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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.