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Africa: Islam, Democracy and Public Opinion
Africa: Islam, Democracy and Public Opinion
Date distributed (ymd): 020919
Document reposted by Africa Action
Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service
provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy
Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on
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Issue Areas: +political/rights+
This posting contains the text of an Afrobarometer briefing paper
reporting on views on democracy taken from public opinion surveys
in four African countries: Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, with
a special focus on whether Muslim and non-Muslim respondents have
different views. Notably, the results contradict almost all the
common stereotypes and convetional assumptions among Western
journalists and commentators about the subject: The surveys show
strong majority support for democracy, in terms of multiple
meanings of the term, and similar understandings of the concept,
regardless of religion. Those differences that do exist seem more
likely to be due to educational levels than to religion as such,
and in general, more frequent attendance at churches or mosques is
likely to increase rather than decrease tolerance and support for
[Wordings of questions in opinion polls may clearly affect results,
but it is also noteworthy that the roughly 70% tolerant of
unpopular views in this survey is in the same range as results of
some similar surveys in the United States. In a 1999 Phi Delta
Kappa/Gallup Poll, for example, seventy-one percent stated that the
schools should teach "acceptance of people who hold unpopular or
controversial political or social views."]
The graphic figures mentioned in the text, not included in this
posting, are available in the PDF version at the Afrobarometer web
along with other reports based on Afrobarometer surveys, questionnaires used, and other
Contact details for Afrobarometer offices in South Africa, Ghana,
and the U.S. are also available on their web site.
Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 3 September 2002
Islam, Democracy, and Public Opinion in Africa
How do religious orientations, especially attachments to Islam,
affect public support for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa?
Some influential observers allege that Islam and democracy are
incompatible. For example, Huntington argues that, because the
Koran rejects the distinction between religious and political
authority, Islamic civilization cannot easily coexist with
democracy.(1) And Kedourie holds that mass suffrage, elections, and
representation are "profoundly alien to the Muslim political
Others disagree. Esposito and Voll stress the diverse spectrum of
conservative and progressive tendencies within Islam, including new
movements that seek to reconcile religious resurgence and
democratization.(3) Filali-Ansary goes even further, claiming that
democracy, normally identified as a Western concept, originated in
the Islamic East.(4)
Recent research on public opinion has begun to test these competing
visions against contemporary facts. Rose concludes from survey
evidence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that "being a Muslim does not
lead a person to reject democracy or endorse dictatorship."(5)
Along similar lines, Tessler finds that the Islamic beliefs of "the
Arab street" in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Palestine (Gaza and
West Bank) discourage the emergence of a democratic political
culture "only to a very limited extent."(6)
Data are available from the Afrobarometer Round 1, conducted
between mid-1999 and mid-2001, to extend this debate to sub-Saharan
Africa. Religious identifications and attitudes to democracy were
measured in four countries in East and West Africa: Mali, Nigeria,
Tanzania and Uganda. The distributions of Muslims in these
representative national samples, which correlate almost perfectly
with a standard source (7), are shown in Figure 1. Across these
four countries, the survey population (n = 10,159) is almost evenly
divided between Muslims (46 percent) and nonMuslims (54 percent),
thus enabling comparisons across communities of belief.
The results from Africa reinforce insights from Central Asia and
the Middle East. Although adherents of Islam in Africa occasionally
display distinctive political attitudes, they do not differ much
from non-Muslims on the subject of democracy and their differences
with others do not always run in an antidemocratic direction.
Moreover, any hesitancy about supporting democracy among the
African Muslims we interviewed is due more to deficits of formal
education and other attributes of modernization than to the
influence of religious attachments.
The survey findings are as follows:
Muslims are as supportive of democracy as non-Muslims.
Regardless of religious orientation, an average of more than seven
out of ten people in four African countries say they support
democracy. Some 71 percent of Muslims and 76 percent of non-Muslims
agree that, "democracy is preferable to any other form of
This result is driven by the case of Nigeria, where commitments to
democracy among African Muslims are weakest. Once broken down by
country, the data reveal that Muslims in Uganda and Mali express
more support for democracy than non-Muslims. And the two religious
groupings are equally supportive of democracy in Tanzania.
Especially on the Zanzibar islands, Tanzanian Muslims say they long
for honest elections and for political representation by leaders of
Moreover, an alternate question asks about support for "our present
system of government with free elections and many parties" (i. e.
without using the word "democracy"). Its results show Muslims
generally - now including Nigerians - to be just as positive as
non-Muslims (see Figure 2).(8) On balance, therefore, Muslims and
nonMuslims are hard to distinguish with regard to their support for
a competitive multiparty electoral system, otherwise commonly known
In West Africa, a minority of Muslims would tolerate a return to
Despite widespread expressions of support for democracy, Muslims
are slightly more likely than non-Muslims to defer to interludes of
non-democratic rule (12 versus 9 percent) and twice as likely to
care little about forms of government (15 versus 8 percent).
