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Posted by on Sep 24, 2007 in At TMV | 9 comments

Poorly Educated, Religiously Conservative, and Anti-Western : Should Such People Even Be Allowed To Vote? (Reposted)

(NOTE: This was run on the weekend when readership was lower. Due to our growing interest at TMV on foreign issues and a request to run it on a weekday, we are reposting it now).

On Thursday, I linked up to a recent piece by myself and Shadi Hamid at The American Prospect. For those who haven’t had a chance to read it, the article is meant as a wake-up call about the poor pace of political reform in Morocco and, more broadly, about the failure of American democracy-promotion.

Michael Van Der Galien, an esteemed blogging colleague, quickly responded to the piece with a critical post over at the Van Der Galien Gazette that questioned the most basic ideas upon which our article was founded. He notes that democracy in Morocco is not, in fact, a desirable outcome, and that American policymakers should not be pressuring for such a change. “I don’t believe that full democracy is in Morocco’s best interest,” he writes, and then goes on to explain why:

A large part of the Moroccan people is uneducated and socially extremely conservative (read strict, strict Muslims). They barely know how to take care of their own family. Should people like that be allowed to determine the fate of an entire country?

This notion — that a particular group of people is ‘not yet ready for democracy’ — is one that is often used by opponents of democracy-promotion. But such a notion hearkens back to colonial times, when Western powers justified their involvement in (and subsequent repression of) Middle Eastern nations by claiming that their presence was needed in order to ‘civilize’ or ‘educate’ the populace before they could be allowed to rule themselves. This argument is misplaced, however. People should always be able to choose their own government, and they should not be denied such rights merely because their views or cultural traditions don’t conform with our own.

Indeed, a population’s religious beliefs and level of education should not become a litmus test for its right to participate in a democracy. In the United States, as in all democracies, citizens are allowed to participate in the democratic process regardless of factors such as wealth, education, or religious affiliation. This sometimes results in messy or unwise electoral outcomes, but the alternative — a system in which one person or a small group of people make the decisions for an entire country — is far worse. (As Winston Churchill has noted, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”)

Similarly, Moroccans should not be forced to fit a certain Westernized image of the ‘enlightened voter’ before they are allowed to exercise the basic human right of self-governance. Although made up of a variety of different ethnic groups, religious affiliations, and educational backgrounds, Moroccans should have the ability to to choose their own government, even if Westerners find the views of such a government to be too conservative, too anti-American, or too religious.

And let’s be clear: if Moroccans were allowed to participate in a genuine democratic process, they would indeed be likely to vote for parties with which many of us might find objectionable. This could mean the election of an Islamist party, for instance, that might role back rights for women. Sound undesirable? It does; but — and this is the crux of it — people should have the right to elect whomever they please. If a majority of those in Morocco want to see their country pursue a more conservative direction, then who are we to tell them otherwise?

I am not, I should note, a moral relativist. I do think that the United States should work to encourage the spread of liberal ideas about women’s rights and other social issues. But this is a long-term process, and it should not be a pre-cursor for allowing people to pursue self-rule.


In Morocco and throughout the world, I believe that the United States should adopt a more rigorous policy of non-violent democracy promotion. This would mean using various diplomatic, economic, and political levers to promote the slow growth of democratic institutions.

While I could argue that such a policy is often in America’s interest, that’s not primarily why I think democracy-promotion is important. The larger reason is that I believe the United States has a moral obligation to act as an ally to those who live in situations of tyranny or oppression. Promoting democracy is a long-sighted strategy that is about building a world that is based on human rights, self-governance, and respect between nations. These are noble goals and I will continue to be a proponent of policies that attempt to achieve them.

As a young person, while I’m proud of the country that I’ve grown up in, I want to see us play a more positive role in the world. For too long, the foreign policy debate in this country has underemphasized issues of human rights and democracy in favor of narrow, “realist” principles that stress American security and American interests. In my lifetime, I hope to see this change to where policymakers don’t just pursue our own country’s interests, but also seek to be a global partner in pursuit of a much more ambitious vision of what the world could be.

