It's all quite simple. One of my Arab students explained today that he loved reading, and he read both religious books and “liberal” books. “What are liberal books?” I asked. Another student explained: “books that believe that government and religion should be kept apart.” “Bad books,” another student elaborated.
Nobody contradicted this assessment.
There's the current conflict between the Muslim world and the West in a nutshell.
Tunisia, a few days ago, given the opportunity to select its government democratically, gave a plurality of votes to an Islamist party. Get ready for this to happen everywhere else in the Arab world. The West is going to have to accept that this is what democracy will mean in a Muslim country.
Let's get this clear. There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. Islam is democratic to its core. There is no contradiction between Islam and human equality and human rights--both are profoundly Muslim concepts. The problem is right here--with secularism.
The idea of the separation of church and state has no status in Muslim culture, founded as a political and military as well as a religious entity from the beginning. Islam cannot be happily positioned as just one more religious alternative under an umbrella of secular humanism on which everyone can agree—not without negating much of the spirit of Islam. While Christianity can cheerfully say “render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's,” Islam will not, but will insist that Caesar too is subject to God.
I consider myself a liberal, but I am also troubled by secularism in the same way Muslims commonly are. Religious tolerance has in recent years been allowed to become in the West a radical religious intolerance, a denial of religion and indeed morality in public life, which is a recipe for both depravity and disaster.
I think a solution both sides can live with is not hard to find. But we must understand what the sticking point is. No cant or rant or bigoted jive.