Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Battle for the Soul of Islam

Islam religion
Palestinian men perform the last Friday prayer of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the Mount of Olives, with a backdrop of the Old City of Jerusalem and the closed al-Aqsa Mosque compound, on May 22, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

James Dorsey

Trouble is brewing in the backyard of Muslim-majority states competing for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam. Shifting youth attitudes towards religion and religiosity threaten to undermine the rival efforts of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and, to a lesser degree, the United Arab Emirates, to cement their individual state-controlled interpretations of Islam as the Muslim world’s dominant religious narrative. Each of the rivals see their efforts as key to securing their autocratic or authoritarian rule as well as advancing their endeavors to carve out a place for themselves in a new world order in which power is being rebalanced.

Research and opinion polls consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth—and, in the case of Iran other age groups—and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The shifting attitudes amount to a rejection of Ash’arism, the fundament of centuries-long religiously legitimized authoritarian rule in the Sunni Muslim world that stresses the role of scriptural and clerical authority. Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish Muslim intellectual, argues that Ash’arism has dominated Muslim politics for centuries at the expense of more liberal strands of the faith “not because of its merits, but because of the support of the states that ruled the medieval Muslim world.”

Similarly, Nadia Oweidat, a student of the history of Islamic thought, notes that “no topic has impacted the region more profoundly than religion. It has changed the geography of the region, it has changed its language, it has changed its culture. It has been shaping the region for thousands of years. […] Religion controls every aspect of people who live in the Arab world.”

The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly skeptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experien­ces of religion. Their search leads them in multiple directions that range from changes in personal religious behavior that deviates from that proscribed by the state to conversions in secret to other religions even though apostasy is banned and punishable by death, to an abandonment of organized religion all together in favor of deism, agnosticism, or atheism.

“The youth are not interested in institutions or organizations. These do not attract them or give them any incentive; just the opposite, these institutions and organizations and their leadership take advantage of them only when they are needed for their attendance and for filling out the crowds,” said Palestinian scholar and former Hamas education minister Nasser al-Din al-Shaer.

Atheists and converts cite perceived discriminatory provisions in Islam’s legal code towards various Muslim sects, non-Muslims, and women as a reason for turning their back on the faith. “The primary thing that led me to atheism is Islam’s moral aspect. How can, for example, a merciful and compassionate God, said to be more merciful than a woman on her baby, permit slavery and the trade of slaves in slave markets? How come He permits rape of women simply because they are war prisoners? These acts would not be committed by a merciful human being much less by a merciful God,” said Hicham Nostic, a Moroccan atheist, writing under a pen name.

Revival, Reversal

The recent research and polls suggest a reversal of an Islamic revival that scholars like John Esposito in the 1990s and Jean-Paul Carvalho in 2009 observed that was bolstered by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the results of a 1996 World Values Survey that reported a strengthening of traditional religious values in the Muslim world, the rise of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the initial Muslim Brotherhood electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts.

“The indices of Islamic reawakening in personal life are many: increased attention to religious observances (mosque attendance, prayer, fasting), proliferation of religious programming and publications, more emphasis on Islamic dress and values, the revitalization of Sufism (mysticism). This broader-based renewal has also been accompanied by Islam’s reassertion in public life: an increase in Islamically oriented governments, organizations, laws, banks, social welfare services, and educational institutions,” Esposito noted at the time.

Carvalho argued that an economic “growth reversal which raised aspirations and led subsequently to a decline in social mobility which left aspirations unfulfilled among the educated middle class (and) increasing income inequality and impoverishment of the lower-middle class” was driving the revival. The same factors currently fuel a shift away from traditional, Orthodox, and ultra-conservative values and norms of religiosity.

The shift in Muslim-majority countries also contrasts starkly with a trend towards greater religious Orthodoxy in some Muslim minority communities in Europe. A 2018 report by the Dutch government’s Social and Cultural Planning Bureau noted that the number of Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan descent who strictly observe traditional religious precepts had increased by approximately eight percent. Dutch citizens of Turkish and Moroccan descent account for two-thirds of the country’s Muslim community. The report suggested that in a pluralistic society in which Muslims are a minority, “the more personal, individualistic search for true Islam can lead to youth becoming more strict in observance than their parents or environment ever were.”

