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The Iran survey’s results as well as observations by analysts and journalists like Pelham stroke with responses to various polls of Arab public opinion in recent years and fit a global pattern of reduced religiosity. A 2019 Pew Research Center study concluded that adherence to Christianity in the United States was declining at a rapid pace.
The Arab Youth Survey found that, despite 40 percent of those polled defining religion as the most important constituent element of their identity, 66 percent saw a need for religious institutions to be reformed. “The way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth who can now see through it,” Alhussein, the Gulf scholar, said.
A 2018 Arab Opinion Index poll suggested that public opinion may support the reconceptualization of Muslim jurisprudence. Almost 70 percent of those polled agreed that “no religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions to be infidels.” Similarly, 70 percent of those surveyed rejected the notion that democracy was incompatible with Islam while 76 percent viewed it as the most appropriate system of governance.
What that means in practice is, however, less clear. Arab public opinion appears split down the middle when it comes to issues like separation of religion and politics or the right to protest.
Arab Barometer director Michael Robbins cautioned in a commentary in the Washington Post, co-authored with international affairs scholar Lawrence Rubin, that recent moves by the government of Sudan to separate religion and state may not enjoy public support.
The transitional government brought to office in 2020 by a popular revolt that topped decades of Islamist rule by ousted President Omar al-Bashir agreed in peace talks with Sudanese rebel groups to a “separation of religion and state.” The government also ended the ban on apostasy and consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims and prohibited corporal punishment, including public flogging.
Robbins and Rubin noted that 61 percent of those surveyed on the eve of the revolt believed that Sudanese law should be based on the Sharia or Islamic law defined by two-thirds of the respondents as ensuring the provision of basic services and lack of corruption. The researchers, nonetheless, also concluded that youth favored a reduced role of religious leaders in political life. They said youth had soured on the idea of religion-based governance because of widespread corruption during the region of Al-Bashir who professed his adherence to religious principles.
“If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from Sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting Sharia as a means to achieve these objectives,” Robbins and Rubin warned.
Writing at the outset of the popular revolt that toppled Al-Bashir, Islam scholar and former Sudanese diplomat Abdelwahab El-Affendi noted that “for most Sudanese, Islamism came to signify corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty, and bad faith. Sudan is perhaps the first genuinely anti-Islamist country in popular terms. But being anti-Islamist in Sudan does not mean being secular.”
It is a warning that is as valid for Sudan as it is for much of the Arab and Muslim world.
Saudi columnist Wafa al-Rashid sparked fiery debate on social media after calling in a local newspaper for a secular state in the kingdom. “How long will we continue to shy away from enlightenment and change? Religious enlightenment, which is in line with reality and the thinking of youth, who rebelled and withdrew from us because we are no longer like them. […] We no longer speak their language or understand their dreams,” Al-Rashid wrote.
Asked in a poll conducted by The Washington Institute of Near East Policy whether “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries”—a reference to the past decade of popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan—Saudi public opinion was split down the middle. The numbers indicate that 48 percent of respondents agreed and 48 percent disagreed. Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, are likely less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be more empathetic to protests should they occur.
Tamimi Arab, the Iran pollster, argued that his Iran survey “shows that there is a social basis” for concern among authoritarian and autocratic governments that employ religion to further their geopolitical goals and seek to maintain their grip on potentially restive populations. His warning reverberates in the responses by governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East to changing attitudes towards religion and religiosity. They demonstrate the degree to which they perceive the change as a threat, often expressed in existential terms.
Mohammad Mehdi Mirbaqeri, a prominent Shiite cleric and member of Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts that appoints the country’s supreme leader, described COVID-19 in late 2020 as a “secular virus” and a declaration of war on “religious civilization” and “religious institutions.”
Saudi Arabia went further by defining the “calling for atheist thought in any form” as terrorism in its anti-terrorism law. Saudi dissident and activist Rafi Badawi was sentenced on charges of apostasy to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for questioning why Saudis should be obliged to adhere to Islam and asserting that the faith did not have answers to all questions.
