No one knows what will happen in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. But history paints a hopeful picture of how things might go if democratic elections are allowed.

Sociologist Charles Kurzman and grad student Ijlal Naqvi studied eighty-six elections over the past forty years in twenty countries where at least one Islamic party was allowed to partake. “Voters in these places have overwhelmingly turned up their noses at such parties,” Kurzman says. Most Islamic parties earned less than 10 percent of the vote. Eighty percent of the Islamic parties got less than 20 percent of the vote. These percentages have barely changed since 2001.

Islamic parties won elections in Algeria in 1991 and the Palestinian territories in 2006. But Kurzman says those are exceptions. “The freer and fairer an election is, the worse the Islamic parties do,” he says. That has helped soften party platforms. In countries where more parties are allowed to partake, Islamic parties focus more on women’s rights and democracy and less on Sharia and armed jihad. For instance, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front no longer include Sharia in their platforms. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has eschewed violence and condemned the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Kurzman says that the most radical Islamists don’t believe in democracy. Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri has criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for abandoning revolutionary ideology in favor of electoral politics. In Iraq, Islamic revolutionaries have called for the assassination of anyone who participates in the political process.

“Despite threats from terrorists, more and more Islamic parties are entering the electoral process,” Kurzman says. But voters still aren’t buying what they’re selling.

Charles Kurzman is a professor and Ijlal Naqvi is a graduate student, both in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.