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  • domajot

    I’m somewhete between Michael and Jeb.

    I think democracey should be promoted, but the arrival of sudden democracy should be avoided.

    To American colonists, the tactics of democracy (putting restraints on rulers) were already familiar from events in English history, such as the Magna Carta. The French didn’t heed the lessons pf a long step-by-step approach .and experienced bloody revolutions as a result.

    The danger lies in the suddenness of democracy, as it unleashes all the pent up misery and resentment of long subjugation- all in one fell swoop. That’s too heady a brew in many instances and it’s poor preparation for the responsibility of governance, instead of just seeking revenge.

    I would argue for a tranition to democracy, rather than immediate democracy. The ultimate goal should not be subject to Western enlightenment, benchmarks (although we should encourage their learning from it).
    Maintaing stability during the transition period would be of primary importance. Instability produces a series of backlash swings, and exposes the population to violent means of resolving differences.

    The first step is to curtail the absoluteness of power in monarchies and dictatorships. An independent judicial system would be a good place to start. Another avenue would be the empowerment of regional councils to govern over their own in a ausbstantial way.

    My proposal is to promote transition to democracy, with no preset dicta as to what it should look like) rather than promitng total democracy immediately.

    BWT, doubts about the uneducated smell too much like poll tases in the USA to exclude blacks.
    Besides, uneducated is not the same as unintelligent.

  • Domajot – Thanks for your comment. I largely agree with your argument. I’m not suggesting that the US should push for fast transitions to democracy. This has to be a slow, steady process with the ultimate goal often many years down the line.

  • StockBoySF

    In a democracy people should be allowed to vote and other coutries should not meddle because they may not like the outcome of an election. The citizens in a democracy have the right to choose whoever they want (and make their own mistakes).

    I do think the US should promote democracy (and liberty, justice and all the other values we hold dear) around the world but this can’t happen overnight and most countries will take decades to develop along these lines.

    During the process of developing into a democracy there will be set-backs. And even once a democracy is established there will be set-backs (just look at the US under Bush- he has taken us backwards) so it’s important that democracies have the checks and balances to reign in… shall I say “overly enthusiastic” presidents.

    I believe the essential first step towards democracy involves education. I believe that educated people generally support democracies (and many of America’s values) than non-educated people. Certainly religion plays a huge role in values, but I think all of the major religions in the world generally call for respect, compassion and understanding of others. The problem is the way most people are told how to practice their religion- the uneducated masses will follow their religious leader’s views and treat his word as sacrosanct with no capacity to think independently.

    The best example is how the terrorists twist Islam to attract their uneducated followers. One way to combat terrorism is to encourage people not to join and 95% of that effort is to give them tools (in other words educate them) so they can question the propaganda they are being told. Of course there are exceptions and what drives someone to become a terrorist is complicated. But I think if the Middle East (and other countries) had more educated populations then the terrorist threat wouldn’t be what it is today.

    So I think it is in America’s interests to promote education, spread our values (we can start by setting a good example) and not meddle in other countries’ internal affairs. It is a long-term commitment and we won’t always like the process, but we can’t bomb our way into the hearts of our enemies.

  • Well argued, StockBoy.

  • StockBoySF

    Jeb: thanks!

    A clarification on language- I used the word “process” instead of “transition” because “process” has a wider definition.

    When Jeb and domajot (and if I were to use it) use the word “transition” I think of a country that has already set itself upon the path to democracy and they are in a transitory period to reach that goal.

    I deliberately used the word “process” because while I think the US’s goal should be to encourage the spread of democracy and give the population of other countries the tools which help that coutry develop into and build a democracy, I do not believe it is a foregone conclusion that any will develop into a democracy. Each country has to go through a process (and painful at times) to realize that being a democracy is the right way for them.

    As Jeb said in his original post, ‘As Winston Churchill has noted, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”’

    So I do strongly believe that educated countries will want the benefits of a democracy and that country will develop into a democracy. Unless (as Churchill suggests) a better system of government comes along to replace democracy.

