Bryan Caplan  

What Does the Median Muslim Voter Want?

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Education as a Positional Good... Who Hates Muslims the Most?...

I'm one of the staunchest defenders of descriptive accuracy of the Median Voter Model, and one of the harshest critics of the median voter. Democracy gives the people what they want, but what they want is based on systematically mistaken beliefs about how the world works - or so I argue here and here. When people talking about democratizing the Muslim world, then, I naturally start wondering about what the median Muslim voter wants. Hence my interest in the latest publication of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, "Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics."

The democratic optimists will probably highlight the fact that most citizens of Muslim countries believe democracy can work there:

As in past Global Attitudes surveys, publics in predominantly Muslim countries believe that democracy can work in their countries. Large and growing majorities in Morocco (83%), Lebanon (83%), Jordan (80%) and Indonesia (77%) – as well as pluralities in Turkey (48%) and Pakistan (43%) – say democracy can work well and is not just for the West.

So at least Muslim democracy passes the self-referential test - the median voter probably won't vote to abolish democracy. But there is much more to worry about:

  • Support for bin Laden is falling, but remains high:
    In Morocco, just 26% of the public now say they have a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, down sharply from 49% in May 2003. In Indonesia, the public is now about evenly split, with 35% saying they place at least some confidence in bin Laden and 37% saying they have little or none; that represents a major shift since 2003, when 58% expressed confidence in bin Laden.

    In Pakistan, however, a narrow majority (51%) places some measure of confidence in bin Laden, a slight increase from 45% in 2003. And in Jordan, support for the Al Qaeda leader has risen over the last two years from 55% to a current 60%, including 25% who say they have a lot of confidence in him.

  • Large minorities support suicide attacks against civilians in defense of Islam:

    In Indonesia only 15% now see terrorism as justified at least sometimes, down from 27% in summer 2002. In Pakistan, 25% now take that view, also a substantial decline from the 41% level to which support had risen in March 2004, while in Morocco support has fallen dramatically, from 40% to 13% over the last year.

    In Lebanon, nearly four-in-ten Muslims (Christians and other religious groups were not asked this question) still regard acts of terrorism as often or sometimes justified, including 26% who see such acts as often justified. However, this is a sharp decline from 2002 when 73% thought these acts were often or sometimes justified...

    Only in Jordan does a majority (57%) now say that suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians are sometimes or often justified and, unlike in other Muslim countries, that support has increased from 43% in 2002...

  • Anti-Semitism is amazingly popular:

    Anti-Jewish sentiment is endemic in the Muslim world. In Lebanon, all Muslims and 99% of Christians say they have a very unfavorable view of Jews. Similarly, 99% of Jordanians have a very unfavorable view of Jews. Large majorities of Moroccans, Indonesians, Pakistanis and six-in-ten Turks also view Jews unfavorably.

    So what does the median Muslim voter want? It obviously varies from country to country, but overall it looks like a politician who wanted to win elections in the Muslim world would be, if not pro-terrorist, at least anti-anti-terrorist. It's a little harder to figure out the practical importance of the extreme anti-Semitism. If these countries contained significant numbers of Jews, democracy would almost certainly approve their expulsion or worse. As things stand, we can expect strong opposition to normal trading or diplomatic relations with Israel, and countries adjacent to Israel might opt for war.

    The main hope for Muslim democracy is the fact that, as in other democracies, the median Muslim voter would hate the consequences of his own policies. Imagine a populist got elected on a platform of solidarity with bin Laden and war with Israel. If he followed through, his supporters would be angry about their country's humiliating military defeat and possible occupation. If he balked, his supporters would be angry about his hypocrisy. A politician who wanted to be re-elected would therefore have an incentive to offer policies more moderate than the median Muslim voter actually favors. Would they be moderate enough to avoid disaster? I don't know, and I doubt anyone else does either.


  • Comments and Sharing





    COMMENTS (8 to date)
    mark johnson writes:

    51% of Americans favor Bush.

