Democratization and the Legacy of History In the Muslim World

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

However well-intentioned the Bush administration’s efforts to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq after occupying them may have been, the pre-existing ethnic and sectarian differences in these countries have proven to be serious obstacles to achieving this goal—particularly since democratization upset previous patterns of ethnic or sectarian dominance. The Bush administration, though, was not simply unlucky in selecting two countries whose internal divisions made them especially difficult to democratize. Instead of being exceptional, the sort of ethnic and sectarian differences present in Afghanistan and Iraq are quite typical of predominantly Muslim countries.

Like Afghanistan and Iraq before the U.S.-led interventions that attempted to introduce democratization in them, the governments of most predominantly Muslim countries are authoritarian.  And also, as in either Afghanistan or Iraq, democratization could well lead to the rise of secessionist demands on the part of regionally dominant minorities (like the Kurds in Northern Iraq), a weakening of the control previously exercised by a long-dominant group (like the Pushtuns in Afghanistan), or even a transition from minority to majority rule (as in Iraq).  A brief description of the ethnic and sectarian divisions in several predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an analysis of the impact of democratization on the existing power balance within them will reveal just how widespread this phenomenon is.

Of course, some countries in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) are neither completely authoritarian nor fully democratic, but something hard to define in between.  One such country is Pakistan, with an enormous population of over 170 million.  According to the CIA World Factbook, Punjabis are the largest group in Pakistan (about 45%).  Among the minorities are the Pushtuns (about 15.5%), Sindhis (14%), Sariakis (about 8%), Muhajirs (the Muslims—and their descendants—who fled from India to Pakistan in 1947, when the two countries were carved out of what had been British India—7.5%), and Balochis (3.5%).  The Punjabis, with a plurality, have been the dominant ethnicity and have long dominated the Pakistani Army.  Other ethnic groups have often resented this.  Among Pakistan’s democratic politicians, some of the fiercest rivalry has occurred between Punjabi and Sindhi leaders.  Secessionist movements have periodically arisen in Balochistan.  The Pushtun-dominated Afghan monarchy used to encourage the secession of the Pushtun region of Pakistan.  The Punjabis could probably maintain their dominance over Pakistan as a whole even if it were fully democratic.  But if secession were ever put to a vote in the Pushtun, Balochi or Sindhi regions of Pakistan, it is possible (though not certain) that majorities there might vote for it.

In Iran, Persians (according to the CIA World Factbook) are 51% of the population, a bare majority.  Minority groups in Iran, which are concentrated in the border regions, include Azeris (24%), Kurds (7%), Arabs (3%), Balochis (2%), and Turkmen (2%).  The CIA also claims that 89% of Iranians are Shi’a and 9% are Sunni.  Other sources, though, claim that Sunnis (who are often oppressed by the dominant Shi’a) are actually a larger proportion of Iran’s population than this.  Especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tehran has been fearful that a movement might arise among Iranian Azeris to secede from Iran and join independent (former Soviet) Azerbaijan.  Similarly, the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has aroused concern that this might promote secessionism among Iranian Kurds.  As in Pakistan, a violent Balochi opposition movement has also risen inside Iran.  Genuine democratization in Iran, then, would not only threaten to replace the existing clerical order with a secular one; it could also threaten the continuation of Persian dominance over non-Persian minorities, which could secede and join neighboring states.

The overwhelming majority of the population of Turkey is Turkish (70-75%).  Although Kurds comprise only 18% of the country’s population, the Turkish armed forces have been unable to eliminate a Kurdish separatist movement, even after fighting it for decades.  Like Tehran with regard to Iranian Kurds, Ankara fears that the emergence of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in neighboring Iraq might further fuel secessionism among Turkish Kurds—who might well vote in favor of separation, if they were ever given the opportunity to do so.  Turks themselves are also divided between the Turkish secular elite (who control the security services, which have deposed several of Turkey’s elected governments and could well do so again), and the increasingly religious society.  Full democratization would threaten the secular elite’s privileged position in Turkey as well as Turkish dominance over its Kurdish minority if the latter could ever force the holding of a referendum on secession.

