The Arab Wars of Religion

MADRID – Throughout the Arab world, a struggle between two major historical forces, religion and secularism, is now unfolding. It is the type of battle between Caesar and God that took Europe centuries to resolve. The future of the Arab Middle East will be decided in the fight between Syria’s Sunni insurgents, supported throughout the region by the Saudi Wahhabis – the patrons of religious fundamentalism – and its secular Baath regime; between the fundamentalist Hamas and the secular PLO in Palestine; and between Egypt’s young secular opposition, forged in the protests of Tahrir Square, and the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists.

So far, the Arab revolts have vindicated the assumption that, given the structure of most Arab societies, toppling secular autocracies inevitably means opening the door to Islamic democracies. We saw that dynamic play out in Algeria in the early 1990’s, with the Islamic Salvation Front’s first-round victory in a parliamentary election (which prompted the cancellation of the second round); with Hamas’s electoral victory in Palestine in 2006; and, most recently, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic rise to power in Egypt.

In both Algeria and Egypt, secular forces were incapable of stemming political Islam’s rise, which could be cut short only by a military takeover. The Algerian military coup eventually ushered in a bloody civil war that is estimated to have taken more than 200,000 lives.

The consequences of the Egyptian coup have still to unfold. The secular opposition’s accession to power on the back of a tank might feed the Islamists’ rage for years to come. The Muslim Brotherhood’s loss of trust in the democratic process would be bad news for Egypt and a boost to Al Qaeda and other jihadists who believe that power can be obtained only through blood and terror.