Changing attitudes towards religion and religiosity that mirror shifting attitudes in non-Muslim countries are particularly risky for leaders, irrespective of their politics, who cloak themselves in the mantle of religion as well as nationalism and seek to leverage that in their geopolitical pursuit of religious soft power. The 2011 popular Arab revolts as well as mass anti-government protests in various Middle Eastern countries in 2019 and 2020 spotlighted the subversiveness of the change. “The Arab Spring was the tipping point in the shift […]. It was the epitome of how we see the change. The calls were for ‘dawla madiniya,’ a civic state. A civic state is as close as you can come to saying […], we want a state where the laws are written by people so that we can challenge them, we can change them, we can adjust them. It’s not God’s law, it’s madiniya, it’s people’s law,” Oweidat, the Islamic thought scholar, said.

Akyol went further, noting in a journal article that “too many terrible things have recently happened in the Arab world in the name of Islam. These include the sectarian civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, where most of the belligerents have fought in the name of God, often with appalling brutality. The millions of victims and bystanders of these wars have experienced shock and disillusionment with religious politics, and more than a few began asking deeper questions.”

The 2011 popular Arab revolts reverberated across the Middle East, reshaping relations between states as well as domestic policies, even though initial achievements of the protesters were rolled back in Egypt and sparked wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a 3.5 year-long diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in part to cut their youth off from access to the Gulf state’s popular Al Jazeera television network that supported the revolts and Islamist groups that challenged the region’s autocratic rulers. Seeking to lead and tightly control a social and economic reform agenda driven by youth who were enamored by the uprisings, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “sought to recapture this mandate of change, wrap it in a national mantle, and sever it from its Arab Spring associations. The boycott and ensuing nationalist campaign against Qatar became central to achieving that,” said Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan.

Referring to the revolts, Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi suggested that “the Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world.”

Benchemsi went on to argue that “in today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.” The same could be said for the right to convert or opt for alternative practices of Islam.

Syrian journalist Sham al-Ali recounts the story of a female relative who escaped the civil war to Germany where she decided to remove her hijab. Her father, who lives in Turkey, accepted his daughter’s decision but threatened to disown her if she posted pictures of herself uncovered on Facebook. “His issue was not with his daughter’s abandonment of religious duty, but with her publicizing that before her family and society at large,” Al-Ali said.


Neo-patriarchism, a pillar of Arab autocratic rule, heightens concern about public appearance and perception. A phrase coined by American-Palestinian scholar Hisham Sharabi, neo-patriarchism involves projection of the autocratic leader as a father figure. Autocratic Arab society, according to Sharabi, was built on the dominance of the father, a patriarch around which the national as well as the nuclear family are organized. Relations between a ruler and the ruled are replicated in the relationship between a father and his children. In both settings, the paternal will is absolute, mediated in society as well as the family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion.

As a result, neo-patriarchism often reinforces pressure to abide by state-imposed religious behavior and at the same time fuels changes in attitudes towards religion and religiosity among youth who resent their inability to chart a path of their own. Primary and secondary schools have emerged as one frontline in the struggle to determine the boundaries of religious expression and behavior. Recent developments in Egypt, a brutal autocracy, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy, offer contrasting perspectives on how the tug of war between students and parents, schoolteachers and administrations, and the state plays out.

Mada Masr, Egypt’s foremost independent news outlet, documented how in 2020 Egyptian schoolgirls who refused to wear a hijab were being coerced and publicly shamed in the knowledge that the education ministry was reluctant to enforce its policy not to mandate the wearing of a headdress. “The model, decent girl is expected to dress modestly and wear a hijab to signal her pride in her religious identity, since hijab is what distinguishes her from a Christian girl,” said Lamia Lotfy, a gender consultant and rights activist. Teachers at public high schools said they were reluctant to take boys to task for violating dress codes because they were more likely to push back and create problems.

