By Tal Axelrod

WASHINGTON – The path of Islamist movements in the Middle East have influenced recent geopolitical shifts, with moderates being squeezed out by more radical figures, experts said Wednesday.

Wilson Center scholar Robin Wright said that Islamist movements dating from the 1979 Iranian revolution to the rise of ISIS have shaped the recent history of the Middle East. During a panel discussion at the international affairs think tank, Wright said some Islamists struggle to find their place in the political system.

The Associated Press defines “Islamist” as, “an advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed in Islam.”

Under the umbrella of “Islamist” lie many different entities. Some Islamist parties are willing to work with secular bodies in a government. Others try to establish one-party rule with their organization in control. Some jihadist groups, such as al-Qaida and the Taliban, call themselves Islamist bodies.

“We need to understand that there are Islamists who want and are willing now to be part of the democratic process. They have crossed an important threshold,” said Wright, author “The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are.” “They are prepared to co-exist with other secular parties, multiple secular parties.”

Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit that promotes democracy abroad, argued that recent developments in Yemen can be seen as a microcosm of the danger sweeping the region.

Shia Houthi rebels recently ousted the U.S.-supported president in Yemen. In the Gulf country, immediately south of Saudi Arabia, more moderate Islamist groups are being squeezed out in a battle between government figures and non-state actors such as al-Qaida and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

“If the situation in the region becomes a choice between Islamic extremists of various flavors, violent ones, or strongmen of any kind of flavor, and there’s nothing in the middle, particularly not these state-oriented, participatory, moderate Islamist parties…the story ends in further violence and revolutions and upheavals,” Campbell said. “I’m afraid that’s where this [Yemen] is going.”

Chaos can easily sweep through porous borders that were arbitrarily created by the British and French in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. George Washington University Professor Nathan Brown said that violence in one country could easily seep into others and cause a larger, regional problem.

The best way of handling this dangerous phenomenon has eluded the U.S. thus far. Brown argued that the U.S. government has adopted a series of short-term strategies to deal with long-term problems in the Middle East.

“The immediate, short-term concerns here would be preserving bi-lateral relations with an awful lot of these governments that are part of the problem,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy response. I think we will pay for it in the long run.”

The issue of U.S. policy in the Middle East is particularly important in light ISIS’ rise in Iraq and Syria and Obama’s request to Congress for use of force authorization.

However, Brown sees a shift away from the “overreach” in many Middle East policies toward a more scaled back commitment to the region.

“I don’t think an American government will try occupation or invasion any time soon,” he said.