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The explosive combination of religious decentralisation and autocracy: The case of Islam

The extent to which Islam is responsible for the problems encountered in countries in which it dominates has been the subject of much attention. This column explores the effect of religions with differing organisational structures on progressive institutional reforms, state corruption, and political stability. Decentralised religions such as Islam are more conducive to institutional stagnation and political instability than centralised religions such as Catholicism or Eastern Christianity, with negative consequences for long-term development.

To what extent and in what sense is Islam responsible for the problems encountered by the countries in which it dominates? Foremost among such problems are high political instability and the postponement or reversal of social reforms conducive to long-term development: reform of the family code and measures to improve women’s status, or modernisation of school curricula and measures to minimise rote learning of religious and other texts, for example. This issue has retained the attention of many scholars and an influential view holds that the present-day predicament of Muslim countries must be traced back to the time of the foundation of Islam when religion was indistinguishable from politics: as a result of historical determinism, a civil society cannot emerge from the tentacles of religion to create a modern society (Huntington 1993 1996, Lewis 2002). We argue that, rather than lying in politico-religious fusion or in any reactionary doctrine that would be specific to Islam, the problem arises from a particular organisational characteristic of that religion. In Islam, there is no hierarchy that exerts authority over the whole clerical profession. Clerics operate in a decentralised way, pronouncing their own fatwas. This is in contrast with Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox religions, which possess a centralised church structure. We show that combined with autocracy, the decentralisation of Islam makes politics comparatively unstable or reforms particularly difficult to achieve.

Instrumentalisation of religion: The quest for legitimacy in autocracies

Why should an autocrat pay attention to religious clerics? Because they have a natural prestige and influence over the population as representatives of the supernatural world and as wise men possessing deep knowledge (theological and philosophical, in particular). This is particularly true in societies where people have low levels of education and where reference to the sacred provides a transcendental legitimacy which the autocrat is therefore eager to harness in support of his rule.

More puzzling is why the religious leaders should be submissive to the autocratic ruler? In Islam (but also in Christianity), the dominant idea is that order should prevail over anarchy, and support should therefore be granted to the ruler even though his methods may be brutal and his policies unjust. Because they hold this view, the official clerics are rather easy to buy off by the man in power. For instance, as the whole history of Islam testifies, co-option is typically achieved through the extension of material and other privileges to which clerics are obviously sensitive (Platteau 2017).

The autocrat’s trade off in decentralised religions

Because there is no vertical chain of command in Islam, non-official self-appointed clerics (i.e. the low Islam) do not feel obliged to follow the instructions of their official peers (i.e. the high Islam). They are more critical of iniquitous policies of the regime and of progressive reforms that encroach upon erstwhile values and traditional prerogatives of religious leaders. Therefore, they are also costlier to co-opt for the regime.

The problem of the autocrat can then be stated in the following way (see Auriol and Platteau 2017a, 2017b). He wants to implement a set of policies that maximise his rents without jeopardising his political stability. In choosing the mix of economic reforms conducive to growth and the level of rent extraction of the generated wealth (i.e. corruption), he therefore takes into account the cost of seducing the clerics who are potential leaders of a rebellion against his regime. These cost considerations may well lead him to co-opt only a fraction of the clerical body, in which case the probability of a rebellion is not zero. Full political stability may not be optimal for him.

If he wants to minimise the risk of rebellion, he needs to choose a policy mix that pleases the clerics, particularly the most radical among them. This implies that he mitigates corruption and postpones progressive institutional reforms. We indeed show that these two policy components are generally complementary: the autocrat who engages in radical modernisation reforms also chooses a high level of corruption (Auriol and Platteau 2017b). This result helps to explain why, in many autocratic Muslim countries, reforms conducive to economic growth are assimilated by the people to corruption and the destruction of moral values.

Stability over reforms: The examples of Saudi Arabia and Iraq

Two circumstances where political stability is clearly chosen over reforms deserve to be highlighted. First, in countries endowed with abundant natural resources that give rise to important rents, returns on institutional reforms are low and, as a consequence, the autocrat is inclined to forsake such reforms to the greatest satisfaction of (radical) clerics. He will also see to it that the rent is sufficiently redistributed toward the masses. Political stability ensues. A striking illustration of this situation is Saudi Arabia, where political stability is combined with social conservatism and a large influence of the (Wahhabite) ulama.

Second, greater sensitivity of the clerics, or of a fraction of them, to corruption and attacks on traditional institutions will affect the politico-religious equilibrium in opposing ways.

