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Islam's defining moment with democracy

Islamist parties now dominate the constitution-writing process in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia. If they can make Islam compatible with democracy, they will give hope to others in the Middle East still struggling in the unfinished Arab Spring.

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Islamists pray during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, March 25. Thousands of conservative Muslims marched through the capital calling for the application of Islamic law.
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Hassene Dridi/AP PHOTO

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Muslims living in democracies of the West and Asia already know their practice of Islam can best flourish where religious freedom is protected and women’s rights are honored. Now two Muslim countries liberated from dictators in last year’s Arab Spring are trying to define their own line between mosque and state.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamist parties that won postrevolution elections are leading efforts to write new constitutions. Their choices could reshape the Middle East if they decide that Islam must be compatible with democracy rather than the other way around.

On Monday, the leading Islamist party in Tunisia, Al Nahda, announced that sharia (Islamic law) should not be the source for all laws. It said the constitution should simply acknowledge that Islam is the state religion, as the old constitution did.

The party prefers to unite all Tunisians and set an example for other Arab states in transition. A woman, in fact, is heading up the panel to define rights and liberties.

Egypt, however, is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, once the modern source of radical Islamic ideas that inspired groups like Al Qaeda. While the Brotherhood has become pragmatic during six decades of military rule, it decided last week to use its majority in the new parliament to dominate the constitution-writing process. And it is also pushing for a candidate in the coming presidential election who has “an Islamic background.”

Still, much can happen in Egypt’s ongoing political flux between the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, and pro-democracy youth who led last year’s protests against Hosni Mubarak.

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