Like it or not, we're going to have to talk to Islamists

But there are three problems with that kind of thinking: The Islamists are a legitimate political force, they’re likely to win in free elections, and they’re not going away.

The new Arab democracies have Islamist parties for much the same reason that Israel has Jewish religious parties and Italy has a conservative Catholic party: Some voters want to see their religious beliefs reflected in their country’s politics. In the United States, though they don’t have a separate party, many Christian conservatives might embrace that sentiment too.

The problem with Islamists, unlike those other religious politicians, is that in some places, when they have gained power, they have shut democracy down, denying secular parties a chance to compete. That’s what happened in Iran. But in Turkey and Iraq, it hasn’t.

And there’s broader evidence that over the long run, Islamic parties aren’t the threat to democracy that many believe. Two researchers at the University of North Carolina, Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi, have studied 160 elections in the Muslim world in which Islamist parties competed. They found that Islamists tended to score highest in “breakthrough” elections, the first votes held after a revolution. But after that, secular parties tended to gain strength.