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Among the Middle Eastern rivals for religious soft power, the United Arab Emirates, populated in majority by non-nationals, may be the only one to emerge with a cleaner slate. The UAE is the only contender to have started acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities. Authorities in November 2020 lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples. In a further effort to reach out to youth, the UAE organized in 2021 a virtual consultation with 3,000 students aimed at motivating them to think innovatively over the country’s path in the next 50 years.
Such moves do not fundamentally eliminate the risk that the changing attitudes may undercut the religious soft power efforts of the UAE and its Middle Eastern competitors. The problem for rulers like the UAE and Saudi crown princes, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, respectively, is that the loosening of social restrictions in Saudi Arabia—including the emasculation of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment and greater professional opportunities for women, and a degree of genuine religious tolerance and pluralism in the UAE—are only first steps in responding to youth aspirations.
“People are sick and tired of organized religion and being told what to do. That is true for all Gulf states and the rest of the Arab world,” quipped a Saudi businessman. Social scientist Ellen van de Bovenkamp describes Moroccans she interviewed for her PhD thesis as living “a personalized, self-made religiosity, in which ethics and politics are more important than rituals.”
Nevertheless, religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and Morocco continue to project interpretations of the faith that serve the state and are often framed in the language of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue but preserve outmoded legal categories, traditions, and scripture that date back centuries. Outdated concepts of slavery, who is a believer and who is an infidel, apostasy, blasphemy, and physical punishment that need reconceptualization remain in terms of religious law frozen in time. Many of those concepts, with the exception of slavery that has been banned in national law yet remains part of Islamic law, have been embedded in national legislations.
While Turkey continues to, at least nominally, adhere to its secular republican origins, it is no different from its rivals when it comes to grooming state-aligned clergymen, whose ability to think out of the box and develop new interpretations of the faith is impeded by a religious education system that stymies critical thinking and creativity. Instead, it too emphasizes the study of Arabic and memorization of the Qur’an and other religious texts and creates a religious and political establishment that discourages, if not penalizes, innovation.
Widening the gap between state projections of religion and popular aspirations is the fact that governments’ subjugation of religious establishments turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots and fuels youth skepticism towards religious institutions and leaders.
“Youth have […] witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s skepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanations or justifications to the changing reality of today,” said Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein in a commentary on the 2020 Arab Youth Survey.
Pooyan Tamimi Arab, the co-organizer of an online survey in 2020 of Iranian attitudes towards religion that revealed a stunning rejection of state-imposed adherence to conservative religious mores as well as the role of religion in public life noted the widening gap “becomes an existential question. The state wants you to be something that you don’t want to be […]. “Political disappointment steadily turned into religious disappointment […]. Iranians have turned away from institutional religion on an unprecedented scale.”
In a similar vein, Turkish art historian Nese Yildiran recently warned that a fatwa issued by President Erdogan’s Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet declaring popular talismans to ward off “the evil eye” as forbidden by Islam fueled criticism of one of the best-funded branches of government. The fatwa followed the issuance of similar religious opinions banning the dying of men’s moustaches and beards, feeding dogs at home, tattoos, and playing the national lottery as well as statements that were perceived to condone or belittle child abuse and violence against women.
Although compatible with a trend across the Middle East, the Iranian survey’s results, which is based on 50,000 respondents who overwhelmingly said they resided in the Islamic republic, suggested that Iranians were in the frontlines of the region’s quest for religious change.
Funded by Washington-based Iranian human rights activist Ladan Boroumand, the Iranian survey, coupled with other research and opinion polls across the Middle East and North Africa, suggests that not only Muslim youth, but also other age groups, who are increasingly skeptical towards religious and worldly authority, aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.
Their quest runs the gamut from changes in personal religious behavior to conversions in secret to other religions because apostasy is banned and, in some cases, punishable by death, to an abandonment of religion in favor of agnosticism or atheism. Responding to the survey, 80 percent of the participants said they believed in God but only 32.2 percent identified themselves as Shiite Muslims—a far lower percentage than asserted in official figures of predominantly Shiite Iran.
More than one third of the respondents said that they either did not belong to a religion or were atheists or agnostics. Between 43 and 53 percent, depending on age group, suggested that their religious views had changed over time with 6 percent of those saying that they had converted to another religious orientation.
In addition, 68 percent said they opposed the inclusion of religious precepts in national legislation. Moreover 70 percent rejected public funding of religious institutions while 56 percent opposed mandatory religious education in schools. Almost 60 percent admitted that they do not pray, and 72 percent disagreed with women being obliged to wear a hijab in public.
An unpublished slide of the survey shows the change in religiosity reflected in the fact that an increasing number of Iranians no longer name their children after religious figures.
A five-minute YouTube clip uploaded by an ultra-conservative channel allegedly related to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked the survey despite having distributed the questionnaire once the pollsters disclosed in their report that the poll had been supported by an exile human rights group.
“Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible […]. Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza […]. Religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority,” wrote journalist Nicholas Pelham based on a visit in 2019 during which he was detained for several weeks.
In yet another sign of rejection of state-imposed expressions of Islam, Iranians have sought to alleviate the social impact of COVID-19 related lockdowns and restrictions on face-to-face human contact by acquiring dogs, cats, birds, and even reptiles as pets. The Islamic Republic has long viewed pets as a fixture of Western culture. One of the main reasons for keeping pets in Iran is that people no longer believe in the old cultural, religious, or doctrinal taboos as the unalterable words of God. “This shift towards deconstructing old taboos signals a transformation of the Iranian identity—from the traditional to the new,” said psychologist Farnoush Khaledi.
Pets are one form of dissent; clandestine conversions are another. Exiled Iranian Shiite scholar Yaser Mirdamadi noted that “Iranians no longer have faith in state-imposed religion and are groping for religious alternatives.”
A former Israeli army intelligence chief, retired Lt. Col. Marco Moreno, puts the number of converts in Iran, a country of 83 million, at about one million. Moreno’s estimate may be an overestimate. Other studies in put the figure at between 100,000 and 500,000. Whatever the number is, the conversions fit a trend not only in Iran but across the Muslim world of changing attitudes towards religion, a rejection of state-imposed interpretations of Islam, and a search for more individual and varied religious experiences. Iranian press reports about the discovery of clandestine church gatherings in homes in the holy city of Qom suggest conversions to Christianity began more than a decade ago. “The fact that conversions had reached Qom was an indication that this was happening elsewhere in the country,” Mirdamadi, the Shiite cleric, said.
Seeing the converts as an Israeli asset, Moreno backed production of a two-hour documentary, Sheep Among Wolves Volume II, produced by two American Evangelists, one of which resettled on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, that asserts that Iran’s underground community of converts to Christianity is the world’s fastest growing church.
“What if I told you the mosques are empty inside Iran?” said a church leader in the film, his identity masked and his voice distorted to avoid identification. Based on interviews with Iranian converts while they were travelling abroad, the documentary opens with a scene on an Indonesian beach where they meet with the filmmakers for a religious training session.
“What if I told you that Islam is dead? What if I told you that the mosques are empty inside Iran? […] What if I told you no one follows Islam inside of Iran? Would you believe me? This is exactly what is happening inside of Iran. God is moving powerfully inside of Iran?” the church leader added. Unsurprisingly, given the film’s Israeli backing and the filmmaker’s affinity with Israel, the documentary emphasizes the converts’ break with Iran’s staunch rejection of the Jewish State by emphasizing their empathy for Judaism and Israel.
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.