As the first elections of the post-Arab spring unfold over the next several weeks, you will be hearing the term “moderate Islamist” over and over again. Early results from elections in Tunisia suggest that the moderate Islamist Ennahda party is going to win the largest number of seats in a new assembly that will rewrite the constitution, choose a new interim government and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections. Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who have also been described as moderate Islamists are expected to fare well in similar elections there in November. And Islamists play a growing role in Libya’s transitional council as well.
The Islamist parties insist that they have renounced violence, fully embrace democracy and will abide by the electoral process. Secular Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, as well as some western pundits, warn that the Islamist parties are a Trojan Horse. Once Islamists take power, they will refuse to relinquish it and forcibly implement conservative Islam in all three countries.
What is striking is the silence emanating from Washington and other western capitals.
“One of the shifts that hasn’t been talked about is how much more the West is willing to accept the reality of a political landscape in places like Tunisia and Egypt that will include the existence of Islamist groups,” said Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, which polls public opinion across the Middle East. “The West has realized that it isn’t up to us to decide whether they can run.”
The term Islamist usually sets off alarm bells in Washington. Islamists have long been jailed by pro-American dictators, brutally silenced and believed to inexorably promote militancy. In the wake of the Arab Spring, though, they are delving into electoral politics to an extent never seen before in the modern Middle East.