20120709-Mus Broth -Sebo3_althawra_almasria.jpg Arabs have traditionally had a top a down rather grassroots approach to government in which leaders made decisions and their underlings carried them out. Legitimacy has been based on ancestry, tribal affiliations and religious connections and military might. Arab leaders have traditionally relied on “time-honored methods” of quasi-consultation.” Leaders in Muslim societies traditionally greeted all comers in a pavilion to read petitions, hear grievances and mete out justice.

The Arab world is ruled by kings, sheiks and military dictators. In some cases the leaders are benevolent. In other cases they are not. Opposition for the most part is not tolerated. Rigged referendums are held instead of elections. Democracy has taken hold in every other part of the world, even former communist countries and in non-Arab Turkey, and in Muslim Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan to a limited degree in non-Arab Iran.

Governments in the Arab-Muslim world have included Islamic states, sultanates (lead by a sultan), emirates (lead by an emir), kingdoms (led by a king), dictatorships, military dictatorships and democracies. Today many Arab countries have parliaments, presidents and prime ministers but they are not the democratic institutions we know in the West and often exist in name only. Prime ministers and presidents are often elected in rigged elections and tolerate no opposition and are de facto dictators. Legislatures are rubber stamp bodies with members hand-picked by the leader.

Leaders have traditionally been above accountability, criticism or open challenge. They stay in power for life and either are part of dynasties or try to create their own. Many leaders are very old. In the mid-1990s the average Arabic leader had served for than two decades. Since then some have died and been replaced by their sons. The only time there is a leadership change is after one leader dies. In many cases their son replaces them and the same sclerotic malaise continues.

Gamal Nasser in the middle, leader of Egypt from 1954 to 1970

Elections in many Arab-Muslim states are cosmetic. As of 2005, there had only been real elections in the Arab world in three states: Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Arab Spring in the early 2010s brought elections to Tunisia and Egypt but it wasn’t long before the results were rescinded in Egypt and the elected Islamist government was replaced by the military dictatorship that existed before the election. Arab Spring ousted dictators in Libya and Yemen but also brought bloody political unrest, chaos and civil war. In Syria, it produced a nasty, many-sided civil war that has left tens of thousands dead and a dictator clinging to power. Democracy exists in Turkey and Iran. In the case of the latter, unelected religious leaders arguably have more power than elected ones.

Conservative Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington is famous for suggesting that differences and conflicts between Islamic and Western societies are based on a “clash of civilizations.” He told Islamica magazine, “Obviously, Muslim societies, like societies everywhere, are becoming increasingly urban, many are becoming industrial. But since so many have oil and gas, they don’t have a great impetus to change...At the same time. The revenue that natural resources produce give them the capability to change. Countries like Iran are beginning to develop an industrial component.”

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam;

Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia;

Qur’an (Quran, Koran) and Hadith:
Quran translation in English ; Quran in Easy English, Urdu, Arabic and 70 other languages ; ; ; Quranic Arabic Corpus, shows syntax and morphology for each word ; Word for Word English Translation – ; Digitised Qurans in the Cambridge University Digital Library ; ;
Hadith – search by keyword and by narrator


Governments in the Middle East tend be highly centralized and authoritarian. They are organized in a way that prevents the emergence of an effective opposition. Citizens often have less freedoms than people in the West have.

The governments in the Arab world are among the most repressive in the world. One reason many of the regimes have held on so long is the that are rich in oil and have used money from oil to prop up their regimes and buy acquiescence of their citizens.

Bill Tammeus wrote in the Kansas City Star, “”The problem is not inherent in Islam’s monotheistic theology but in the reality that many rulers of Muslim people have oppressed them, rather than preparing them for modernity...Partly that’s because Islam envisions little or no separation between church and state. Indeed the idea of separate nations s almost foreign to Islam, which sees the collection of its followers as a nation, the Umma. But nation states...make up geopolitical reality today, and Islam must find its way in that system.”

Tribal Government

Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia from 1932 to 1953

Tribal leaders have traditionally responded to the needs of their people by holding a “majlis” (“open court”), in which the leader periodically sat down, surrounded by bodyguards and aides, and listened to complaints and problems by tribe members who waited in line until it was their turn. In this was the leader helped settle disputes, helped people with special needs, made decisions and arbitrated legal matters.

Requests were traditionally made in form of written petitions or a request said out loud or whispered in the leader’s ear. The complaints often involved disputes over land or animals or the payment of bride prices or dowries, requests for loans, scholarship money or money for health care, or approval for divorces. Sometime justice for a murder was worked out with the payment of blood money. The decision by the tribal leader was regarded as final. Usually the basis for the decision is found within sharia (Islamic law). Often cases were referred to someone in the bureaucracy.