In sharp contrast, Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas issued in early 2021 a decree together with the ministers of home affairs and education threatening to sanction state schools that seek to impose religious garb in violation of government rules and regulations. The decree was issued amid a public row sparked by the refusal of a Christian student to obey her school principal’s instructions requiring all pupils to wear Islamic clothing. Qoumas is a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement and foremost advocate of theological reform in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Religions do not promote conflict, neither do they justify acting unfairly against those who are different,” Qoumas said.

A Muslim nation that replaced a decades long autocratic regime with a democracy in a popular revolt in 1998, Indonesia is Middle Eastern rulers’ worst nightmare. The shifting attitudes of Middle Eastern youth towards religion and religiosity suggest that experimentation with religion in post-revolt Indonesia is a path that it would embark on if given the opportunity. Indonesia is “where the removal of constraints imposed by an authoritarian regime has opened up the imaginative terrain, allowing particular types of religious beliefs and practices to emerge […]. The Indonesian cases study […] brings into sharper relief processes that are happening in ordinary Muslim life elsewhere,” said Indonesia scholar Nur Amali Ibrahim.

A 2019 poll of Arab youth showed that two-thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role in their lives, up from 50 percent four years earlier. Nearly 80 percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed while half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back. Surveys conducted over the last decade by Arab Barometer, a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan, showed a growing number of youths turning their backs on religion. “Personal piety has declined some 43 percent over the past decade, indicating less than a quarter of the population now define themselves as religious,” the survey concluded.

With the trend being the strongest among Libyans, many Libyan youth gravitate towards secretive atheist Facebook pages. They often are products of the UAE’s failed attempt to align the hard power of its military intervention in Libya with religious soft power. Said, a 25-year-old student from Benghazi, the stronghold of the UAE and Saudi-backed rebel forces led by self-appointed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, turned his back on religion after his cousin was beheaded in 2016 for speaking out against militants. UAE backing of Haftar has involved the population of his army by Madkhalists, a branch of Salafism named after a Saudi scholar who preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and projects the kingdom as a model of Islamic governance. “My cousin’s death occurred during a period when I was deeply religious, praying five times a day and studying ten new pages of the Qur’an each evening,” Said said.

A majority of respondents in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Iran said in a 2017 poll conducted by Washington-based John Zogby Associates that they wanted religious movements to focus on personal faith and spiritual guidance and not involve themselves in politics. Iraq and Palestine were the outliers with a majority favoring a political role for religious groups.

The response to polls in the second half of the second decade of the twenty-first century contrasts starkly with attitudes expressed in a survey of the world’s Muslims by the Pew Research Center several years earlier. Pew’s polling suggested that ultra-conservative attitudes long promoted by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar that legitimized authoritarian and autocratic regimes remained popular. More than 70 percent of those surveyed at the time in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa favored making Sharia the law of the land and granting Sharia courts jurisdiction over family law and property disputes.

Those numbers varied broadly, however, when respondents were asked about specific issues like apostasy and corporal punishment. Three-quarters of South Asians favored the death sentence for apostasy as opposed to 56 percent in the Middle East and only 27 percent in Southeast Asia, while 81 percent in South Asia supported physical punishment compared to 57 percent in the Middle East and North Africa and 46 percent in Southeast Asia. South Asia emerged as the only part of the Muslim world in which respondents preferred a strong leader to democracy while a majority of the faithful in all three regions viewed religious freedom as positive. Between 65 and 79 percent in all regions wanted to see religious leaders have political influence.

Honor killings may be the one area where attitudes have not changed that much in recent years. Arab Barometer’s polling in 2018 and 2019 showed that more people thought honor killings were acceptable than homosexuality. In most countries polled, young Arabs appeared more likely than their parents to condone honor killings. Social media and occasional protests bear that out. Thousands rallied in early 2020 in Hebron, a conservative city on the West Bank, after the Palestinian Authority signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Nonetheless, the assertions by Saudi Arabia that projects itself as the leader of an unidentified form of moderate Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and by advocates of varying strands of political Islam such as Turkey and Iran ring hollow in light of the dramatic shift in attitudes towards religion and religiosity.


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.


This article was originally published by in March 30, 2021.

user placeholder
written by
All veronica articles