Following the electoral success of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt, a vexing question is once again in the news: how can Islam and democracy healthily coexist? Unfortunately, debates over the importance and difficulty of separating “mosque and state” often become confused by the obvious (if seldom stated) comparison: the evolution of secularism in Christian Europe.

After a decade’s worth of arguing, everyone seems happy to stick to their rival assumptions about  Christianity and Islam— Some people take it for granted that Christianity was always more secular, some find this idea too ridiculous to even discuss.

But assumptions have dangers. Those who only see the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity too often conclude that if democracy cannot prevail in the Muslim Middle East, autocracy might be a safer choice. Those who follow their (usually reliable) instinct to focus on the similarities, however, often cannot explain the success of Islamist parties as anything other than a reaction to secular autocracy. Seeing the counter-intuitive chain of events that led to secular democracy in Europe will help both sides better appreciate the challenge facing the Middle East.

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