Analysts, writers, journalists, and pollsters have traced changes in attitudes in the Middle East and North Africa as well as the wider Muslim world for much of the past decade, if not longer. A Western Bangladesh scholar resident in Dacca in 1989 recalled Bangladeshis looking for a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses as soon as it was banned by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who condemned the British author to death. “It was the allure of forbidden fruit. Yet, I also found that many were looking for things to criticize, an excuse to think differently,” the scholar wrote.
Widely viewed as a bastion of ultra-conservatism. Malaysia’s top religious regulatory body, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), which responsible for training Islamic teachers and preparing weekly state-controlled Friday sermons, has long portrayed liberalism and pluralism as threats, pointing to a national fatwa that in 2006 condemned liberalism as heretical. “The pulpit would like to state today that many tactics are being undertaken by irresponsible people to weaken Muslim unity, among them through spreading new but inverse thinking like Pluralism, Liberalism, and such. The pulpit would like to state that the Liberal movement contains concepts that are found to have deviated from the Islamic faith and shariah,” read a 2014 Friday sermon drafted and distributed by Jakim.
The fatwa echoed a similar legal opinion issued a year earlier by Indonesia’s semi-governmental Council of Religious Scholars (MUI) labelled with SIPILIS as its acronym to equate secularism, pluralism, and liberalism with the venereal disease. The council was headed at the time by current Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, a prominent Nahdlatul Ulama figure.
Challenging attempts by governments and religious authorities to suppress changing attitudes rather than engage with groups groping for greater religious freedom, Kuwaiti writer Sajed al-Abdali noted in 2012 that “it is essential that we acknowledge today that atheism exists and is increasing in our society, especially among our youth, and evidence of this is in no short supply.”
Al-Abdali sounded his alarm three years prior to the publication of a Pew Research Center study that sought to predict the growth trajectories of the world’s religions by the year 2050. The study suggested that the number of people among the 300 million inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa that were unaffiliated with any faith would remain stable at about 0.6 percent of the population.
Two years later, the Egyptian government’s religious advisory body, Dar al-Ifta Al-Missriya, published a scientifically disputed survey that sought to project the number of atheists in the region as negligible. The survey identified 2,293 atheists, including 866 Egyptians, 325 Moroccans, 320 Tunisians, 242 Iraqis, 178 Saudis, 170 Jordanians, 70 Sudanese, 56 Syrians, 34 Libyans, and 32 Yemenis. It defined atheists as not only those who did not believe in God but also as encompassing converts to other religions and advocates of a secular state. A poll conducted that same year by Al Azhar, Cairo’s ancient citadel of Islamic learning, concluded that Egypt counted 10.7 million atheists. Al Azhar’s Grand Imam, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, warned at the time on state television that the flight from religion constituted a social problem.
A 2012 survey by international polling firm WIN/Gallup International reported that 5 percent of Saudis—or more than one million people—identified themselves as “convinced atheists” on par with the percentage in the United States; while 19 percent described themselves as non-religious. By the same token, Benchemsi, the Moroccan journalist, found 250 Arab atheism-related pages or groups while searching the internet, with memberships ranging from a few individuals to more than 11,000. “And these numbers only pertain to Arab atheists (or Arabs concerned with the topic of atheism) who are committed enough to leave a trace online,” Benchemsi said, noting that many more were unlikely to publicly disclose their beliefs.
The picture is replicated across the Middle East. The number of atheists and agnostics in Iraq, for example, is growing. Iraqi writer and one-time Shiite cleric Gaith al-Tamimi argued that religious figures have come to represent all that’s inherently wrong in Iraqi politics society. Iraqis of all generations seek to escape religious dogma, he says, adding that “Iraqis are questioning the role religion serves today.” Fadhil, a 30-year-old from the southern port city of Basra complained that religious leaders “overuse and misuse God’s name, police human bodies, prohibit extramarital sex, and police the bodies of women.” Changing attitudes towards religion figured prominently in mass anti-government protests in Iraq in 2019 and 2020 that rejected sectarianism and called for a secular national Iraqi identity.