    Bush is responsible for easily ten times the amount of dead civilians and possibly 100 times. All civilians killed in pursuing political goals. None of the civilians killed in Bush's pursuit of political goals are the result of terrorism because Bush gets to define terrorism. Even civilians killed in operations with the express and named purpose of "shocking", which is to say terrorizing, civilians are not terrorism.

    So we are now in a world where raw might makes right. Hiding that situation behind the facade of a moral order invented by The Great Caplan where He has decreed that Bin Laden is objectively worse than Bush is hypocritical.

    But if denying democracy to muslims is justifiable because muslims disagree with you, then why not deny democracy to liberals? What if voting by non-liberatarians could lead to "disaster"?

    Now to anti-Semitism:

    I doubt Arabs are more anti-Semitic than Southern Africans were anti-Afrikaner in 1980, or than Vietnamese were anti-French in 1955. There is a pretty obvious and strong engine of anti-Semitism in Israel and the fact that it was formed by driving hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homes, and those Muslims cannot return to their country because for them to return would upset the ethnic balance of Israel, in other words they cannot return because they are members of the wrong ethnic group.

    A fair measurement of Arab anti-Jewish sentiment cannot be reached until we have a post-Zionist world. In the pre-Zionist world, Arabs were probably the least anti-Semitic people on earth.

    On the other hand, the idea that since Muslims disagree with you, allowing them to be democratically ruled would be a "disaster" betrays a pro-Jewish bigotry on your part that is less excusable.

    mark johnson writes:

    One other thing. The United States from 1950 through 1990 was not able to defeat Russia militarily.

    The United States citizens, strongly anti-Soviet, elected leaders who did not take the US to a war the US would not win, but did elect leaders who would not cooperate with Russia, who would do whatever was within their power to ensure that the US was capable of defending itself and took every action possible to create as favorable a security situation with respect to Russia as they could.

    The idea that anti-Israel elected leaders of Arab countries could only cooperate with Israel to the degree that Jordan or Egypt do or they would have to immediately go to war is false and silly.

    Roger McKinney writes:

    I don't think there is any reason to worry about democracy in the Arab world. Except for Lebanon, where the Christian population introduced democracy and the Muslims have been trying to ruin it, and Indonesia, no other Muslim country will introduce democracy unless we cram it down their throats as we did in Iraq.

    Paul N writes:

    I just want to post on behalf of all the non-crazy people that read this blog, since all of the comments on this post so far have been by crazy people.

    Roger McKinney writes:

    What was crazy about my post?

    spencer writes:

    I am not trying to be difficult, but what in the world does having confidence in Ben Laden mean?

    daveg writes:

    Yes, if you are going to go to the trouble to post a comment you might as well specify what exactly were the crazy statements made herein.

    another bob writes:

    One wonders, what has caused muslim popular support to apparently move away from bin Laden?

    In conflict situations, governments often say something like, 'We are not at war with XYZ people, only with their evil and unrepresentative sovereign'. In this way 'war' becomes 'rescue'.

    As Bryan's post shows 'the people' are the sovereign, not just under conditions of democracy but mostly in all conditions. Individual rulers, despots and democratically elected presidents are highly constrained in what they can do. So, the 'rescue' paradigm is simply false. The people are the sovereign.

    As a popular press columnist once wrote, 'Is Iraq the way it is because Saddam is the way he is, or is Saddam the way he is because Iraqi's are the way they are'? Perhaps subsequent events have hinted at the answer.

    Of course, the 'rescue' paradigm is faulty. But, as Bryan points out in other posts, publics tend to find a cycle and stay in it whether it is virtuous or vicious. Hatred is a vicious cycle.

    Sometimes vicious cycles are impossible to break from within. Sometimes, a big external change in circumstances can allow for another cycle to emerge.

    So, I wonder, given the US occupation of Iraq, why has muslim public support for bin Laden's brand of politics waned?

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