My last column, on the strangely renewable appeal of political Islam, provoked some strong reactions from both extremes of the ideological spectrum.

Some correspondents urged me to reconsider -- even embrace -- Islam as the most superior way of life, one that holds answers to all problems of individual and collective existence. Others accused me of endorsing the ideology of Islamism that legitimizes such inhumane punishments as cutting off limbs and stoning women to death.

Admittedly, much intellectual confusion -- and mischief -- is caused by an elastic concept like Islamism, which can be stretched to accommodate the mass-murderer Ayman Al-Zawahiri as well as the Tunisian leader and modernist thinker Rashid Ghannouchi. As it turns out, fast-moving events in the Arab world illustrate what I was trying to say better than any intellectual abstraction.

Since I wrote, voters in Morocco have given the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party more than one-quarter of the parliamentary seats for which elections were held, making it the largest bloc. Egyptians, turning out in large numbers to exercise their long-denied franchise, also seem likely to empower Islamist parties. Libyans as well.

Visionary Individuals

This is the most extraordinary political phenomenon yet in the new century. My interest in it derives from a belief that every new generation of men and women possesses the power to open up fresh possibilities of political thinking and action -- what Hannah Arendt often called “natality.” As Arendt saw it, this ever-renewed promise of politics was best realized by visionary individuals and groups -- such as America’s Founding Fathers or India’s Mahatma Gandhi -- who can creatively interpret the particular historical situations they are thrown into.

Nearly a century ago, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk seemed to be that far-reaching individual in the Muslim world, hectically making over his country in the image of the West. His attempts at large-scale secularization -- which essentially created a small, authoritarian elite -- were imitated by many Muslim leaders. It is safe to say now that this political and cultural experiment failed, that some selective borrowing from Western modernity could not relegate Islam to the private sphere.

Even before the Arab Spring, many Muslim countries had made new ideological and political beginnings with leaders from non-secular and non-elite backgrounds. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of one of the world’s biggest Islamic organizations, indispensably helped his country’s transition from a dictatorship to representative government.

In the same decade and a half, Turkey also witnessed the political empowering of many of its previously underrepresented people through the work of the Islamists in the Justice and Development Party.

Still, the fact that Arab countries such as Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia that have had ostensibly secular regimes now seem to offer a new base for “Islamism” will no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the West.

At least some of this fear and bewilderment is due to old, persisting misperceptions -- and a bit of narcissism. The suave, English-speaking Cairo residents who fronted the Egyptian revolution to Western television viewers may have made it seem like their own handiwork, with a little help from Facebook and Twitter. But they were never representative of the Egyptian population or the religiously conservative working classes that really tipped the balance against Hosni Mubarak.

Laptop Warriors

Furthermore, the ideological oppositions that arouse many laptop warriors in the West -- liberal democracy versus Islamism, secularism versus theocracy -- bleach out the mundane but more significant social and economic factors behind the Arab Spring: For instance, the fact that welfare-statism in Tunisia followed by a globalized and apparently successful economy produced a latent middle class whose high expectations, fueled by the entertainment media, turned out to be impossible to fulfill.

A socioeconomic analysis would reveal how a mass of aspirers first came to be denied the highest fruits of capitalist modernity, and were then pressed down to the ranks of permanent losers. A historical account of secular Arab despotisms would also show why and how they destroyed the semblance of civil society previously maintained by clergy and other Islam-minded social and political organizations.

It may be comforting for some Westerners to think of middle-class Tunisians and Moroccans holding -- like their counterparts in Greece, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. -- study sessions on Galbraith, Keynes and Marx in tented “People’s Universities.” But it seems more natural that Arabs should turn to belief systems and political organizations still standing in the ruins of the ancien regimes, whose promise of social justice has become more attractive than ever.

These may seem menacingly “Islamist” in Western eyes. But it is more useful to think of present and future election results in Muslim countries as expressing a strong desire for accountable governments that guarantee civil rights and a degree of egalitarianism. That such desires are outlined by an old ideal held by a moral community of believers should not be so surprising.

Even in Iran, which has suffered greatly from hard-line Islamists, reform movements uphold Islamic principles. Following the efforts of the country’s former president Mohammad Khatami, the Green Movement has struggled to attain liberal freedoms within an overall Islamic polity. While thwarted by a brutal and increasingly reckless regime in Tehran, this endeavor will now be undertaken in Arab countries, where devout Muslims deftly using a vocabulary of social and political rights are all set to assume state power.

Potential Tyrannies

It is possible, of course, that their experiment of reconciling Islamic principles with modern statecraft and globalized economies will fail. It may even result in religious tyrannies and the exodus of secular and liberal elites.

As Ebrahim Yazdi, one of the leaders of Iran’s Green Movement, put it in an open letter to Ghannouchi last week, there is reason to be “seriously concerned about the long range outcome.” He continued: “Our people, Muslims of every nation, struggle for the restoration of their basic rights, liberty, and sovereignty. But we do not have sufficient experience with democracy … We fight and overthrow dictators, but not dictatorship itself.”

Yazdi prescribed some ways of avoiding “the mistakes we have made in Iran, or those of our brothers in Algeria and elsewhere.” These included a “recognition and celebration of the diversity of human society and pluralism” and the spirit of tolerance and compromise.

These are admirable ideals. We will see whether and how the new Islam-minded rulers of the Arab world will enshrine them in legal and political institutions -- as opposed to declaring that the Shariah law contains all that you need.

It is not even clear whether they realize that, as Yazdi puts it, “elections are valued instruments, but are not by themselves democracy.” In any case, unlike with Ataturk long ago, this time the whole world is watching to see whether the promise of political natality in the Muslim world can be realized.

(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra in London at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.