They said they wanted a revolution

They said they wanted a revolution March 7, 2011

Well, Hosni Mubarak’s gone, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has gone, and surely Gaddafi can’t be that far behind.

Who’da thought, eh? To me, it’s all the more remarkable because prior to these revolutions the received wisdom was that the ‘Arab street’ was incapable of revolt (I guess so long as you forget about the revolt against the Ottoman Empire!).

But in fact there has always been quite a lot of support for revolution among Muslims. Back in 2004, Robert MacCulloch (Imperial College London) and Silvia Pezzini (London School of Economics) analysed data from the World Values Survey between 1980 and 1997 of 130,000 people living in 61 nations (you can find their report here).

They analysed which people wanted a revolution – specifically, they wanted to know what kind of person agrees that “The entire way our society is organised must be radically changed by revolutionary action”.

They matched that to religious affiliation, and found that 17.4% of Muslims want a revolt, compared with 10.3% of the non-religious and 7.9% of Christians.

Of course, Muslims are more likely to live in countries that are autocratic and where rights are limited – according to a list compiled by Freedom International, there not a single majority-Muslim country that is ‘Free’.

So they adjusted for the degree of freedom and also for other important factors that affect the taste for revolution – wealth (both individual and national) and national economic growth. Once you do that, Muslims, the non-religious and unreligious are all equally like to support revolt, while Christians are about 3% less likely to. But the precise relationship is different in free and unfree countries.

In ‘free’ countries, Muslims  have about the same taste for revolt as the non religious, while Christians are significantly anti-revolutionary (about 4.1% less likely to support revolution).

In countries that are not free, however, Muslims are 12.6% more likely than the non-religious to support revolt, while Christians are only 1.1% less likely.

It seems that being a Christian or a Muslim in an unfree country seems to be a trigger for revolutionary sentiment – especially for Muslims.

It’s not clear why this should be, but there are some intriguing pointers in the data. For example, one way dictators keep themselves in power is by favouring some groups over others – the old ‘divide and rule’ strategy. In turns out that Muslims are more likely to support a revolt when they are in the majority – in unfree Muslim countries, support for revolution reaches an impressive 25%.

Muslims always have a higher level of taste for revolt than Christians, now matter how you cut the data by freedom and minority/majority status. That might be partly because not all revolutions are the same. Muslims are much more likely to want a revolution to increase political rights – they’re not so interested in revolutions to improve civil liberties.

So part of the reason that we don’t see more revolutions in Muslim countries might be that potential revolutionaries actually want a government that is more restrictive of personal freedoms! We’ll have to wait to see which kind of revolutionary wins out in North Africa.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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