  1. If religious radicalisation concerns all the clerics, the autocrat is predicted to keep corruption in check and to backtrack on reforms so that the threat of political instability is reduced.
  2. On the other hand, if radicalisation concerns only the most conservative clerics, who become even more radical and therefore more expensive to buy off, the opposite prediction is obtained: the autocrat focuses its attention on the more moderate clerics and accepts a greater political instability as the price to pay for more reforms and more corruption.

As an example of possibility (1), we can refer to the dramatic change in Saddam Hussein’s tactics toward the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s. His strongly authoritarian regime was then seriously weakened by a series of adverse external events triggered by the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran (1979) and the subsequent stirrings of a Shia rebellion in the south. These two events caused a sudden radicalisation of the clerics who became less reluctant to assert their views, including criticisms against the regime. A major step in Saddam's about-face coincided with the ninth Congress of the Regional Command of the Baath (1982), on the occasion of which the significance of religion, together with the primacy of Iraq, was stressed with special vigour (Tripp 2000: 228). New reactionary laws, sometimes providing for barbaric penalties, were enacted with the purpose of cracking down on nightclubs and discotheques, imposing Ramadan fasting, outlawing prostitution (punishable by death), banning public alcohol consumption, applying Islamic punishments to thieves and speculators, and so on. (Baram 2004: 265-7).

An illustration of possibility (2) is the effect of the wide dissemination of the Wahhabite puritan ideology from Saudi Arabia. Thanks to its immense oil wealth, and because its rulers have always nurtured deep ambitions of geopolitical domination in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia has been both willing and able to exert a large ideological impact on the Middle East, South Asia, and West Africa. However, this impact has essentially been confined to the radical clerics who alone were susceptible to adhering to a strict version of Islam. The moderate clerics who follow the historically dominant, tolerant tradition of Islam are rather impervious to Islamism as defined by the Wahhabites (which includes the concept of jîhad). As witnessed by Egypt under Mubarak and Algeria under Chadli, the typical response of Muslim autocrats to the partial radicalisation of the clerics has consisted in confronting the radical groups at the risk of sparking popular rebellions (Platteau 2017).

The advantage of religious centralisation

The logic of religious co-option under autocratic regimes is obviously different when the dominant religion is centralised in the sense of possessing a vertical chain of command. This is observed in Western and Eastern Christianity, with the exception of Protestantism (American Protestantism, in particular). As attested by the history of Europe until the advent of strong parliaments, the absolute monarch is able to bargain with the head of the church, who acts on behalf of the whole clerical body. Comparing the two different structures, we show that when political stability prevails in both cases, the ruler is able to undertake more progressive reforms – and, possibly, indulges in more corruption – under a centralised religion than under a decentralised one (Auriol and Platteau 2017a, 2017b). In other words, the decentralised nature of Islam makes Muslim countries particularly vulnerable to reactionary forces. It is not that the Muslim doctrine is intrinsically more conservative or anti-modern than other religious doctrines, but the absence of a clear authority structure in Islam creates a situation in which autocrats are more vulnerable to radicalised elements of the clergy. With decentralised religion the marginal cleric is pivotal, while in centralised religion it is the average cleric, who by nature is more moderate.

There is only one way out of this predicament: autocrats must stop instrumentalising Islam so that they can no more be held hostage by ultra-conservative forces. This path has been followed by a few Muslim countries, including Turkey and Tunisia. Unfortunately, in both cases, the autocratic power chose an excessively antagonistic approach to religion and high corruption (Platteau 2017). In countries where the majority of people are not exposed to values of individual emancipation either through the education system or through migration experiences, measures that have the effect of polarising the society between a Westernised elite and traditional masses are doomed in the medium and long term.


Auriol, E and J P Platteau (2017a),  “Religious Seduction under Autocracy: A Theory Inspired by Theory”, Journal of Development Economics (forthcoming).

Auriol, E and J P Platteau (2017b), “The Explosive Combination of Religious Decentralisation and Autocracy: The Case of Islam”, Economics of Transition (forthcoming).

Baram, A (2014), Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003 –Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith, Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Huntington, S (1993), “The clash of civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Summer, pp. 22-49.

Huntington, S (1996), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, London: Simon and Schuster.

Lewis, B (2002), What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, London: Phoenix.

Platteau, J P (2017), Islam Instrumentalized: Religion and Politics in Historical Perspective, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tripp, C (2006), Islam and the Moral Economy – The Challenge of Capitalism, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

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