WASHINGTON — It's discussed heatedly at French dinner parties. German intellectuals have dissected its future direction. British foundations have conducted discussions on its meaning. Japanese businesses have consulted outside experts to explain it. Even the Vatican has reflected on its growing impact.
As political Islam sweeps into new territory from North Africa to Central Asia, governments globally are debating how to deal with one of the most energetic political phenomena of the 20th Century. And no place is that debate more controversial than in the West.
Indeed, not since deliberation on the West's relationship with communism after World War II has so much attention been focused at so many levels on a single foreign policy enigma.
The need for a modus vivendi--after a policy vacuum during 14 years of strained, often tumultuous relations--has intensified in part because of Islam's expanding reach. Activism is no longer limited largely to Iran, Lebanon and a Mideast extremist fringe. The issues are also no longer just national security.
In disparate ways and different degrees, political Islam has now penetrated about 75 nations with significant Muslim populations (out the 190 total nations in the world). And many of those Muslim communities are, or will be, of increasing economic, strategic and social importance.
Asia's fastest-growing stock market last year, for example, was in predominantly Muslim Malaysia. The new dividing line between Europe and Asia now runs through Russia and newly independent Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan--also Muslim. And Muslim Nigeria is expected to be the world's third most populous country by 2025.
The scrutiny is also due to recognition that relations between the West and Islam have reached a defining moment.
"It's a defining moment because Islamic groups are now significant players in mainstream society," said John L. Esposito, author of "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?"
"Politically, they're the leading opposition groups in Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. They almost came to power in Algeria, and they're the power behind Sudan's government. Socially, they're running clinics, schools, legal aid and social welfare agencies.
"For years, the West had to come to grips mainly with extremists who wanted to seize power. Now we have to deal with populist movements that have the potential to lead countries," Esposito said.
Whether appropriately or ironically, the only state to have a longstanding policy on political Islam is the Vatican.
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council declared: "As some disputes and animosity have erupted between Christians and Muslims over the centuries, the Holy Synod reminds all not to dwell on the past, to make truthful efforts for mutual understanding and to support unanimously the protection and improvement of social justice, moral values and not least peace and freedom for all mankind."
Over the intervening 30 years, most Western states have done or said little more--except in reaction to violence.
In the United States, President Jimmy Carter tried to establish a framework after Iran's revolution and the U.S. Embassy seizure in Tehran in 1979. In crisis sessions, he repeatedly told advisers: "Our problem is not with Islam. Our problem is only with Iran."
But 13 years and two presidencies passed before that approach was publicly enunciated as policy. In a speech last year, Assistant Secretary of State Edward P. Djerejian said, "The U.S. government does not view Islam as the next 'ism' confronting the West or threatening world peace." And even that much had to be cleared personally by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
But that still leaves the bigger question unanswered: How does the West deal with political Islam and its many manifestations?
Developing effective policy may be more difficult than dealing with communism, according to European and American scholars.
First, centuries of historic baggage, from the Crusades to colonialism, mean neither side starts afresh.
Second, the West's commitment to Israel's survival adds inherent tension as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict is not settled.
Third, the West had intellectual access to 19th-Century works like "Das Kapital" and the "Communist Manifesto." Policy-makers shared the same modern and Western traditions as Marx, Engels and Lenin--two Germans and a Russian. While they may not have liked socialism, at least they understood it.
In contrast, the 7th-Century Koran, which records God's word to a former nomadic merchant in the Arabian desert, is a less accessible guide for secular Western nations. Since Islam took root in an Eastern culture, even the faith's context is more difficult to comprehend. And neither is widely taught in Western schools.
But the West can't deal with Islam until it is understood, according to Helmut Schmidt, a former German chancellor and one of Europe's great intellectuals.