Even in Syria, a fulcrum of militant and ultra-conservative forms of Islam that fed on a decade of brutal civil war and foreign intervention, many concluded in the words of Al-Ali, the Syrian journalist, that “religious and political authorities are ‘protective friends one of the other,’ and that political despotism stems from religious absolutism. […] In Syria, the prestige sheikhs had enjoyed was undermined alongside that of the regime.” Religion and religious figures’ inability to explain the horror that Syria was experiencing and that had uprooted the lives of millions drove many forced to flee to question long-held beliefs.
Multiple Turkish surveys suggested that Erdogan’s goal of raising a religious generation had backfired despite pouring billions of dollars into religious education. Students often rejected religion, described themselves as atheists, deists, or feminists, and challenged the interpretation of Islam taught in schools. A 2019 survey by polling and data company IPSOS reported that only 12 percent of Turks trusted religious officials and 44 percent distrusted clerics. “We have declined when religious sincerity and morality expressed by the people is taken into account,” said Ali Bardakoglu, who headed Erdogan’s Religious Affairs Department or Diyanet from 2003 to 2010.
Unaware that microphones had not been muted, Erdogan expressed concern a year earlier to his education minister about the spread of deism, a belief in a God that does not intervene in the universe and that is not defined by organized religion, among Turkish youth during a meeting of his party’s parliamentary group. “No, no such thing can happen,” Erdogan ordained against the backdrop of Turkish officials painting deism as a Western conspiracy designed to weaken Turkey. Erdogan’s comments came in response to the publication of an education ministry report that, in line with the subsequent survey, warned that popular rejection of religious knowledge acquired through revelation and religious teachings and a growing embrace of reason was on the rise.
The report noted that increased enrollment in a rising number of state-run religious Imam Hatip high schools had not stopped mounting questioning of orthodox Islamic precepts. Neither had increased study of religion in mainstream schools that deemphasized the teaching of evolution. The greater emphasis on religion failed to advance Erdogan’s dream of a pious generation that would have a Qur’an in one hand and a computer in the other. Instead, reflecting a discussion on faith and youth among some 50 religion teachers, the report suggested that lack of faith in educators had fueled the rise of deism. Teachers were unable to answer the often-posed question: why does God not intervene to halt evil and why does he remain silent? The report’s cautionary note was bolstered by a flurry of anonymous confessions and personal stories by deists as well as atheists recounted in newspaper interviews.
Acting on Erdogan’s instructions, Ali Erbas, the director of Diyanet, declared war on deism. The government’s top cleric, Erbas blamed Western missionaries seeking to convert Turkish youth to Christianity for deism’s increased popularity. Erbas’ declaration followed a three-day consultation with 70 religious scholars and bureaucrats convened by the Directorate that identified “Deism, Atheism, Nihilism, Agnosticism” as the enemy. Erdogan’s alarm and Erbas’ spinning of conspiracy theories constituted attempts to detract attention from the fact that youth in Tukey, like in Iran and the Arab world, were turning their back on orthodox and classical interpretations of Islam on the back of increasingly authoritarian and autocratic rule. Erdogan thundered that “there is no such thing” as LGBT and added that “this country is national and spiritual, and will continue to walk into the future as such” when protesting students displayed a poster depicting one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, with LGBT flags.
“There is a dictatorship in Turkey. This drives people away from religion,” said Temel Karamollaoglu, the leader of the Islamist Felicity Party that opposes Erdogan’s AKP because of its authoritarianism. Turkey scholar Mucahit Bilici described Turkish youths’ rejection of Orthodox and politicized interpretations of Islam as “a flowering of post-Islamist sentiment” by a “younger generation (that) is choosing the path of individualized spirituality and a silent rejection of tradition.”
Saudi authorities view the high numbers in the WIN/Gallup International as a threat to the religious legitimacy that the kingdom’s ruling Al-Saud family has long cloaked itself in. The groundswell of aspirations that have guided youth away from the confines of ultra-conservatism highlight failed efforts of the government and the religious establishment going back to the 1980s. The culture and information ministry banned the word ‘modernity’ at the time in a bid to squash an emerging debate that challenged the narrow confines of ultra-conservatism as well as the authority of religion and the religious establishment to govern personal and public life.