In Saudi Arabia, majlis are conducted by everyone from members of the royal family to village chiefs. They are held several times a week by members of the Saudi royal family. One prince told National Geographic, “Any citizen can approach any ruler asking redress for real or imagined problems... Seventy percent of the petitioners don’t need me. They come because they want assurances that if they ever had a major problem, access is assured. The rest have have exhausted bureaucratic procedures. They want land, or a bigger home loans, or to get a relative out of jail. We try to help.” Even after King Faisal’s assassination petitioners approached unsearched, in some cases, carrying weapons.

Problems with Arab States

Muslim states often have a lot problems. This is the result of several factors including: 1) Western imperialism and the domination of the Muslim world rather than local governments; 2) the success of Western-style democracy and market economics in the global economy, with Arab-Muslim states often times being left out; and 3) the dominance in the Muslim world of repressive, corrupt and ineffective governments.

These problems have prompted a debate: 1) whether the Arab world’s problems can be remedied by Western notions of democracy, rule of law and of modernization; 2) whether democracy and modernization are universal ideals desired by all people, including Arabs and Muslims; 3) whether there is something about Islam or Arab culture that makes it difficult or impossible for democracy and modernization to take root there; and 4) exactly how political and economic reforms can be implemented there.

Among Arabs there is a saying: “To rule is to be sterile.” The implication is that to rule one must be ruthless and willing to eliminate any rival whether he or she be a child, wife, friend or close relative.

Pan- Islamic Movement and the Caliphate

Osama bin Laden: one of his goals was to re-establish the Caliphate

Some Muslim groups have said one of their goals is to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the world under Islamic law (sharia), with a single Caliph as its leader. During the caliphate period the Islamic world was unified under the leadership of the caliph the same way the Roman Catholic has been unified under the Pope.

Carl Vick wrote in the Washington Post: The goal of reuniting Muslims under a single flag stands at the heart of the radical Islamic ideology. Bush and other American conservatives have warned of it repeatedly. When Osama bin Laden called the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "a very small thing compared to this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years," the reference was to the aftermath of World War I, when the last caliphate was suspended as European powers divided up the Middle East. Al Qaeda named its Internet newscast, which debuted” in 2005, "The Voice of the Caliphate."[Source: Carl Vick, Washington Post, January 14, 2006]

“Yet the caliphate is also esteemed by many ordinary Muslims. For most, its revival is not an urgent concern. Public opinion polls show immediate issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discrimination rank as more pressing. But Muslims regard themselves as members of the umma , or community of believers, that forms the heart of Islam. And as earthly head of that community, the caliph is cherished both as memory and ideal, interviews indicate. "Why do you keep invading Muslim countries?" asked Kerem Acar, a tailor in central Istanbul. "I won't live to see it, and my children won't, but one day maybe my children's children will see someone declare himself the caliph, like the pope, and have an impact."

Robert Hunt of the Dallas Morning News wrote, “There has been a persistent strain of millennialist imperialism withing the larger history of Muslim societies. There has always been Muslims who believe their destiny and that their religion is to finally overcome the ignorant and evil half of the world that has not yet submitted to God as revealed by the Qur’an.For most of Islamic history, the millennial empire building gas been displaced by pragmatic agendas of political, military and economic expansion. Actual Muslim empires ultimately abandoned their religious agendas out of both self interest and weakness."

Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt from 1970 to 1981

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, famous for suggesting that differences and conflicts between Islamic and Western societies is based on a “clash of civilizations," told Islamica magazine: “Certainly there are various trans-Islamic political movements, which try to appeal to Muslims of all societies. But I'm doubtful that there will be any sort of real coherence of Muslim societies as a single political system run by elected r non-elected leaders. But I think we can expect Muslim societies to cooperate with each other on many issues just as Western societies cooperate with each other. I would not rule out the possibility of Muslim, or at least Arab, countries developing some form of organization comparable to the European Union."

Book: “Islamic Imperialism” by Efraim Karsh (Yale University Press, 2008).

Modernization in the Arab World

Westernization and modernization in the Arab world have brought Hollywood movies, sexual freedom, feminism, fast food, fancy cars and private jets and grand buildings and public works projects but it has generally not brought rule of law, free markets or political accountability. Efforts to modernize politically have consisted mainly of trying to acquire advanced military technology without other things went along with it like democracy and individual freedoms.

Conservative Muslims view Western decadence—as expressed in sexual permissiveness, materialism and moral bankruptcy—as inextricably tied to Western notions about secularism, pluralism, modernity and separation of religion and politics, and calls for rejection of all of them. This view is has become widespread and has been labeled as by the historian Francis Fukuyama as Islamo-Fascism, a perversion of Islam.

In the Arab world, Zareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek, “modernization is now take to mean, inevitably, uncontrollably, Westernization and even worse, Americanization. This fear has paralyzed Arab civilization. In some ways the Arab world seems less ready to confront the age of globalization than even Africa....For the Arab world modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed—socialism, secularism, nationalism—has turned into a dead end. While other countries adjusted to their failures, Arab regimes get stuck in their ways. Those that reformed economically could not bring themselves to ease up politically.”

