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Where are the Islamists?

NEW YORK – Sometime in the 1980’s, when the communist regime in Poland was facing serious challenges from disaffected masses, the regime’s official spokesman, Jerzy Urban, remarked to a foreign journalist that there were only two choices in Poland: communism or domination by the Catholic Church. “It’s either us,” he said, “or the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.”

Similar warnings have been repeated over and over by oppressive rulers in the Middle East, not least by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: either the secular police state or the Islamists; either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. This message was persuasive enough for Western governments, especially the United States, to continue to lavish money and arms on Mubarak and other Arab “allies.”

For those who advocate the spread of democracy in the world, this has posed an awkward dilemma. Islam, many say, is a threat to democracy. The West is said to be “at war with Islam,” to quote the Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But does that mean that should we give up on democracy if Islamist parties have a chance of winning elections?

This was French policy after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of elections in Algeria in December 1991. France supported a military coup the following year. It was also the policy of the US after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006. Hamas was not recognized. The US has supported police states in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Central Asia, because the alternative is thought to be worse.