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Opinion

Political Islam is here to stay -- US must accept and adjust

With protests against regimes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, the West fears a new era of Islamic political power in the Middle East. Here are four key reasons why it shouldn't.

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No need to fear sharia law

3. Political Islam does not mean sharia law or global caliphate. When Westerners hear the word sharia, they think of Taliban-style repression. For most Muslims, however, sharia is simply a vague notion of social justice and order rooted in Islam. Such context is crucial when interpreting data about Muslim sentiment.

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For instance, a 2010 Pew survey showed that while 90 percent of Egyptians favor freedom of religion, 84 percent favor the death penalty for apostates. This apparent contradiction reveals less about political Islam than it does about the conflicting attitudes of a population that's long lived under dictatorial rule. In Turkey, where political Islam (in concrete terms) plays a larger role than it does in Egypt, only 5 percent support the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

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In any case, these viewpoints aren't central to the platforms of Islamic political parties competing for votes. Any elected political party that takes the helm of power in an Islamic country will be forced to meet the basic needs of a diverse electorate that's eager for decent living standards. In a democratic enterprise, even Islamic parties cannot impose a social or economic policy that is outside the wishes of the population. The demands of democratic governance have usually wrought a powerful moderating influence, as seen in the Islamic political parties in Iraq.

Many Westerners fear the rise of Islamic regimes, thinking they'll resemble Iran. But Turkey is the rule; Iran is the exception. In the aftermath of Iran's upheaval in the late 1970s, it was invaded by a Western and Soviet client state (Iraq), cut off from the international community, and endured an eight-year war that left up to a million casualties. This imposed crisis allowed the far right in Iran to consolidate power, marginalizing other voices. When the crisis passed, pragmatists and reformists came into power in the 1990s, mainstreaming Iran into the international community. But after 9/11, when the United States invaded two countries adjacent to Iran and often threatened regime change in Tehran, hard-liners regained power.

Turkey's democratically elected government has strong Islamic components, yet it engages in the global political economy, obeys international norms, and carries out a responsible foreign policy, primarily because it did not face the same international onslaught that Iran's government has experienced. The contrast shows the good that comes when Washington doesn't interfere – and the harm when it does.

Acceptance will aid stability

4. Acceptance and integration of Islamic political groups will aid long-term stability. Some Western policymakers might be tempted to shun Islamic parties that win power. This would be a huge mistake. Accepting and allowing governments with political Islamic components to govern freely would not only help normalize those regimes, but would also gradually promote regional stability. It is telling that the Turkish government is seen as a model for the region, from religious reformers in Iran to Pakistani political groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. A major reason for Turkey's success was the West's acceptance of its election results. Turkey today enjoys impressive and evenly dispersed economic growth, a noncorrupt ruling class, and growing diplomatic clout.

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Ultimately, the majority of Muslims are far more moderate than Western stereotypes suggest. Muslims desire the same benefits of globalization, integration, and economic prosperity that Westerners do. The revolts in recent weeks are desperate bids to reclaim the freedoms that a Western-sponsored elite has denied them.

American policy must reconcile with the fact that the old order in the Middle East is collapsing and that a new order, based on popular sovereignty, is arriving. Fearing, shunning, or punishing it will backfire. Embracing it will foster a sound basis for long-term stability and security.

Reza Sanati is a graduate fellow in the Middle East Studies Center and a PhD student in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.

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