At a conference two years ago, I sat in on a meeting between U.S. officials and young Islamist politicians from Tunisia, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East.
The Islamists wanted to know: Would the Americans allow them to run in free elections, even if it meant they might come to power? The Americans turned the question back at them: Would the Islamists, if they won, allow free and democratic elections, even if it might mean losing power?
At the time, it was mostly a theoretical discussion — but now those questions have become very real.
In Tunisia, Islamists are expected to win the largest share of parliamentary seats in the first post-uprising election.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful political faction, and it has spawned Islamist offshoots to the left and right.
And in Libya, Islamists played a major role in the revolution that toppled Moammar Kadafi and are likely to be major players in any new government.
At that conference, I sat next to the grand old man of Egypt's secular democrats, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a veteran of Cairo politics — and of Hosni Mubarak's prisons.
He favored a clear division between mosque and state, but he had no illusions.
"A lot of [the Islamists] aren't democrats at heart," he said. "But you cannot get rid of these people. You have to deal with them."
And that, in a nutshell, is the dilemma facing the U.S. and anyone else who worries that the Arab world's Islamists could turn out to be like the Muslim revolutionaries who seized control in Iran 32 years ago — authoritarian, hostile and democratic only in name.
Many of the Islamists aren't liberal pluralists at heart. They want Islam to be their countries' official religion.
They want some form of Sharia to be the basis of civil law. They don't like Israel, and they don't like U.S. policy on Israel.
All that has made many Americans identify the Islamists as an outcome to the revolutions that we can't live with.
Some members of Congress have suggested that U.S. aid to Egypt be cut off if the Muslim Brotherhood wins a majority in the country's parliament.
But there are three problems with that kind of thinking: The Islamists are a legitimate political force, they're likely to win in free elections, and they're not going away.
The new Arab democracies have Islamist parties for much the same reason that Israel has Jewish religious parties and Italy has a conservative Catholic party: Some voters want to see their religious beliefs reflected in their country's politics.
In the United States, though they don't have a separate party, many Christian conservatives might embrace that sentiment too.
The problem with Islamists, unlike those other religious politicians, is that in some places, when they have gained power, they have shut democracy down, denying secular parties a chance to compete. That's what happened in Iran. But in Turkey and Iraq, it hasn't.
And there's broader evidence that over the long run, Islamic parties aren't the threat to democracy that many believe. Two researchers at the University of North Carolina, Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi, have studied 160 elections in the Muslim world in which Islamist parties competed.
They found that Islamists tended to score highest in "breakthrough" elections, the first votes held after a revolution. But after that, secular parties tended to gain strength.
"In general, the more routine elections become, the worse Islamic parties do," they found. "In those Muslim-majority countries where elections were freest, Islamic parties performed worse."
Moreover, they found that over time Islamic parties often liberalize in order to win support from more moderate voters. That may already be happening in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has said that it believes non-Islamist groups, including Christians, should get a voice in writing a new constitution, and where the leader of one major Islamist faction has called for a new and more tolerant "Islamic liberalism."
Egypt's Ibrahim, for one, believes the practice of democracy could temper the Islamists' ideology. "The only way the Islamists can gain legitimacy is to turn into democrats," he said. "We should give them a chance."
So far, the Obama administration has taken a cautious approach toward the Islamist parties poised to win power across the Arab world. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has authorized U.S. diplomats to talk with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not on the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
But those contacts have been tentative and at a low level. The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, has said she isn't "comfortable" enough with the idea to talk with Brotherhood figures herself.
That's shortsighted because since the Brotherhood is likely to have major influence on Egypt's maintenance of its peace treaty with Israel, a core U.S. interest.
Americans won't agree with everything Islamist politicians say or do, any more than we endorse everything politicians in Russia, China and Mexico do. But the Islamists are a lasting political force whether the United States likes it or not.
If Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are to make democracy work, they're going to have to find a way to reconcile Islam and pluralism. We can help that happen by engaging more seriously with the Islamists — both by urging them to play by democratic rules and by treating them as the legitimate players they are.
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