Moreover, more Muslims than non-Muslims approve of strong
presidential rule (20 versus 10 percent) or endorse the (re) entry
of the army into politics (16 percent versus 6 percent).
Again, however, these minority sentiments of authoritarian
nostalgia are concentrated in certain countries, namely Nigeria and
Mali, where former army generals were elected to the presidency in
1999 and 2002 respectively. In both West African countries, Muslims
are significantly more likely than adherents of Christian or
traditional religions to approve of rule by a military or civilian
strongman. In Nigeria, of course, military rule has long been
associated with dominance of the political system and control of
national economic resources by Northern Muslim elites. East Africa
provides a contrast. Tanzanian Muslims are just as likely as their
non- Muslims compatriots to reject authoritarian alternatives, in
part because they think they have derived little benefit from such
arrangements in the past. And in Uganda, more Muslims than others,
perhaps remembering the excesses of their own Idi Amin, want
military dictators to stay permanently out of politics.
Muslims and non-Muslims have similar understandings of democracy.
Whatever their religious leanings, the Africans we interviewed
conceive of democracy in much the same ways. One out of four
associates democratic rule primarily with civil liberties,
especially free speech. And one out of eight cites voting rights
and electoral choice (See Figure 3).
Despite these similarities, Muslims add an egalitarian and
consensual spin to their interpretations of democracy. They are
much more likely than non-Muslims to associate this form of
government with political and economic equality, power-sharing, and
social justice. By contrast, non-Muslims are twice as likely to
express populist interpretations by seeing democracy in terms of
direct participation, or "government by the people."
Notwithstanding the importance that Zanzibari Muslims attach to
elections, the Islamic image of a democratic regime in Africa seems
to hinge more on a just society than on a responsive government.
Overall, religious affiliation does not affect popular appraisals
of democracy's performance.
Across the four countries studied, Muslims and non-Muslims say they
are equally satisfied with "the way democracy works" (68 percent).
Similarly, the two communities are about equally prone to consider
that democracy has been attained in their country, either fully or
with only minor deviations (50 percent for Muslims, 48 percent for
As such, religious affiliation (unlike, say, political party
affiliation) does not color popular judgments about regime
performance. Remarkably, even in Nigeria, where Muslims were
stripped of much political power and influence in the democratic
transition of 1999, followers of Islam are still more satisfied
with democracy (and see Nigerian democracy as more complete) than
their non-Islamic counterparts. Perhaps because Muslims constitute
almost half the Nigerian population, they calculate that majority
rule will not always work to their disadvantage. In Tanzania,
however, where the Islamic community is smaller and where Zanzibar
has been politically marginalized longer than Northern Nigeria,
Muslims are less likely to express satisfaction with democracy. The
counterbalancing cases of Nigeria and Tanzania mean that, overall,
religious affiliation does not affect popular appraisals of
Nevertheless, political tolerance is somewhat lower among Muslims
For democracy to work well, citizens must be willing to tolerate
the expression of a plurality of political opinions, including
those different to their own. And Islam's critics often avow that
it is an intolerant creed. To test this accusation, the
Afrobarometer asked respondents to choose between the following:
Either "It is dangerous and confusing to allow the expression of
too many different points of view"; Or "If people have different
views than I do, they should be allowed to express them."
As Figure 4 shows, expressed political tolerance is actually quite
high in the African countries studied, since an average of 75
percent choose the liberal and charitable option. Nonetheless,
fewer Muslims than Christians feel comfortable with free
expression, although they show more forbearance of political speech
than the adherents of traditional African religions. On balance,
however, the fact that 71 percent of Muslims would allow - rather
than control - free speech does not amount to evidence of
Political participation lags among followers of Islam.
A functioning democracy also requires active citizens, whose
principal duty is to vote. Among other roles, citizens in a
democracy also enjoy opportunities to attend community meetings,
get together with others to raise issues, go to election rallies,
tell others about their preferred electoral candidates, and even to
demonstrate in the streets if they feel their voices are not being
heard. For purposes of analysis, we constructed a index of
participation that measured how often individuals actually engaged
in these five behaviors.
Generally, Muslims are hardly less likely than non-Muslims to say
they voted in the last presidential and legislative elections in
their country (73 versus 76 percent). But, across all four
countries, Muslims are consistently less likely than non-Muslims to
participate in other aspects of the democratic process. For
example, almost one-half of Muslims (48 percent) have never engaged
in any of the five acts in the participation index, compared to one
third of non-Muslims (32 percent). This seems to bespeak a
political detachment among followers of Islam from anything other
than the most rudimentary aspects of citizenship.
Perhaps offsetting this apathy, Muslims are more likely than
non-Muslims to identify themselves as being "close to a political
party" (56 versus 42 percent). But, because the followers of Islam
report taking relatively few political initiatives of their own,
they may therefore be particularly susceptible to mass mobilization
by organized political movements.
Religious observance increases democratic commitments.
