Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How to Encourage Democracy Without Religious Extremists Getting Elected

Recent events in Mauritania have brought to light a problem of emerging democracies that has been bothering me for a few years.

- Value #1: democracy is good and should be encouraged in developing nations.

- Value #2: religious extremism is bad. National rule by religious extremists is really bad.

- Fact: When given the chance to vote democratically, religious populations often vote in religious extremists.

...most famously, in Palestine, when people voted in Hamas in 2006. The same thing has happened more gradually in Turkey, a bastion of secularism in the Middle East (which should be teaching Americans a few lessons in how to show support for democracy). And even though in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is nominally outlawed, people still vote for them in droves. You can guess what would happen if they could operate in full daylight. An election is always better than a coup, but I would be
dishonest if I didn't say my civic outrage is temperated by the fact that prior to the coup the Mauritanian president was forging ties with Islamic hardliners. A stable, transparent government in Mauritania is critical now, as China builds trade ties and infrastructure to get at Africa's resources, including a planned railway from Nouakchott to Sudan.

The U.S. grappled for decades with the same problem in Latin America, except instead of religious extremists, people were voting in ideological (leftist) extremists. Same problem, and in some cases still quite current. Guess who's president of Nicaragua again (although this time legitimately elected), and guess who he's endorsing in the US presidential race.

In democracies, people get the government they deserve. Karl Popper said that absolute tolerance must necessarily fail; that to ensure the persistence of freedom, open societies cannot tolerate intolerant elements. How does this apply outside the open society's borders? I don't know what the solution is, which is exactly why I'm posting this and looking forward to comments.

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