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A win for 'secularists' in Libya? It's not what you think.

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Perhaps more surprising to outsiders: Men who regard themselves as “religious” are more willing to recognize a woman’s right to divorce than those who aren’t. Robust majorities support equal rights for women. Bahrain, which has yet to embrace democracy, leads the pack, with 94 percent of women and 87 percent of men endorsing gender equality.

That Islam and rights can coexist in the minds of so many Muslims is a hard lesson for those clinging to stereotypes. They will insist that the road to equal citizenship –  especially for women and minorities – rests on a firmly secular constitutionalism. After all, wasn’t that the global map of political modernity? Aren’t liberalism and human rights about putting religion in its private zone?

Indeed, most of the Middle East became officially secular after European colonial rule. Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen had socialist governments much like Egypt under Nasser, with little time for religion. Tunisia had a secular political history comparable to Turkey’s.

Women enjoyed explicit guarantees of equal status under those constitutions. So in many cases did minorities such as Coptic Christians and Jews. Women and minorities became part of the ideological profile of autocratic states that were otherwise illiberal. But the basis for these rights had everything to do with political expediency, and little to do with pluralist citizenship.

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