One Nation, under Allah

Several years ago, an international wire service carried a story about a blind man in Saudi Arabia who visited his doctor for an annual check-up. While filling out the chart, the doctor asked the man if he worked, and if so, what was his profession. "I'm a bus driver," the man replied. When the astonished doctor asked how a blind person could drive a bus, the man explained that he'd lost his sight fairly recently and was very familiar with the route he'd driven for many years. So now his wife simply sat behind him and told him when to stop, go, turn left or right, or pick up or discharge passengers. In Saudi Arabia a blind man could operate a bus but his seeing wife could not, since women are forbidden to drive by law and custom.

Such anecdotes not only reveal the norms of one Muslim country, but may also help explain why there are no democracies among the Arabic-speaking Muslim states. In a recent Foreign Policy article, "The Sexual Clash of Civilizations," and in their new book, Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change around the World, two political scientists, McGuire lecturer in comparative politics Pippa Norris of the Kennedy School of Government and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan, argue that prevailing beliefs about gender and sexual preference are fundamental obstacles to Islamic democracy.

In his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, Weatherhead University Professor Samuel Huntington attributed the lack of Islamic democracies to the absence of certain political values—representative government, separation of religious and secular authority, protection of individual rights and civil liberties—in Muslim countries. But drawing on data from the Stockholm-based World Values Survey, an international academic survey that began in 1981, Norris and Inglehart reach a different conclusion. "There was virtually no difference between Western countries and Islamic countries in terms of the support for certain democratic values," Norris says. "In both Islamic and Western countries, 68 percent strongly disagreed with the statements 'Democracies are indecisive and have too much quibbling' and 'Democracies aren't good at maintaining order.' And 61 percent of those surveyed in both groups strongly 'Approve of having a democratic political system.' "

The researchers assert that the profound gap between Islam and the West actually shows up not in political values, but in sex-related attitudes. For example, 86 percent of Germans and 76 percent of Americans reject the statement, "On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do." But 91 percent of Egyptians endorse it, including the great preponderance of Egyptian women. (In Arab nations, in fact, only 4.5 percent of members of parliament are female, an exceptionally low figure.) "In traditional societies [like Egypt], women are as conservative as men," Norris explains. "It's not that the men are holding the women back." Regarding homosexuality, 53 percent of Westerners think it can be justified, at least sometimes, while 88 percent of those in Muslim nations do not. "A society's commitment to gender equality and sexual liberalization proves time and again to be the most reliable indicator of how strongly that society supports principles of tolerance and egalitarianism," Norris asserts. And tolerance and equality are essential to democracy; the researchers argue that they are the adhesives that allow a society to cohere despite internal differences.

Islamic societies, which are overwhelmingly agrarian according to the U.N. Development Program's Human Development Index, show characteristically lower levels on attitudes toward gender equality. The Gender Equality Scale blends five dimensions of political and social equality for women.
Source: Inglehart and Norris, Rising Tide

Islamic countries aren't alone in dealing with these issues. "Parts of Catholic Europe are still quite conservative in regard to gender equality, as are some parts of South America," says Norris. "Of course, there are also Americans who share those views, but they're not in the majority, as they once were. In general, post-industrial countries are ahead of the curve in their attitudes about gender equality—followed by industrial and then agrarian societies." The researchers believe that as countries progress in "human development"—including education, literacy, longevity, and gross domestic product— tolerance grows as well. Their survey data indicate that as countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Mexico modernized, they moved toward equality for women and greater acceptance of private sexual conduct. "Investing in human development—getting rid of social inequalities, improving education—in the long term will provide the conditions for stable democratic consolidation," Norris says. "You can't bring in democracy at the barrel of a gun."

~Charles Coe


Pippa Norris website:


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