Nader Hashemi lays out some of the reasons why many analysts with experience in the Middle East aren’t so optimistic about democratization leading to secularism in the Middle East:
Westerners recoil from the thought of religion intersecting with government. Our backdrops are the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, abuses by the Catholic Church, and intense intellectual, political and social battles over religious toleration. By contrast, Muslim societies have been shaped by different experiences.
For them, religion was often not a source of conflict but a tool to limit political tyranny by forcing sultans and caliphs to recognize certain limits demarcated by religious texts and scholars, who had a virtual monopoly on legal affairs. Rulers, meanwhile, won political legitimacy by respecting religious authorities.
Significant segments of the Muslim world today believe that religion is not the natural ally of despotism but a possible agent of stability, predictability and limited government. In many cases, modern Arab societies associate secularism with postcolonial authoritarian regimes that repressed their people in the name of secular Arab nationalism. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt embodied this state of affairs. Thus for a generation of Arabs, secularism is linked to dictatorship, corruption and nepotism.
As a result, the turn to Islam by many Arabs as an alternative source for political inspiration and hope was both logical and natural. At the moment, reliable polling suggests that most Muslims oppose the idea that democracy requires Western-style secularism. Large majorities also support the idea that Shariah law should be a source of legislation (among others).
Mr. Hashemi stops short of predicting that newly free populations will turn to Islam. When looking at the forces these populations will have to confront–continued economic instability, youth bulges, rising food prices and ethnic and sectarian tensions–I, however, find it hard to believe they won’t turn to Islam.