For the first time in Middle East history, a radical Islamic terrorist organization, the Moslem Brotherhood (through its Palestinian surrogate Hamas) has been brought to power through the ballot. Hamas won a clear majority in the January 25th Palestinian parliamentary elections, capturing 57.5% of the vote and snaring 77 of the 132 seats. Poised to form the next Palestinian government, the question becomes whether Palestine will now become a Sunni version of Iran. It is no longer a matter of whether Europe, the U.S., or Israel should talk to Hamas, but whether there is anything more to talk about.

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Unfortunately, by acquiescing in the participation and subsequent election of an armed terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel, the U.S. has now opened a dangerous floodgate in the Middle East, and Israel now faces a Palestinian government that will take its orders directly from Damascus, Tehran, Qatar and Cairo. This time, when the suicide bombs start going off again in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the address for retribution be the office of the Palestinian prime minister. Even now, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is demanding “true democracy” from the Jordanian monarch in order to win in elections there and is threatening a popular uprising if the government continues to ignore “the will of the people.” I doubt that this is what the Americans and Europeans had in mind when they demanded democracy from the Palestinian Authority. But Hamas is what they got.

The democratic election of Hamas encapsulates a naive idealism within the Bush administration that suggests that radical Islamic regimes can be moderated if exposed to democratic processes. Not only is there no historical precedent for such a theory, but if this theory is allowed to proliferate throughout the region, it will sound the death knell for real democratic change in the Arab world for generations to come. There is absolutely no basis to conclude that a group that calls for genocide against Jews, extols the virtues of terrorism, and demands Islamic observance from all Palestinians, can somehow be moderated.

To understand the implications of the Hamas victory, consider an interview published in the Wall Street Journal last December, when Bethlehem city councilor and local Hamas leader Hassan El-Masalmeh advocated a special tax on non-Muslim residents in their future Islamic Palestinian state. The tax, known as al-jeziya, is required by the Koran for d’himmis – a legalized second-class status conferred on all non-Muslims living under Islamic rule (specifically, though not exclusively, Jews and Christians). “We in Hamas intend to implement this tax someday. We say it openly and we welcome everyone to Palestine, but only if they agree to live under our rules.”

The U.S. administration seems to have forgotten that radical Islamic groups (like the mullahs in Tehran) and even secular dictatorships like Egypt once elected, have shown that they can expertly manipulate the language and forms of democracy without ever altering their anti-democratic agendas. They are keenly aware that the rules and processes of democracy can be shamelessly exploited for their own nefarious purposes. Hamas’s retention of an international public relations firm to “moderate it’s image” may fool the world, but it will not change the nature of the beast. It will lie about its ultimate aim in the months ahead and assure the world that whatever it may have said before its election, the situation has now changed. Only fools will believe it. Nevertheless, Washington is preparing to repeat its failed policies of the past. The U.S. is exhorting PA President Mahmoud Abbas not to resign – a move that would enable Hamas to receive the international aid it so desperately seeks yet permit it to carry out terror attacks against Israelis using Abbas as its shield.

More disturbing is the fact that almost 60% of the Palestinian electorate voted for Hamas knowing that it was bringing an Islamic regime to power. Perhaps this should not have come as such a surprise. Outside observers have pointed to the rising Islamic lifestyle of Palestinian Arabs reflected in increasing mosque attendance and the growing numbers of veiled women in Palestinian society. As David Horowitz aptly writes in FrontPageMagazine: “With this vote in record numbers, the Palestinian people have joined en masse the Axis of Evil. The Palestinians are the first people in the history of humanity to embrace terror and genocide as a way of life. Palestinian schools train kindergartners and first graders to aspire to murder innocent Jews by blowing themselves up alongside them. At the core of this sickness is a hatred for the West and Israel for the crimes of being successful, democratic, and tolerant.”