Politics and Monarchs Versus Military Leaders in the Middle East

There are two main two kinds of leaders found in the Arab worlds: 1) kings, emirs, princes and sheiks from from the Arab equivalent of royal families; and 2) secular dictators like Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Bashar al-Assad of Syria who have held on to power through military might.

Saddam Hussein, leader of Iraq from 1979 to 2003

Many of the secular dictators or their parties came to power in the 1950s and 1960s as corrupt foreign-backed monarchs were ousted on the coat tails of Nasser’s Arab nationalist revolution. Most failed to deliver on their promises and today have less legitimacy than the monarchs they replaced. There is a general consensus that the monarchs are doing a better job modernizing their countries than the secular dictators. Hugh Pope wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Young heirs to power...are staying on top by changing the way their fathers did business. Within limits they are also liberalizing politics.” They “are innovating and adapting faster than republican regimes.”

The Arab Human Development Report, put together by a group of Arab intellectuals, concluded: “the freedoms of opinion, expression and organization, in particular suffer from repression in most Arab countries.” It is said political participation has “often been little more than ritual: and elections are typically set up to preserve the status of “ruling elites.”

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times offered the followed rules to writing about politics in the Middle East: 1) there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, “How can I compromise? And the minute it becomes strong, it will tell you, “Why should I compromise?” 2) What people tell you in private is irrelevant. All that matter is what they will defend in public in Arabic; 3) extremists tend to go all the way and moderates tend to go away; 4) Never take a concession except out of the mouth of the person who is supposed to be doing the conceding: 5) if you can’t explain something with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it all—people there won’t believed it; and 6) Never lead a story with a cease fire; it will always be over by the time the newspaper comes out. There is also a tendency by Arab leaders to mask their own shortcomings. their country’s problems, and their inability to solve their country’s problems by blaming everything on the Israelis and the Americans.

Arab Street

The Arab Street is a term used to describe the prevailing opinion of men interviewed on streets of Arab cities. There are often no opinion polls so journalist gauge opinions by aby asking shopkeepers, taxi drivers and people on the streets.

Brian Palmer wrote in Slate: "Arab street" is “a handy metaphor to describe popular opinion in the Muslim world. Where does that phrase come from? In 2009, professors Terry Regier of U.C. Berkeley and Muhammad Ali Khalidi of York University in Canada published a paper tracking the origins and usage of the phrase Arab street. They found that Arabic-language newspapers regularly use the street as a stand-in for popular public opinion, and not just in reference to Muslims. Journalists in Arab countries also write stories about the mood on the "British street," the "American street," and the "Israeli street." [Source: Brian Palmer, Slate, January 31, 2011 ~]

“That's not to say the street formulation necessarily comes from Arabic. The provenance of the phrase is a bit muddled. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Wyndham Lewis, an English writer and painter, as the first person to refer to popular public opinion as "the street." In a 1931 book sympathetic to Adolf Hitler, Lewis noted that Democratic politicians couldn't suppress the fascist leader because of his "Mastery of the Street." Just like his pro-Hitler sentiment, Wyndham's turn of phrase didn't catch on in England or the United States, but the metaphor appeared in Arabic in the 1950s. Lebanese editorialists used thestreet to represent the oppressed working classes in the Muslim world.” ~

Yasser Arafat (in sunglasses) when he was based in Jordan

“When American political scientists picked up the metaphor in the 1970s, it was applied exclusively to Arabs. CUNY professor Robert R. Sullivan wrote about the use of radio propaganda in "mobilizing the Arab 'street' “in a 1970 article for The Review of Politics. Steven J. Rosen used the phrase in a 1977 American Political Science Review article. * In those days, the word street was usually enclosed in quotation marks, suggesting that writers were borrowing the concept from Arabic media. ~

“The metaphor moved into the Western mainstream media in the late 1980s. Prior to 1987, American journalists always referred to "Arab public opinion" rather than the street. The metaphor caught on when the first Palestinian Intifada broke into the news. Usage intensified during the original invasion of Iraq in 1990, and then again after 9/11. By 2006, journalists were using the street metaphor in the majority of their descriptions of popular sentiment in the Arab world, according to Regier and Khalidi's research. ~

“The two academics also identified a difference in tone between Arabic and English use of the phrase. In English, the Arab street is very often associated with volatility and mayhem. It's liable to "explode" or "erupt" with little notice. Writers in Arabic sometimes use this imagery as well, but they are far more likely to glorify the street, in the same way that U.S. politicians lovingly describe Main Street, U.S.A. Yemen's Al-Ayyam newspaper has described the Egyptian street as "the heart and conscience of the Arabs." Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has even referred to the Israeli street with approbation.” ~

Political Parties in the Arab-Muslim World

There are few secular, moderate or liberal parties in the Middle East. The dominant parties tend to be either associated with the ruling regime or are Islamist. Why is this so? Because authoritarian rulers never let moderate parties develop. Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times: Arab leaders “ prefer that the only choice their people have is between the state parties and religious extremists, so as to always make the authoritarian state look indispensable.”


Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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