Ever since the Arab Spring began, I have been concerned that it could ultimately result in the establishment of Islamist regimes as bad or worse than the more secular dictatorships they replaced. One of the reasons for that fear is that public opinion in many Arab nations is highly illiberal and intolerant. As a result, free elections could result in victories for authoritarian and repressive radical Islamists, as has indeed happened in Egypt. The new Islamist Egyptian President has already imposed media censorship and harrassment that activists consider to be worse than Mubarak’s was.
Unfortunately, the recent outbreak of violent riots in many Middle Eastern nations in response to an insignificant anti-Muslim Youtube video is a further indication of the problem. With the important exception of Libya, most Arab and Muslim governments have issued vitriolic condemnations of the video while either ignoring or only mildly criticizing the violent response to it.
In the absence of systematic polling data, it is too early to say what percentage of the population in these countries agrees that violent rioting is a justified response to “blasphemous” speech. But the tepid reaction of Arab governments to the violence suggests that such support is at least relatively common, even if not the view of a majority. And in Egypt, site of some of the worst violence, previous survey data shows that violent religious intolerance does enjoy majority support. For example, a 2010 Pew survey found that 84% of Egyptians believe that Muslims who convert to another religion should be executed.
It would be a mistake to say that such intolerance and illiberalism are an inevitable attribute of Islam. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a centuries-old religion with many different variants, some of them more liberal and tolerant than others. I don’t believe that the radical Islamism is the “true” version of Islam, while liberal variants are somehow “fake.” There is no single true Islam, any more than there is one true version of Christianity. But it is clear that the versions of Islam that enjoy widespread support in much of the Muslim world are authoritarian and oppressive. And, in many countries, the purveyors of such intolerance have been empowered by the Arab Spring to a much greater extent than liberals.
None of this bodes well for the future of the Arab Spring nations. Obviously, public opinion is not the only factor that will determine the outcome. Political elites matter too, as do a variety of other factors. Unfortunately, however, in much of the Arab world, radical Islamists are far better organized than their more liberal opponents, which might enable them to seize and hold power even when majority opinion is not on their side.