The Obama administration is preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and West Asia, acknowledging that the popular revolutions there will bring a more religious cast to the region's politics.
The administration is already taking steps to distinguish between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government. An internal assessment, ordered by White House last month, identified large ideological differences between such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al Qaeda that will guide US approach to the region.
"We shouldn't be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries," said a senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal policy deliberations. "It's the behaviour of political parties and governments that we will judge them on, not their relationship with Islam."
Islamist governments span a range of ideologies and ambitions, from the primitive brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan to Turkey's Justice and Development Party, a movement with Islamist roots that heads a largely secular political system.
None of the revolutions over the past weeks has been overtly Islamist, but there are signs that the uprisings could give way to more religious forces. An influential Yemeni cleric called this week for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be replaced with Islamist rule, and in Egypt, an Islamist theoretician has a leading role in drafting constitutional changes after President Hosni Mubarak's fall from power.
A number of other Islamist parties are deciding now how big a role to play in protests or post-revolution reforms.
Since taking office, President Obama has argued for a "new beginning" with Islam, suggesting that Islamic belief and democratic politics are not incompatible.
Now, as the Arab revolutions unfold, the White House is studying various Islamist movements, identifying ideological differences for clues to how they might govern in the short and long term.
(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)