Political Instrumentalisation of Islam, Persistent Autocracies, and Obscurantist Deadlock

Background paper to the ERD2009


Jean-Philippe Platteau – Centre of Research for Development Economics (CRED), Department of Economics, University of Namur


Paper prepared for the Conference on “The challenges of fragility to development policy”, organised by the European Report of Development in Barcelona, Spain, 7-8 May, 2009


The empirical literature has established a strong link between the fact of being a Muslim-dominated country and indicators of political performance and democracy. This suggests the possible existence of a relation between religion, Islam in this instance, and societal characteristics. Bernard Lewis and others have actually argued the case for such a relation, pointing to aspects of the Islamic religion and culture that make the advent of democracy especially difficult. These arguments fall into the general idea of the “Clash of civilisations” put forward by Samuel Huntington. In this paper, we discuss this sort of argument and show that there is a systematic misconception about the true nature of the relationship between Islam and politics: far from being merged into the religious realm, politics tends to dominate religion. Because of the particular characteristics of Is-lam, namely, the lack of a centralised religious authority structure and the great variability of interpretations of the Islamic law, there is a risk of an “obscurantist deadlock” in the form of a vicious process whereby both the ruler and his political opponents try to outbid each other by using the religious idiom. This risk looms particularly large in crisis situations accentuated by international factors.

Download the paper pdf

Back to Background Papers