Here is one of the most fascinating debates going on among Middle Eastern intellectuals: Should Islamist parties be included in the democratic process?
Oddly, this debate has been provoked by the Iraq war, whose alleged aim was to undercut radical Islamists. Now that President Bush's Mideast focus has shifted to democracy promotion, he confronts an irony: The strongest political forces in many Arab states are religious.
Should they be let into the political game?
Thirteen years ago, when violent Algerian Islamists almost took power by the ballot, many Mideast moderates and U.S. officials recoiled at the notion. "One man, one vote, one time" was the slogan of Algerian radicals who wanted to use elections to achieve an Islamic state. Washington backed the Algerian military's cancellation of the election.
Today, that thinking seems to be shifting. According to Beirut Daily Star editor Rami Khouri, participants at a recent U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, did not debate whether Islamist groups should participate in elections, "but how they can do so in a manner that is acceptable to all concerned."
More intriguing, the Bush administration also is revising its thinking on the political role of Islamists. It labels Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories as terrorist organizations. Yet both deliver social services to their publics and are likely to do well in coming elections.
President Bush suggested that if Hezbollah laid down its arms, it could be accepted as a political organization.
"Maybe some will run for office and say, 'Vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America,"' Bush said. "But I don't think so. I think people who generally run for office say, 'Vote for me, I'm looking forward to fixing your potholes."'
Let's call this the pothole theory of Mideastern politics -- get the Islamists into the game and they will learn to play by democratic rules, lay down arms, and focus on pleasing their voters. Is it safe to apply the pothole theory to the region as a rule of thumb?
One compelling test is going on right now in Iraq.
U.S. officials were surprised to find that the strongest social and political forces in Iraq were religious. In January elections, a list endorsed by the leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the winner. The list included the two major Shiite Muslim political parties, al-Da'awa and SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). Both had at one time called for a state governed by religious law.
The man who is set to become Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, the leader of al-Da'awa, insisted in a January interview that his list had no desire to create an Islamic government like that in Iran. "Not all Iraqis are Shia and not all Shia are Islamists and not all Islamists believe in velayet e faqih," or rule of the supreme cleric, he said. "Our society doesn't want this."
But -- beyond mere words -- there are concrete factors in Iraq that help ensure that religious parties will play by democratic rules:
Iraq's religious parties are not jihadi parties that pursue armed struggle against impure Muslim regimes or the West. They want to play a role in Iraq's national system, not to reconstruct an Islamic empire.
SCIRI and al-Da'awa have signed on to a set of democratic precepts agreed to by all political parties. U.S. and Iraqi lawyers drew up the transitional administrative law that will govern Iraq until Iraqis themselves hammer out a new constitution. Religious parties aren't strong enough to dictate all of the constitution's terms.
Should some religious politicos still dream of theocracy, Iraq has enforcers to keep them in line until democratic norms take hold. In the background, U.S. influence is still potent -- although Americans can't control the process or stay forever. In the foreground is Ayatollah Sistani, a visionary who understands the need for consensus among all Iraqis.
Iraq has other political parties and organizations that can offset religious parties -- notably the secular Kurdish parties. If religious groups push too hard to roll back women's rights, these parties will push back.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.