WASHINGTON At a time of heightened tensions and sensitivities, it is easy to overlook the thousands of women and men in the Muslim and Arab world who are struggling daily in very unfavorable circumstances to foster democratic processes and instill a sense of citizenship in their societies.
These brave civil society activists and reformers are engaged in grass-roots initiatives such as raising awareness of human rights among Algerian youth, providing legal aid and voter education to poor Pakistani women and mobilizing rural villagers in Iran as actors in their own development.
From Indonesia to Morocco, similar initiatives abound, ranging from promoting civic education to supporting the rule of law, freedom of expression, good governance and participation.
Where the Muslim and Arab worlds are concerned, successive U.S. administrations have given precedence to short-term interests rather than long-term stability - a strategy that has proven illusory. They have neglected the reformers and activists with whom they share the same values, freedom and democracy - professed U.S. foreign policy goals.
In fact, many have been skeptical about the prospects for democracy in those regions, mistakenly equating democracy with unequivocal support for the United States and its policies. But sharing the same values need not necessarily translate into blind support for all U.S. policies in that part of the world.
As Muslims and as democrats, these activists and reformers are committed to resolving such differences of opinion through dialogue, peaceful means and mutual respect. More important, they are uncompromising in their opposition to the kind of terrorism that has just been witnessed.
In trying to build and maintain alliances in the Muslim and Arab worlds, it is important not to provoke a crackdown on those very people who are forces for positive and peaceful change. Often branded as "opposition," these reformers and democrats could well become victims in the fight against terrorism.
Encouraging a more open environment and fostering the growth of more outlets of expression, including freer media, would serve the interests of all democrats.
Moreover, it would create healthy competition reflecting different viewpoints, and prevent a monopoly on "the truth."
With more democracy in those regions and a stronger voice for advocates of democracy, popular frustrations are less likely to be misdirected, and the resort to violence and terror reduced, particularly among an increasingly disaffected and vulnerable young population.
Regardless of where world democracies see their immediate interest, democratically minded people in the Muslim and Arab worlds should not be overlooked. Engaging them in a dialogue, listening to their views and addressing their concerns would enrich policy options and demonstrate a commitment to the democratic development of these societies. In a hostile environment and amid well-funded radical elements, these democrats and reformers constitute the only hope for positive internal change and a peaceful future.
Their commitment to democracy and freedom will not waver, with or without the support of world democracies. Without support their road will be more arduous and their lives endangered, but the commitment to democracy and freedom remains the only beacon against darkness, fear and the vicious circle of oppression and terror.
The writers have worked in the past through the National Endowment for Democracy with democracy advocates in the Muslim and Arab worlds. They contributed this comment to The Washington Post.