The victory of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections has elicited the question: What should be done about Hamas? The simple answer is nothing.
Hamas's victory should be a wake-up call to many. Such an impressive victory by an Islamic movement is worrisome to secular and liberal Arabs and Muslims, not to mention Christian Arabs.
While the election results can be registered as an unprecedented victory for democracy, there is room for worry when political leaders prioritize divine right above the people's rights. Palestinians have a lot to worry about insofar as the social, educational and cultural program of Hamas is concerned. Palestinians will have a hard time dealing with a government that will try to push back many of the social gains that have been won by women and civilian libertarians.
There is also reason for concern about Hamas's political charter, especially regarding Israel. But Hamas will not be able to hide its head in the sand by refusing to deal with the political realities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But these problems notwithstanding, there is no reason to become paranoid. Hamas leaders are on record as not intending to impose their social agenda against the will of the Palestinians. They have also expressed willingness to deal with Israel, although not yet clearly ceding to Israel's request for an unconditional recognition before the final borders of Israel are determined.
More significant than the positions Hamas has taken is that its participation in the political system represents a huge step toward delivering what has been missing in Palestinian politics for over 40 years: a power-sharing process.
Now that Hamas has participated and won, it will be expected to address many of the charges raised against the Fatah-led governments. The victory of Hamas was probably more of a rejection of the political monopoly of the PLO's leading guerrilla group than a statement of unreserved support for the Islamic movement.
With this victory it is important that Hamas be given a fair chance to govern, with only one condition. It must not be allowed to change the rules of the game that brought it to power. So long as the Palestinian people retain the ultimate say over whether they stay in power, Hamas will not be able to stray too far from the mandate given it and impose the parts of their ideology that go against the people's will.
HAMAS'S VICTORY is also an important test for Western powers seeking to export democratic principles to what George Bush likes to call the greater Middle East. The US, Europe and Israel, which have been democracy's evangelists, will now be tested: to which will they give preference - immediate interests or democratic principles? To be fair, both Mahmoud Abbas and the Americans must be given credit for pushing ahead with the Palestinian elections despite the risk that Hamas would win.
Threats by senior Western and Israeli leaders to cut off aid or refuse to deal with a Hamas-run Palestinian government probably contributed to Hamas's election victory. As advocates and practitioners of democracy the West should have respected Palestinians' right to act like any other people and throw out a government which they blamed for financial and political corruption and for the miserable situation Palestinians find themselves in after years of occupation and resistance.
Western powers and Israel should not overreact to the latest twist in Palestinian politics. Rather, they should cite their respect for the election results as proof that their own commitment to democracy and human rights is solid.
The sooner America and its allies embrace these results, the sooner the peoples of the Middle East will follow suit and push out their own dictatorial regimes. As a supporter of democracy the West should embrace, not fear, such an eventuality.
The real allies of America and Europe should be the people of the region, and not the corrupt regimes that lord over them. Ultimately, this is the challenge of democracy.
The writer is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.
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