Through the lens of three notable intellectuals, this article explores several different explanations for the limited success of secularism in the Middle East. The “Arab Spring” of recent years, far more than it has been a struggle between the forces of democracy and the forces of autocracy, as portrayed by so many, was in fact yet another clash between the forces of modernity and the traditionalists. Most Western scholars and observers failed to identify the centrality of the forces of tradition, ignoring the social and political undercurrents of Arab societies, especially the importance of religion as a critical marker of collective identity. Middle Eastern societies were “not just like us.” Culture mattered.

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