Austin Bay
The people of Tunisia, Arab Spring 2011's first revolutionaries, have earned their chance to struggle with one of the 21st century's most essential political, social and cultural questions: Will democracy moderate political Islamists, or will political Islamists undermine democracy?

Note I wrote "struggle," not "answer." The Tunisian people have embarked on a murky process that will take years (perhaps decades) to conclude. Exaggerated optimism as to the outcome is as foolish as exaggerated pessimism, though I am certain the threats of militant violence and sleazy, destructive corruption will haunt every passing second. Violence and corruption haunt every revolution.

The Tunisians' struggle began with confronting then toppling dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The revolutionaries demanded jobs, an end to corruption and an end to secret police oppression. When the army refused to back Ben Ali's attempts to suppress the revolt, he fled -- and left a power vacuum.

The revolutionaries promised to hold elections, and this past Sunday they fulfilled that promise. The vote was fair, but foremost it was peaceful. Ninety percent of the registered voters went to the polls, with enthusiasm.

And the Islamist Ennahda Party emerged with an impressive victory.

One need look no further than Iran and its 1979 revolution to see what happens when militant Islamists win a free and honest ballot. Iran still conducts elections; article six in its constitution mandates them. Article two, however, states that God has "exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate." The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used that article to impose a clerical dictatorship, one that would ensure a spiritual and political utopia.

The empirical result? Thirty-two years later, Iran's Islamic revolution is a clerical dystopia, a miserable and corrupt failure. Its elections are shams. Its robed dictators confront modernizing revolutionaries. On our digitally connected planet, the ayatollahs cannot hide the obvious: Sectarian oppression kills economic creativity and seeds future violence.

Turkey's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) provides a different model of governance. The AKP, which has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, adamantly claims it supports secular democracy. But before his party won a national election, the AKP's senior leader, Turkey's current prime minister, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, once opined that "democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want."

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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