More than anything else, the election of Hamas reflects the culture of a society that has neither a democratic tradition nor any real understanding of how a democracy should function. For the past two years, America has pursued the idea that democracy is the answer to Islamic terrorism. Now the Palestinian people have spoken clearly – and they have voted for Islamic terrorists. If this is how the Bush administration intends to pursue its “democratization policy” in the Arab world, a fundamental reconsideration of that policy is necessary.

That is because democracy, at its essence, is more than a political system. It is a way of life. It has always been more than just voting and elections. It requires getting used to the idea of freedom, pluralism and the free and open discussion of alternate opinions (especially those with which one disagrees) and enshrining them in the law by respecting minority rights, free speech and the belief that the legitimacy of government must be derived from the consent of the governed, rather than from the barrel of a gun.

Unlike goods and services that move freely through international trade channels, democracy is not a commodity that the U.S. can export or donate to the Arab world. It is not something that comes in a kit that can be unloaded and assembled overnight. Like liberty, it cannot be laid down like Astroturf. It is about the slow, gradual development of democratic institutions and requires a leadership that truly supports such change as well as intangible and complex bonds of individual responsibility and trust to something greater than the clan.

While there’s been a great deal of debate in Washington in recent years about “nation building” (especially in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq), the truth is that democracies are not exactly things that you “build.” They require a specific set of beliefs quite different from those required for survival under secular or theocratic dictators. For example, it has taken the West four centuries to reconcile freedom with religion. Islam has yet to undergo a Reformation. In England, what is now considered “the democratic tradition” included a march toward parliamentary government that began with the Magna Carta in the 13th century and involved centuries of civil strife, regicides and religious wars culminating in the separation of church and state, and the creation of an educated, free-thinking, secular middle class. In the end, a stable, progressive system of human governance was born.

Without such an understanding of the give-and-take processes of democracy, it can be expected that a Hamas government will have little or no incentive to disarm or to diminish its hatred of Israel or to adopt anything resembling democratic practices for the Palestinian people. What can be expected is that once Hamas has taken control of the Palestinian Authority (with or without Abbas as a figurehead), Western financial aid will begin flowing through Hamas ministries to Hamas “charities” that operate as fronts for terrorism. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already launched the first appeasement salvo stating: “The Russian Foreign Ministry has never regarded Hamas as a terrorist organization” and the U.S. and Israel are demanding that an unrepentant terrorist organization recognize Israel and all will be right again.

The tragedy in all this is that the Bush Administration has grossly underestimated the difficulty in converting Arab societies into functioning democracies. It is not that the President is wrong in his long-term quest to extend the benefits of democracy to the Arab world (after all, there’s never been a famine in any democracy), but democratic traditions are not born overnight; they evolve over years, generations, and in our case, centuries, but in all cases, they require a leadership that genuinely promotes democratic change. Hamas is not and cannot be that organization.

By raising expectations that the conversion from tribal societies steeped in Islamic traditions to democratic ones would be easy, the Administration is running the risk of eroding a democratic future for such societies that are more inclined to “one man, one, vote, one time” than to a pluralistic democratic system. The Bush administration is now discovering what it should have known all along – that both secular Arab dictators and Islamic theocrats will instinctively use the trappings of democracy to undermine any real effort to foster democratic change from within.

It is wrong to equate the “free expression of the will of the people” with real democracy in societies that have no understanding of it, for we have already witnessed the results in the Palestinian elections. In the end, regimes such as Hamas must be forced by international isolation and by political and economic sanctions to disarm, recognize Israel, and open their societies to genuine democratic change, but that will only come about if and when the very survival of their regime hangs in the balance. These Islamists must be forced to choose between democracy and terrorism; between their ideology and their responsibilities to their people and to the international community – and they must do so transparently for the world to see. To settle for anything less guarantees disaster for the future of the Palestinians as well as our own.

If the Western powers can bury their jealousies, their rivalries and their differences long enough to unite on these common issues, the goal of democratizing the Arab world becomes achievable. Without such unity of purpose, however, the Arab world will descend further into the Islamic abyss and the “war of civilizations” they so desperately seek will become a reality.