It is difficult to imagine it now, but continental Europe struggled with foundational divides—with periodic warnings of civil war—as recently as the 1950s. Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands were divided into ideologically opposed subcultures, sometimes called “spiritual families” or “pillars.” These countries became models of “consensual democracy,” where the subcultures agreed to share power through creative political arrangements.
If we have learned anything, though, it is that lessons learned in Europe are not easily applied to the Middle East. Consensual democracy works best when there are multiple centers of power in society, none of which is strong enough to dominate on its own. While this more or less holds true in Lebanon, and even then precariously, it is not applicable in much of the region. In countries like Egypt, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, the perception that Islamists are too strong and secularists too weak makes polarization significantly worse than it might otherwise be.
In continental Europe, the lines were also drawn more clearly. In Belgium, for instance, there were distinct groups of Flemish and Walloon that could be plainly identified. Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia, however, relatively homogenous. More homogeneity is almost always viewed as a positive factor in forging national identity, but it can also have its drawbacks. Islamists and non-Islamists are different, but not different enough. They live in the same cities, go to the same schools, visit each other on holidays, and sit together at family dinners. This can make it better. It can also make it worse.