There has been a sudden burst of activity in American political research centres. The American Enterprise Institute recently sponsored a conference on democracy in the Arab world to which were invited representatives of liberal trends in the region in order to discuss what role they could play in political transformations occurring in their countries and how they could best ensure Western support of their efforts. Its title exhorted Arab dissidents to "speak up!" Soon afterwards, the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Studies hosted a workshop on the future of Arab liberalism in light of the electoral successes of Islamist forces in 2005, in the parliamentary elections in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. Other institutes working for the spread of democracy, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, also held similar forums, attended by White House and State Department officials. A grim foreboding at the growing influence of fundamentalist forces and the simultaneous fragility of liberal forces dominated discussions.

Concern for Arab liberals, at both the official and non- official levels in the US, is nothing new. However, this concern has taken on a desperate edge, as though all this activity were a last ditch attempt to support a political alternative that ballot boxes in the Arab world have proved too fragile to sustain. Numerous factors contribute to this misreading of current political trends in the Arab world. For one, Arab liberals and their Western counterparts speak the same language; they use the same terms and concepts and essentially share the same secularist outlook on such issues as democratic transformation, human rights, the empowerment of women and minority rights.

Islamist forces, on the other hand, tend to heavily pepper their discussions of these issues with religious terms and references and to insist that democracy has to conform with certain religious principles such as the application of Islamic law. The ambiguity of such notions as "Islamic democracy" and the "Islamic frame of reference" ( marjaaiya ) and the general theological tenor of the rhetoric has set off alarm bells in the West over the rising influence of Islamist forces, which, in all their diversity, remain nevertheless lumped together as an anti-democratic faction that plans to exploit democratic processes in order to come to power and seize control.

Islamist forces' declared positions towards Israel -- echoing Iranian President Ahmadinejad's refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the Jewish state -- also raises hackles in the West. In the US, in particular, the anti- Israeli rhetoric of some Islamist forces has intensified consternation at the growing influence of these forces; a feeling that is particularly strong among those who gauge progress in democratic transformation in the Arab world by the standard of guarantees for the security of the state of Israel.

Certainly, too, there is a sense that Arab ruling regimes have marginalised Arab liberals while allowing Islamists unlimited scope to intensify their presence in vital social activities, such as education, the media and community work.

The elections that took place in 2005 were a tragic reflection of this structural injustice, in the opinion of those who believe that Washington should take the hands of Arab liberals until they can stand on their own feet, even if that means advocating certain policies that would exclude Islamists from the political process.

Finally, the current focus on Arab liberalism is a way to circumvent the strictures of the Bush administration, which has prohibited government-funded research centres from contacting Islamist forces abroad and placed numerous restrictions on their ability to contact representatives of these forces in the US. Liberal politicians and intellectuals in the Arab world, thus, are being increasingly sought out by American research centres in order to explain the Islamist phenomenon.

If America's support for those who lost the electoral wager and the snubbing of those who won contributes to the spread of a misleading image of the nature of the processes of political transformation in the Arab world, it also throws into relief a fundamental inconsistency in the American attitude towards the spread of democracy. Washington, along with its various research institutes and strategic planning centres, is still caught between two poles: on the one hand, the view that links democratisation with the restructuring of political and social realities in the Arab world; and on the other, the view that regards democracy as a mechanism that ensures the free expression of actual political balances in a society, and which must be allowed to take its own course, even if that brings into power political forces Washington is averse to. In other words, one camp of opinion maintains that the US should attempt to influence the outcome of the process of democratic transformation and the opposing camp believes that it should accept the results of the Arab ballot box and deal pragmatically with the consequences, in keeping with US interests of course.

The fact is the US has never encountered a challenge of this nature in the context of contemporary experiences in democratic transition. The collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern and Western Europe gave rise to the monopoly of liberal right-wing and conservative forces over key positions of power in most of those countries, as a result of which successive US administrations have been able to establish close cooperative relations with governments in the "New Europe". Similarly, the successes of left-wing parties in elections in Latin America since the 1990s did not present a threat to vital US interests in that region. The new Latin American left -- apart, perhaps, from the cases of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia -- is akin to the democratic socialist trend in Western Europe and the realm of differences between it and Washington has narrowed considerably. The same applies to the "orange revolutions" in Central Asia, Caucasia and the Ukraine, where friends to the US replaced authoritarian elites.

The potential effects of democratic transition in the Arab world will differ radically from those the superpower witnessed elsewhere in the world since the 1990s. It might be tempting, when contemplating Washington's reaction to the rise of Islamist forces through electoral processes in the Arab world, to point to Washington's accommodation to the rise of the Justice and Development Party to power in Turkey. However, the analogy does not stand, in view of the considerable discrepancy between the secularism of the Turkish state and the considerable overlap between the political and religious realms in most Arab countries.

Washington's apprehensions and confusion are not without grounds. However, for it to set store in weak liberal parties that have no popular base of support, or to continue to back authoritarian regimes that have no sincere desire to change, will be of little use in the long run. More favourable to American interests, if US policy- makers' concern for democratic transition is indeed sincere, is for Americans to reassess their attitude towards Islamist forces, adopting a more open-minded approach that would encourage them towards greater moderation and pragmatism. By no means, of course, does this suggest that Washington should abandon its Arab liberal friends or entirely cast aside its apprehensions of Islamist forces. Rather, it should search for a new and realistic balance in its strategy for spreading democracy in the Arab world; for without such a balance this drive will lack the necessary credibility to be effective.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.