Skip Navigation
Democracy vs. Liberal Autocracy: Dan Brumberg Examines the Role of Islam in Political Regimes

Democracy vs. Liberal Autocracy: Dan Brumberg Examines the Role of Islam in Political Regimes

On February 16, 2005, Dr. Dan Brumberg, Professor of Government at Georgetown University, presented a public lecture as part of the Near East Center’s ongoing workshop on the Turath literature.

Steve Aziz Joudi Email Steve AzizJoudi

American foreign policy post-9/11 has focused on reinterpreting, or reshaping Islamic regimes so they are more consistent with liberal democratic norms.  This is reflected in many calls from American and foreign leaders for a Muslim Reformation and can be seen in academic works by John Esposito, John Voll, and to Moah Feldman among others, and echoed by columnist Thomas Friedman who supports an “Islamic Democracy” in Iraq.  However, in a public lecture delivered at UCLA, Dan Brumberg, Professor of Government at Georgetown University, argued that the “central challenge is not interpretive, intellectual or even ideological, but rather political.  While democracy is a pressing need in the Islamic world, and in the Arab world in particular, in the short and medium term the chances are very slim that there will be a major reinterpretation of Islamic values that galvanizes Muslims to back democratic reforms.”  Instead, Brumberg stated that “what will count is the creation or strengthening of a competitive political field in which mainstream Islamists are either constrained and/or encouraged to put aside, suspend or shelve their Islamicizing agenda in favor of a political practice by which they conform to the rules and procedures of pluralist democracy.  Constraints and inducements are the solution, not liberal Islam.”

While his outlook on the Iraqi political spectrum was not sanguine, he did state that Iraq may serve as an example where Shi’ites are now constrained by Kurds and secular Shi’ites, into engaging in a cooperative power struggle that forces them to accept a constitutional arrangement that makes Islam just one source of legislation.

Several scholars and columnists have promoted the notion that Muslims share a common consciousness and that working to “democratize” this awareness will help to spread democratic ideals throughout the Islamic world.  Brumberg argued that this is incorrect, labeling it “a kind of positive Orientalism.”  Instead, what we find in the Arab world is the lack of a shared consciousness and consensus.  In fact, says Brumberg citizens of Middle Eastern countries are divided on issues ranging from linguistic and cultural to religious and national.  He cited Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Egypt as examples of countries that are grappling with such conflicts.

Brumberg described the political troubles facing the Middle East stating that “the problem in the Arab world is a form of deeply embedded path dependency distinguished by hegemonic, quasi-secular regimes and Islamist oppositions, creating a zero-sum, us-versus-them dynamic.”  The problem increases the risk sensitivity of ruling regimes, therefore undermining regime reformists and strengthening regime hardliners.  This situation leaves non-Islamist forces with few alternatives.  The disgruntled and alienated either vote for Islamists in protest, or simply do not vote at all.  “Under these conditions, the best you can have is liberalized autocracy, live and let live, quasi peaceful coexistence in parliaments that have no real power, no one wins or loses,” said Brumberg.

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.