Early in the evening of June 7, children swarmed in front of the Virgin Mary Church in Cairo's Imbaba slum, carrying pink carnations. They were there to greet Egypt's interim Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, who had arrived to inaugurate the $1 million rebuilding of the church, which had been burned in an outbreak of sectarian strife in May. But while the initial wave of violence, in which 15 people were killed, made front-page headlines around the world and stoked fears that the Arab Spring was devolving into a Summer of Discontent, the news of the exultant reopening barely made a blip. That gap hints at a larger truth: instead of exacerbating religious tension, as is commonly perceived, the Arab Spring may be opening a new era in Islam's relations with the rest of the world.
Beyond their political implications, the religious dimensions of the Middle East uprisings have always been central, particularly to the West. Ever since 9/11, the West and Islam have been locked in a chilly standoff. The relationship was captured by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's lightning-rod phrase "the Clash of Civilizations." Huntington's thesis, which was roundly trashed when it was published as an article in 1993 but became a best seller in book form following Sept. 11, was that Islam taught Muslims to be hostile to freedom, pluralism and individualism.
At first blush, the Arab Spring seemed to render Huntington's idea deader than ever. In up to 20 Islamic countries, Muslims marched in the face of bullets, tanks and water cannons, demanding the exact human dignities that parades of commentators had assured the American public Muslims didn't want. If anything, the uprisings of 2011, coupled with the death of Osama bin Laden, raised the tantalizing possibility that the West and Islam, which came to the brink of a Holy War in the past decade, might finally be able to build a Holy Peace. Could the Clash of Civilizations be giving way at last to the Convergence of Civilizations?
In recent months, the news from Egypt suggested the answer is no. The downfall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak seemed to unleash all kinds of pent-up religious hatreds. One of the most visible began in Imbaba on May 7. Rumors circulated that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim man had been kidnapped and was being held captive in a local church, St. Mina. Muslims, many from the ultraconservative Salafi sect, began marching on the facility. Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the country, hurried to its defense. Thousands gathered, brandishing makeshift weapons and hurling insults. Street fighting broke out, and by the time the melee ended the following morning, 15 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded, and three Coptic churches, including the Virgin Mary Church, were in flames.
Episodes like this one, reported around the world, fit into a narrative of extremist Muslim aggression and intolerance that has dominated American public discourse since Sept. 11. But what this story line misses is that a powerful new narrative has emerged from the Middle East in recent months that, for the first time in a generation, poses a serious threat to the fundamentalists' appeal. And that narrative can also be told from the recent sectarian events in Egypt. It is a story of the rise of a moderate coalition and its counterattack against extremism.
The best example of that story unfolded two hours south of Cairo in the tiny village of Sol, in Helwan governate. A place of dirt-lined streets on the border of the desert, Sol was the site of the first church burning in the days after Mubarak's fall. Rumors played a large part in this conflict too: a Christian man had been in a romantic relationship with a Muslim woman, a domestic dispute broke out within the woman's family over her actions, and two people were killed, including her father.