WCED Lecture

Institutional Roots of Authoritarian Rule in the Middle East: The Waqf as Obstacle to Democratization

Timur Kuran Timur Kuran
Timur Kuran, Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies and professor of economics and political science, Duke University.

The waqf (a trust whose assets are dedicated for religious purposes) is the closest thing under Islamic law to an autonomous private organization. Hence, in the Middle East the pre-modern waqf served as a key determinant of civil society, political participation, and trust in institutions, among other indicators and components of democratization. This paper argues that for a millennium the waqf delayed and limited democratization in the region through several mutually supportive mechanisms. By design its use of resources was more or less set by its founder, which limited its capacity to reallocate resources to meet political challenges. It was designed to provide a service on its own, which limited its ability to form lasting political coalitions. Its beneficiaries had no say in selecting the waqf's officers, whom they could not evaluate. Circumventing waqf rules required the permission of a court, which created incentives for corruption. Finally, the process of appointing successive officials was not merit-based; it promoted and legitimized nepotism. The upshot is that, for all the resources it controlled, the waqf contributed minimally to building civil society. It served as part of an institutional complex that kept the state unmonitored and unrestrained by civil society, setting the stage for authoritarian rule.

Timur Kuran is Professor of Economics and Political Science, and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. His research focuses on social change, including the evolution of preferences and institutions. His most recent book, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2011), addresses the role that Islamic institutions played in the economic rise of the Middle East and, subsequently, in the institutional stagnation that accompanied the region's slip into underdevelopment. Some of the archival work on which this book was based has been published as a ten-volume tri-lingual set entitled Economic Life in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul, as Reflected in Court Registers (Is Bank Cultural Publications). Kuran's earlier publications include Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism (Princeton University Press, 2004), each translated into several languages.