So far, we have treated Muslims as a homogenous group, as if all
believers were equally observant of the Prophet's faith. Yet, as
with other broad "churches," Islam accommodates a broad
cross-section of adherents, from the very casual to the extremely
fanatic. The intensity of religious commitment - otherwise known as
religiosity - might actually be more important than nominal
religion to the formation of political attitudes and the activation
of political participation.
The Afrobarometer measured religiosity for the first time in
Nigeria in 2001 by asking, "apart from weddings and funerals, how
often do you attend religious services?" Among nominal Muslims, we
detect a clear, strong, and positive relationship between
religiosity and support for democracy (see Figure 5). In other
words, the more often that Muslims attend prayer meetings at a
mosque, the more likely they are to support democracy. This
important finding clearly calls into question any effort to
stereotype all mosques as hotbeds of anti-democratic rhetoric or to
portray fervent Islamists as automatically opposed to democracy.
Instead, at least among Nigerian Muslims, religious practice is
likely to deepen rather than undermine commitments to a democratic
form of government.
Importantly, religiosity also increases political participation.
For example, Nigerians who routinely go to the mosque every Friday
are twice as likely as non-practicing Muslims to also participate
in local-level meetings where community development is planned (52
versus 26 percent). Given the centrality of the mosque to the daily
welfare of Islamic communities, and the fusion between religious
and secular affairs in Koranic doctrine, religious observance thus
becomes a gateway to involvement in the political arena.
We also find hints that religiosity may increase political
tolerance. For example, attending weekly prayer services makes
Nigerian Muslims significantly more likely to concur that, "since
we will never agree on everything, we must learn to accept
differences of opinion within our community." Similarly,
religiosity reduces dogmatic commitments to sharia law. Some 63
percent of non-practicing Nigerian Muslims think that Northern
states should be governed by their own religious legal system, a
view that is shared by only 52 percent of weekly mosquegoers.
Almost as many of this group of highly observant Muslims (45
percent) think that "Nigeria is a secular state: it should have
one, non-religious legal system that applies to all people."
More than religion, modernization affects support for democracy.
To recap, the difference in support for democracy between Muslims
and non-Muslims is just 5 percentage points (See Figure 2). Yet the
difference in support for democracy between the least educated and
most educated Africans interviewed is a much larger 19 percentage
points. If nothing else, this comparison suggests that
considerations of religion may be less important to the fate of
democracy than certain attributes of modernization.
Stated differently, we note that Muslims in Africa, especially
females, have had limited opportunities to go to school. According
to the Afrobarometer, Muslims are four times more likely than
others to have no formal education and less than half as likely to
possess a post-secondary qualification (See Figure 6). This
relationship is strongest in Nigeria and weakest in Tanzania, but
it is statistically significant for all four countries studied.
Perhaps, therefore, the few small differences that we have observed
between Muslims and non-Muslims are due to a lack of formal
education - or a deficit of other modern attributes - rather than
the influence of Islamic values.
To test this proposition, we ran a simple multivariate regression
analysis that reveals the relative explanatory power of various
predictors of support for democracy. Apart from religion, the model
includes education, exposure to mass media (measured as an index of
news consumption from radio, TV and newspapers) and urban
residence. As Figure 7 shows, the three modernization factors all
explain more variance in support for democracy than does religion.
(9) Indeed, compared to professed faith, level of education alone
explains three times as much variance in support for democracy.
Taken together, the Afrobarometer findings for four African
countries with substantial Islamic populations call into question
whether, among ordinary individuals, being Muslim constitutes much
of an obstacle to becoming a democrat. Attitudes to democracy are
similar across religious communities and deficits in political
participation among Muslims are partly offset by tolerance and
activism among Islam's most observant followers. And, because
education trumps religion, we are led to agree with Richard Rose's
insight that, "the civilization that matters is not Islam, but
`modern', that is, a civilization based on secular values." (10)
(1) Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking
of the World Order (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996).
(2) Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture (London,
Frank Cass, 1994)
(3) John Esposito and John Voll, Islam and Democracy, (New York,
Oxford University Press, 1996)
(4) Abdou Filali-Ansary, "Muslims and Democracy," Journal of
Democracy, 10, 3 (July) 1999.
(5) Richard Rose, "Does Islam Make People Anti- Democratic? A
Central Asian Perspective," Journal of Democracy, 13, 4 (October)
2002, p. 8.
(6) Mark Tessler, "Islam and Democracy in the Middle East: The
Impact of Religious Orientations on Attitudes toward Democracy in
Four Arab Countries," Comparative Politics, 34, 3 (April) 2002, p.
(7) Pearson's r correlation = .999 between Afrobarometer Round 1
data and the proportions of Muslims reported for each country in
The World Factbook, see
(8) On the "democracy" question, the figures represent the
percentage of respondents supporting democracy. On the "system"
question, the figures represent average scores on a scale of 0-100,
where 0 = the "worst" system and 100 = the "best" system.
(9) The regression model with one religious and three modernization
variables explains 4 percent of the total variance in support for
democracy. The figures in the chart indicate the proportional
composition of that 4 percent.
(10) Rose, "Does Islam Make People Anti-Democratic?", ibid.
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