Nothing suggests that Arabs are inherently disposed to reject the ballot box. Nor is the practice of Islam, at least in its more malleable versions, incompatible with multiparty democracy. Here Turkey has shown the way, with a mildly Islamist ruling party accepting constitutional checks and balances, including in matters of mosque and state. Mainly Muslim Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are also seeking to entrench democratic systems. Even Iran under the ayatollahs had, before the repression of the past 18 months or so, tolerated more political competition and open debate than its Arab neighbours have.
Moreover, the spectre of Islamism—not to be confused with plain Islam—makes many observers queasy. Tunisia’s new wave so far is secular. But what if an Islamist movement, here and there in the region, rose on the crest of revolt—and took power by the ballot box? Would it allow “one person, one vote, one time”, as many secular critics predict? For too long this fear has made Western governments look the other way when secular but repressive Arab regimes, helping to swat the jihadists, have denied their people basic freedoms.