Two decades ago, a portly Tunisian with a salt-and-pepper beard sat in my Georgetown living room and tried to convince me that blending tenets from Islam and democracy could create viable governments in the Middle East. The merger was inevitable -- and good for the West too, he insisted.
"Islam embraces diversity and pluralism as well as cultural coexistence," Rachid el-Ghannouchi, a former philosophy professor and leader of Tunisia's Islamist opposition, told me.
It was a hard sell back then. Most Islamist movements -- from Egypt's Islamic Group (Gamaa Islamiyya) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to Lebanon's Hezbollah -- had a sorry, unproductive, or violent record.
Today, however, Ghannouchi actually has a chance to prove his point. In Tunisia's first free election last month -- also the first poll of the Arab Spring -- his al-Nahda party beat 100 other parties to win 40 percent of the vote and the right to lead a government.
Islam is emerging as an equally potent force as democracy in defining the new order in the Middle East. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is also expected to do well in elections this month. Libya's interim leader recently called for laws compliant with Islamic sharia, including lifting restrictions on polygamy. Movements with various Islamic flavors are part of oppositions in Syria, Yemen, and beyond.
"The Islamists are coming, the Islamists are coming!" is the new refrain across Western capitals. In some quarters, the Islamists' electoral prospects have even unleashed a bit of wistfulness for the old secular dictators. But democratic politics and piety are not necessarily contradictions, even for the nonobservant.
No question, Islamist parties are more assertive and ambitious than ever. And yes, the next decade will be far more traumatic for both insiders and outsiders than the last one, though often due more to economic challenges than Islamist politics. Pity the inheritors of the Arab world's broken political and economic systems, whoever they are.
Yet the Islamic revival has evolved significantly since the 1970s. Islamist politics entered the mainstream after Israel's rout of the Arabs in the 1973 war and Iran's 1979 revolution, which overthrew 2,500 years of dynastic rule. The 1980s witnessed the rise of extremism and mass violence, first among Shiites and later Sunnis. But in the 1990s, the trend began to shift from the bullet to the ballot -- or a combination -- with Islamist parties running within political systems, not just trying to sabotage them from the outside. And in the early 21st century, especially as militancy took growing tolls on their societies, Mideast populations began challenging both autocrats and extremism in creative new ways. The Arab uprisings, which were launched by unprecedented displays of peaceful civil disobedience in the world's most volatile region, mark a fifth phase.
Political Islam is today defined by an increasingly wide spectrum. And no one vision dominates. Indeed, the Islamists' diversity -- when the strictly observant believe in only one true path to God -- is unprecedented.
The nonviolent parties fall in three main pivots on the spectrum. At one end, the Justice and Development parties (of the same name) in Turkey and Morocco reject the Islamist label -- and recognize Israel's right to exist, a barometer of coexistence or pluralism in practice. Tunisia's al-Nahda has the potential to be a model if it follows through in forming a coalition with two secular parties and honoring women's rights.
When I met with Ghannouchi, he spoke at length about aqlanah, which translates as "realism" or "logical reasoning." Aqlanah, he told me, is dynamic and constantly evolving -- and Muslims needed to better balance sacred texts and human realities.
In the middle of the spectrum are groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has sired 86 branches across the Islamic world since the 1920s and renounced violence in the 1970s. It had 88 members of parliament during Hosni Mubarak's last government. Its positions on women and Coptic Christians in politics and Israel as a neighbor are archaic; so is the undemocratic selection of its own leadership. But those policies have also alienated its own members.