The threat perceived by Saudi and other Middle Eastern autocrats and authoritarians as well as conservative religious voices is fueled by an implicit equation of atheism and/or rejection of state-imposed conservative and ultra-conservative strands of the faith with anarchy.
“Any calls that challenge Islamic rule or Islamic ideology is considered subversive in Saudi Arabia and would be subversive and could lead to chaos,” said Saudi ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah al-Mouallimi. Echoing journalist Benchemsi, Muallimi argued that “if (a person) was disbelieving in God, and keeping that to himself, and conducting himself, nobody would do anything or say anything about it. If he is going out in the public, and saying, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ that’s subversive. He is inviting others to retaliate.”
Similarly, Sheikh Ahmad Turki, speaking as the coordinator of the anti-atheism campaign of the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, asserted that atheism “is a national security issue. Atheists have no principles; it’s certain that they have dysfunctional concepts—in ethics, views of the society and even in their nationalistic affiliations. If [atheists] rebel against religion, they will rebel against everything.’’
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to experiment with alternatives to orthodox and ultra-conservative strands of Islam without surrendering state control by encouraging Al Azhar to embrace legal reform that is influenced by Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition. “There is a movement of renewal of Islamic jurisprudence. […] It’s a movement that is funded by the wealthy Gulf countries. Don’t forget that one reason for the success of the Salafis is the financial power that backed them for decades. This financial power is now being directed to the Azharis, and they are taking advantage of it. […] Don’t underestimate what is happening. It might be a true alternative to Salafism,” said Egyptian Islam scholar Wael Farouq.
By contrast, Pakistan, a country influenced by Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, has stepped up its efforts to ringfence religious minorities. In an act of overreach modelled on American insistence on extra-territorial abidance by some of its laws, Pakistan laid down a gauntlet in the struggle to define religious freedom by seeking to block and shut down a U.S.-based website associated with Ahmadis on charges of blasphemy.
Ahmadis are a minority sect viewed as heretics by many Muslims that have been targeted in Indonesia and elsewhere, but nowhere more so than in Pakistan where they have been constitutionally classified as non-Muslims. Blasphemy is potentially punishable in Pakistan with a death sentence.
The Pakistani effort was launched at a moment that anti-Ahmadi and anti-Shiite sentiment in Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim minority, was on the rise. Mass demonstrations denounced Shiites as “blasphemers” and “infidels” and called for their beheading as the number of blasphemy cases being filed against Shiites in the courts mushroomed.
Shifting attitudes towards religion and religiosity raise fundamental chicken and egg questions about the relationship between religious and political reform, including what comes first and whether one is possible without the other. Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama argues that religious reform requires recontextualization of the faith as well as a revision of legal codes and religious jurisprudence. The only Muslim institution to have initiated a process of eliminating legal concepts in Islamic law that are obsolete or discriminatory—such as the endorsement of slavery and notions of infidels and dhimmis or People of the Book with lesser rights—Nahdlatul Ulama, a movement created almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam on which Saudi Arabia was founded, is in alignment with advocates of religious reform elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Said Mohammed Sharour, a Syrian Quranist who believed that the Qur’an was Islam’s only relevant text, dismissed the Hadith—the compilation of the Prophet’s sayings and the Sunnah, the traditions, and practices of the Prophet that serve as a model for Muslims: “The religious heritage must be critically read and interpreted anew. Cultural and religious reforms are more important than political ones, as they are the preconditions for any secular reforms.” Shahrour went on to say that the reforms, comparable to those of 16th century scholar and priest Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity, “must include all those ideas on which the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks based their interpretations of sources. […] We simply have to rethink the fundamental principles. It is […] said that the fixed values of religion cannot be rethought. But I say that it is exactly these values that we must study and rethink.”
The thinking of Nahdlatul Ulama’s critical mass of Islamic scholars and men like Shahrour offers little solace to authoritarian and autocratic leaders and their religious allies in the Muslim world at a time that Muslims are clamoring not only for political and religious change. If anything, it puts them on the spot by offering a bottom-up alternative to state-controlled religion that seeks to ensure the survival of autocratic regimes and the protection of vested interests.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.