Sunni Muslims are an overwhelming majority in Syria, where they make up about three-quarters of the country’s population.  It is, however, Syria’s Alawite minority (about 12% of the population) that has long dominated the ruling Ba’th Party, the military and the country as a whole.  Democratization in Syria, should it ever occur, is highly likely to end Alawite minority rule and lead to Sunni majority rule.

Lebanon’s Christian minority dominated the country up to its long civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.  According to the World Directory of Minorities, the principal sectarian groups in Lebanon are Sunni Muslims (28% of the population), Shi’a Muslims (also 28%), Maronite Christians (22%), Greek Orthodox (8%), Druze (6%), and Greek Catholics (4%).  Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has made significant progress toward democratization as well as toward reducing foreign influence.  Most notably, in 2005 a groundswell of local opposition led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces.  Sadly, though, these developments have not ended division inside Lebanon.  At present, the main point of contention is between the powerful Shi’a organization Hezbollah (which receives support from both Syria and Iran, and dominates Southern Lebanon) on the one hand and the Western-backed Sunnis and Christians on the other.  It must be emphasized, though, that Lebanon’s sectarian communities are not monolithic; an important Christian bloc is currently aligned with Hezbollah.  As Lebanon’s fractious history has shown, however, both alliances and enmities are highly fluid there.

The Hashemite monarchy that rules Jordan draws its support from (and mainly benefits) the kingdom’s Bedouin population.  Bedouins of Jordanian origin, though, are estimated to make up only about one-third of Jordan’s population, whereas Palestinians—who are Jordanian citizens—comprise about half (or more).  Democratization in Jordan, then, could result in empowering the Palestinians, disempowering the Bedouins, and perhaps deposing the Hashemite monarchy.

Saudi Arabia has four principal regions:  Hejaz in the west, Najd in the center, Al Hasa (or the Eastern Province) in the east, and Asir in the southwest.  The Saudi royal family hails from Najd; it built the kingdom through conquering the other regions.  According to the Saudi Central Statistics Department, about 22.5% of the Saudi (i.e., non-foreign) population lives in Riyadh region (the heart of Najd), 28.6% in the Makkah and Madinah regions (the heart of Hejaz), 15.5% in the Eastern Province, and 8.7% in Asir.  Democratization in Saudi Arabia could result in challenging the dominance of both the Saudi royal family and Najd.  It might also raise the possibility of secession—especially in the oil rich Eastern Province, where the kingdom’s Shia’s minority (estimated at about 15% of the total Saudi population) is concentrated.

In Bahrain, about 57% of the population is Shi’a, while 25% is Sunni.  Like Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bahrain is a country where a Sunni minority (of which Bahrain’s ruling family is a part) rules over a restive Shi’a majority.  Democratization in Bahrain would undoubtedly lead to Shi’a majority rule—and probably also the downfall of the Sunni ruling family.

Oman is the only Muslim country where the rulers, including Sultan Qaboos (who has been in power since 1970), have traditionally been Ibadhis—adherents of a third branch of Islam.  According to the CIA World Factbook, 75% of the Omani population is Ibadhi while the remaining 25% is Sunni, Shi’a or Hindu.  This suggests that, while Oman is not a democracy, Sultan Qaboos at least hails from the majority community within Oman.  Other sources, however, indicate that the Ibadhis form a much smaller percentage of the population.  J.E. Peterson, one of the foremost Western scholars on Oman, estimates that 50% of Oman’s indigenous population is Sunni, 45% is Ibadhi, and less than 5% is Shi’a.  Dale Eickelman, also one of the foremost Western scholars on Oman, estimates that, “roughly 50-55% of its citizen population is Sunni, 40-45% is Ibadhi, and less than 2% is Shi’a.”  If indeed the Ibadhis are outnumbered by the Sunnis in Oman, democratization could lead to Sunnis replacing Ibadhis as the dominant community—and perhaps even to the downfall of the Ibadhi ruling family.

