent Muslims), Ghana (16 percent) and South American Suriname (20 percent). Researchers Indra de Soysa at NTNU and Ragnhild Nordås at Prio show in a new article, "Islam's Bloody Innards?", That Muslim-dominated countries do better than comparable Catholic countries in terms of human rights violations.

The UN report

These positive developments in Muslim countries rarely make the news, much less are they analyzed. Part of the reason for the lack of attention to the positive development may be that the "typical Muslim" is associated with the Middle East, and then often with a dictatorship such as Saudi Arabia. But 80 percent of the world's Muslims live outside the Arab states. And it is in the Muslim fringe zones – from Senegal in the west, to Bosnia in the north to Malaysia in the east – that the most interesting thing happens. The dictatorship of Saudi Arabia is becoming as atypical for Muslim countries as the peace country Norway is for the world's Christian countries.

Just as oil Norway is the most corrupt country in the Nordic region, so the Arab oil states are the worst among the Muslims. As Max Weber would say: Oil corrupts, a lot of oil corrupts in total. The further away from oil dependence, the more apt the words of the UN Human Development Report in 2004 become: "Facts show that Muslim countries can do just as strongly as non-Muslim countries when it comes to goals for democracy."

Significantly, the Organization for the Islamic Conference is headquartered in Malaysia. Not a single secretary general of the OIC has been from the Arabian Peninsula since its inception in 1971. In short: developments in Muslim countries are not governed by Saudi Arabia, but by more dynamic countries such as Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco. The Muslim periphery has become the center.

TV broadcasts

The question then is why Muslim countries have lately made progress in terms of corruption, freedom of the press, women's struggle and democracy? The answer can be summarized as follows: Finance, TV / internet and 11 September.

Economically, there have been bonanza conditions in the Middle East after oil prices have tripled since 2002. And the new restrictions in Europe and the US after 11.09. 2001 makes it attractive for Arab millionaires to invest their money in neighboring Muslim countries. The almost oil-free emirate of Dubai – with one and a half million inhabitants – has started the most hypermodern construction boom in world history: Both the world's largest hotel, shopping center and skyscraper, Burj Dubai, are being built in an emirate the size of Østfold.

Dubai's real estate company Emaar is now taking the gigantic plans out into the world: In Pakistan, NOK 280 billion is being invested in similar luxury projects. In Morocco, Emaar spends NOK 140 billion on a golf and ski resort in the Atlas Mountains alone.

And with economic freedom comes other freedoms. Like more media freedom: The combination of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera's independent television broadcasts from 1996, and the global nature of the Internet and blogs, has created a whole new world in the Arab countries. On November 15, Al-Jazeera began broadcasting news in English 24 hours a day. The effect of the new television stations' debate programs, as well as female presenters and reporters, cannot be underestimated. As Gordana Malesevic summed it up in her New Time column on October 27.10: "With new satellite channels, more women are speaking out in the Muslim world."


Al-Qaeda's attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 has paradoxically had a positive effect on the will to reform: The threat from extremists has also forced Muslim leaders to clearly distance themselves from violent groups in their midst. This is how the women's election in Kuwait can be understood, as a need to democratize so that the terrorists do not receive increased support. At the same time, Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have become more moderate, to differentiate themselves from al-Qaeda, as amanuensis Bjørn Olav Utvik shows in his new book The Pious road to Development.

In this sense, a Muslim democratic revolution should not be the surprise, but rather the fact that one does not discover it, or allow oneself to be surprised by it. Developments over the past two years have made the UN report's conclusion from 2004 increasingly relevant: "The notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy is not only the opposite of Islam's words, but also contrary to the practice of states with Muslim majorities."

Most democratic among Muslim countries:

1. Mali

2 Senegal

3 Indonesia

4 Albania

5. Turkey

Source: Freedom House

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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