Engaging the Islamists

The massive victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections stunned much of the world, but the outcome should not have been so surprising. Indeed, Hamas’s moment of triumph is part of a growing regional pattern.

Four years ago, Turkey’s Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party won a plurality in parliamentary elections and formed a government. A month later, a similarly named Islamic party in Morocco, Parti de la Justice et du Development (PJD), finished third in legislative elections. Last December, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (legally banned since 1954) scored equally impressive results, garnering 20% of the popular vote and 88 seats in the Parliament, making it the main opposition bloc to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite parties in Iraq have also performed well in elections.

Despite this democratic endorsement, most Western governments have been reluctant to engage with these parties or to prepare for Islamists coming to power through the ballot box. The irony is obvious: Islamists, who seem suspicious of democracy as a Western plot, took President George W. Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Muslim world more seriously than America’s autocratic friends – and possibly more seriously than Bush himself. In his first press conference after Hamas’s victory, Bush was visibly at a loss for words in responding to this “unexpected development.”

The truth is that over the last three years, some regional insiders, including me, had several lengthy discussions with Bush’s advisors on the National Security Council (NSC) and in the State Department. We urged the Bush administration to formulate a consistent policy that engages the region’s Islamists who are willing to rule by democratic principles. Some of this debate was widely publicized.