The preconditions for democracy are lacking in the Arab world partly because Hosni Mubarak and other Arab dictators spent the past half-century emasculating the news media, suppressing intellectual inquiry, restricting artistic expression, banning political parties, and co-opting regional, ethnic and religious organizations to silence dissenting voices.
But the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.
Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services.
Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.
A corporation can adjust to changing conditions and participate in politics. A waqf can do neither.
Thus, in premodern Europe, politically vocal churches, universities, professional associations and municipalities provided counterweights to monarchs. In the Middle East, apolitical waqfs did not foster social movements or ideologies..."Apolitical"? Well, I dunno about that. Then as now in states which hew to Islamic law, mosque=state and state=mosque and it's Islam and submission or death. That's why no "counterweights" emerged--they would have been seen as blasphemous and un-Islamic and punished accordingly. (It would have been helpful had the Duke professor who wrote the piece put it as baldly as that, or said that Sharia is inherently totalitiarian and is therefore the antithesis of freedom and democracy as we understand and practise it, but I suppose that's expecting a tad too much in a NYT op-ed piece.)