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For the Muslim world, it's not a safe and easy path to modernity

A year ago, as he watched the great uprisings in Tunis and Cairo, French scholar Olivier Roy declared that they marked the end of Islamist politics. "If you look at the people who launched these revolts," he wrote, "it is clear that they represent a post-Islamist generation. … The new revolutionaries are perhaps practising or even devout Muslims, but they separate their religious faith from their political agenda. In that sense, it is a 'secular' movement that separates religion from politics."

Well, you might say, how awkward. Those January protesters may have been secular and liberal, but, when I visited Tahrir Square six months later, Islamists commanded the stage. We've recently watched Egypt's first somewhat free elections give 48 per cent of the vote to a party controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, plus 20 per cent to 28 per cent to Salafists, who aren't just Islamist but want an actual theocracy. Secular liberals were left with a rump of 15 per cent to 20 per cent. If this is "post-Islamist," it sure has a lot of crescents and guys with beards.

This week, Dr. Roy – probably the world's most respected scholar on Islamic societies and politics – was asked to explain himself on French radio. Did the Islamist electoral victories in Tunisia and Egypt pour cold water on his "post-Islamist" prognostication? Quite the contrary, he said. They proved it. The new individualism behind the Arab revolutions, he said, has led Arabs to vote for parties with an Islamic identity (in large part, because "secularism" was strongly associated with the dictatorships they overthrew) – but, in the process, it's forced those parties to abandon the Islamist goal of a pure religious society governed only by the Koran.

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"Islamist movements like Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can no longer even be called Islamist," he said. "They are conservatives analogous to the religious right in the United States." Much as socialist parties in the West had to abandon the revolutionary goals of Marxism to become electable, the new Islamist parties have had to give up actual Islamism: They can't impose the Koran on people, but rather combine "a religious reference" with democratic bids to influence "family values."

I don't quite share Mr. Roy's optimism. While an Iranian-style theocracy isn't a possibility in Egypt, there are leaders in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party whose views on women and Israel are alarming enough and whose ties to Egypt's military overlords appear authoritarian enough that the result could look a lot like Islamism.

Where the "post-Islamism" scholars do have a point is in their reading of the trends that led people to vote for the Islamist parties. These, paradoxically enough, are driven by a shift to secularization of private life. Egypt and its neighbours are in the midst of the same demographic change that revolutionized the West two centuries ago: Fertility rates are falling to European levels, and institutions such as first-cousin marriages are becoming increasingly rare. Religion has become a badge of identity, not a way of life.

This shift has made Islamists desperate to seize influence, because social influence can now only be won through politics. And it has put them in a unique position to gain it. Former Ottoman states such as Egypt never bothered to replace the religious obligation to give alms with a secular obligation to pay taxes. So the imams and mullahs became not only the leading voice of dissent but also the leading source of welfare. That, more than the Koran, wins them votes.

"The fundamental contradiction of Islamism is that its leaders think of themselves as guardians of a tradition, whereas the popular wave behind them is the result of a modernizing mental revolution," demographers Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd write in their analysis of Muslim-country modernization, A Convergence of Civilizations. "Political victory is inevitably followed by cultural defeat."

In between comes a tumultuous time. The Muslim world is becoming modern the same way France did, with wild swings of revolution and reaction. "Westerners would like to forget," the two demographers conclude, "that their own demographic transitions were also strewn with many disturbances and a good deal of violence." It's not a safe and easy path, but it's progress.

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