The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A soft bigotry of lowered expectations

I have this commentary in today's Guardian (page 30) — it discusses Libya and Morocco for the most part, but the principle applies elsewhere: that both outsiders and many Arabs have set too low an expectation of the desire for democracy in the region. Here I'm not excusing real anti-democratic movements and sentiments that exist in the region (as they do even in democracies) or accuse an uncaring West, the point is more to respond to something that has been troubling me ever since the beginning of the Tunisian uprising. This is the idea that a people can be "mature" for democracy — which suggests that they can also be immature and unready for it. This idea or some variant of it, such as fear of Islamists, has been too dominant for the last few decades. Anyway, here it goes (and needless to say — as some commenters on the Guardian website suggested — I am not making a comparison by Libya and Morocco, they are incomparable. I am showing the two extremes of the contemporary Arab world, and that desire for change in both of them is legitimate.)

There is a phrase coined in 2004 by Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for George W Bush best-known for having come up with "axis of evil", that I've always liked. In a speech about education, he bemoaned "the soft bigotry of lowered expectations" that he believed existed against disadvantaged children.

For several decades, there has been a soft bigotry of lowered expectations in the west and among Arab elites about the Arab world. The prevalent thinking about this region of over 300 million souls is that it offered no fertile ground for democracy, either because democracy risked bringing political forces hostile to western interests or because democracy is not a value that has much currency in the region. Many regimes understood this, and played a double game of decrying their societies' "immaturity" while encouraging anti-democratic tendencies such as populism and, at times, a reactionary social conservatism. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, no one will buy this any more – and nor should they about two more north African countries: Libya and Morocco.

Here's the rest.