The population of Yemen consists of a Shafa’i Sunni majority (65-70%) and a Zaidi Shi’a minority (30-35%).  What since 1990 has been united Yemen was previously two countries:  North Yemen and South Yemen.  Both under the monarchy (1919-62) and the republic (1962-90), Zaidi Shi’as ruled the North.  As a result of unification in 1990 and the civil war in 1994, the predominantly Shafa’i Sunni in the much less populous South came under the domination of northerners.  Democratization in Yemen could lead to Shafa’i Sunnis displacing Zaidi Shi’as as the dominant group in Yemen as a whole, or to the re-establishment of the South’s independence.

Sudan is a country with extraordinary ethnic and sectarian diversity.  According to the CIA World Factbook, Sudan’s population is 52% African (black) and 39% Arab.  Once again, though, it is the minority—the Arabs—who dominate the country.  In addition, the Sudanese population is estimated to be 70% Sunni (concentrated in the North), 5% Christian, and 25% followers of indigenous beliefs (concentrated in the South).  The black southerners have fought so long and hard for independence from the Arab-dominated north that the latter has actually agreed to allow a referendum on this to be held in the South in 2011.  Whether this referendum takes place, or whether its likely pro-independence result is honored, remains to be seen.  There are also other secessionist movements, including the well-known one in Darfur (western Sudan) and less well-known ones in the east and the north.  All these conflicts appear to have an Arab vs. African component.  The secessionists, though, are far from unified and often divide along tribal or other lines.

There are other patterns of ethnic and sectarian dominance in the rest of the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.  But the point made about the countries already discussed applies to many of them too: democratization could lead to the disruption of existing patterns of ethnic and/or sectarian dominance. This, in turn, could lead either to minorities seeking secession or minority rule being replaced by majority rule.

The potential for democratization to disrupt existing patterns of ethnic and sectarian dominance is not unique to the Muslim world. It has already manifested itself—or could do so—in many, many countries around the world. What is of concern for this study is not how existing patterns of ethnic and/or sectarian dominance in predominantly Muslim countries came about, but how they affect—and are affected by—the “War on Terror.”

One implication is clear. Contrary to President Bush’s claim that democracy promotion in the greater Middle East would lead to peace, there is a good possibility that it might lead to the election of radical Islamists and even to secession or the overthrow of privileged minorities.  Not surprisingly, then, governments and privileged groups in this region have resisted democratization if they anticipated that pursuing it would lead to a loss of control over or the breakup of their countries.

This is not to say that democratization in predominantly Muslim (or non-Muslim) countries with significant ethnic and/or sectarian differences cannot be undertaken successfully.  Indonesia—the most populous country in the Muslim world—is an example of a country that has made the transition from an authoritarian military regime to a working, moderate democracy. It has so far forestalled secessionist efforts (with the exception of the anomalous case of East Timor) and kept at bay the forces of Islamist extremism.  Yet, while Indonesia shows that these dangers can be avoided, it certainly does not demonstrate that they will be avoided elsewhere.

This does not mean that the United States and its Western allies should refrain from promoting democracy in predominantly Muslim countries because it might lead to instability.  As Iraq and Afghanistan have painfully demonstrated, however, the attempt to forcibly impose democracy upon a nation (based on the assumption that the people there want it and on a lack of recognition of the strength of ethnic and sectarian divisions) can be highly costly as well as unsuccessful.  Indeed, it is noteworthy that Indonesia’s successful transition to democracy occurred without the aid of external intervention—and that, while Western military intervention brought about (overwhelmingly Catholic) East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, it did not serve to foster democracy there.

All this suggests two conclusions:  (1) Because of the many ethnic and sectarian differences within predominantly Muslim countries, democratization is likely to take much longer than many in the West and the Muslim world itself would prefer.  (2) America and its allies might more effectively promote democratization in the Muslim world through the slow process of supporting indigenous democratization movements that seek to reach across ethnic and sectarian divides. Direct intervention that eliminates authoritarian regimes before democratization movements have even arisen that could ameliorate such divisions has a poor record of success.

Mark N. Katz is a visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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