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.