Muslims cannot be dragged to an embrace of secularism and the liberal values that spring from it. They have to arrive voluntarily at this understanding.
For many on the American left and right, the “Arab Spring” has become the “Arab Winter” of triumphant fundamentalists. In Egypt, where Arab liberalism was once strong, religious parties overwhelmed secularists in recent parliamentary elections. An Islamist is now certain to be elected president, provided the military does not intervene, and a referendum that would likely down the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is probably in the future.
But Westerners should resist nostalgia and depression. Given the awfulness of post-World War II Arab lands, where even the most benign regimes had sophisticated, torture-happy security services, Islamists who braved the wrath of rulers and trenchantly critiqued the moral breakdown of their societies were going to do well in a postsecular age. What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. As counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.
The case for a separation of mosque and state has been harder to make in the Middle East because most Muslims have not been burned by internecine strife. The West has become an unrivaled liberal paragon in part because its past savagery was so intense. Westerners now instinctively compartmentalize their faith and temper its expression because their Christian forefathers killed each other zealously over religious differences.
Islam hasn’t seen the sustained barbarism that plagued European Christian and post-Christian—communist and fascist—societies. Reform-minded Muslims have usually critiqued their faith with an eye to the West, to the secrets of European power, without appreciating both the highs and lows of Occidental history… Slavery is de facto no longer permitted in Islam—even though it’s authorized by the Quran—because Muslims successfully grafted European ethics onto Islamic mores. (British warships also helped stop the trade.) Individualism, the most insidious of Western exports, has now penetrated deeply into Muslim societies…
We know that in Iran, under theocracy, once die-hard members of the revolutionary elite have become proponents of evermore liberal democracy. Fundamentalists became fundamentalist critics. The Islamic Republic’s controlled elections created a powerful appetite for real ones…
Democracy, even if vastly more limited than current Western practice, always introduces a jousting ethic into politics. Representative government puts into play the sacred and the profane. It empowers women, the Achilles’ heel of Islamic fundamentalism. In Egypt, it pits Muslim Brothers against more hard-core Salafists. Secular Muslim liberals may one day form a government. But for now, they are too culturally close to the West, and to the Westernized dictators, to carry their societies with them.
Full essay here