The Cordoban spirit of pluralism was described by María Rosa Menocal in her 2003 book, “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.” She described how the Arab Muslim rulers of the time promoted a freedom of thought that, in addition to producing great art and the beginnings of modern mathematics and science, also allowed other religions to prosper.
This ethic of tolerance — so central to the zenith of Muslim culture — is precisely what seems missing in so many Arab countries today. The political culture is broken. Politicians on all sides lack the confidence that allows compromise and moderation. Politics is a zero-sum game, and everything is a fight to the death, whether it’s in Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli or Baghdad.
Recent events in Egypt underline the problem: If it’s not the Islamic authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s the repressive dictatorship of the military. There seems no middle ground.
You can glimpse the beginnings of a movement to build a Muslim political culture of tolerance that could support modern democratic societies. Asef Bayat, an Iranian-born professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been writing over the past decade about what he calls “post-Islamist” trends. He argued his case forcefully in a 2007 book called “Making Islam Democratic.”