    BTW: it’s an important tangent on this (and not discussed at all in the media with regards to presidential candidates). While I’m evaluating presidential candidates I look to see how they approach this very topic of spreading democracy throughout the world. I think this is an essential duty of the president. We are, after all, the last superpower in the world and if we don’t spread democracy, who will? Any candidate who does not place some importance on this is off my list. I believe this is one way of making us a stronger and safer nation.

    To begin with (and as you might guess from my other comments) I think it’s paramount that the next president be willing to expand educational programs in other countries (it would be too expensive to support education in EVERY country).

    But we can’t strong-arm other countries into becoming democracies because that just breeds resentment towards us. We need to approach the situation like a parent rasing a child: provide them with the tools and encouragement needed, but let them develop into who they are. If we as a country set a good example and show them the benefits of democracy, then chances are they’ll come along, sooner or later.

  • domajot


    I think we are, in a broad sense, in agreement.
    Currently, though, there is a problem with talking too loudly about spreading democracy. We say ‘spread demoncracy’, but the ME hears ‘war’.

    The ME has a long memory, and they come from a long history of feeling humiliation and resentment under colonialism, exploitation, and interference (like the Shah episode). So, when we give them advice, no matter how well intentioned, we must be prepared tor resistance to what might be perceived by them as a ‘we know better’ attitude and talking down to them yet once again.

    I think our first priotiry should be striving for a non-confrontational, more indirect, way of promoting
    ideas. Education is an excellent area where to start. Health care would be another.

    Some ideas go down better with a spoon full of sugar and a soft woice. in the current overheated atmosphere, I definitely advise the soft voice.

  • pacatrue

    Short comment: What domajot said.

    Long comment:
    I do think one of the biggest lessons from the Iraq debacle is to step back and think about what democracy means. We seem to have a very narrow conception of democracy, namely, if some reasonable number of citizens gets to write down who’s in charge and then that person is in charge, then, hooray! we have democracy. Technically, that’s accurate.

    However, it isn’t clear that that single mechanism always produces exactly what people really want, which might be termed, self-governance. We want to have control of our own lives and not be dictated, too, or if we are dictated to, at least we had some say in choosing who dictates. Self-governance in that sense is not just voting but is also security, a functioning independent judiciary, rights that no government can take away, and more. I’m not clear exactly what it is yet. But if we always promote voting as the single, only political goal, then people may only get voting and not self-governance. Voting in which you can never leave your room due to maurading gangs is not political freedom. (Of course, neither is a benign tyranny.)

    There also might be alternate ways to find self-governance that isn’t based on voting, though I know saying that is controversial. The importance of this is that it is looking for a way for self-governance to build upon native institutions. There may be a self-governing system based upon tribal allegiance, for instance. Or small city-states… Or perhaps even a system in which the local head is not elected but can be removed when not functioning properly. You get the idea.

    My main point in all of this talk concerning Morocco is that it might be both morally correct and practical to push for various methods of self-governance without pushing for voting with no care for what follows. It’s always best to push for things that the people you are pushing themselves want. Often the best way to really discover this is help build the local institutions which can give greater voice to those desires.

  • krit

    I think we are in a poor position to spread the ideals of democracy- as we seem to only promote it when it suits our purposes, but subvert it when the results are inconvenient. Just look at how aghast we were at the outcome of “free” elections in Palestine and Egypt, where terrorist organizations gained a foothold on legitemate governance. Our biggest trading partner is China- whose human rights record is abysmal.

    Our invasion of Iraq to “liberate” its people from Saddam has spread our reputation as imperialists and occupiers around the Arab world, who now distrust us more than ever, and has spurred recruitment of jihadists from all over the region.

    Perhaps we are just acting in our national interest to preserve our superpower status and economic prosperity. But, those goals are in conflict with the more noble and Wilsonian goals of spreading democracy, so we only come off as hypocrites.

  • Sam

    “The best example is how the terrorists twist Islam to attract their uneducated followers.”

    Thats not entirely true. Many terrorists are quite well educated, even the suicidal ones.

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