Poll describes Arabs as moving away from religion, Islamism

Trust in Islamist movements has declined dramatically since the "Arab spring" revolts.
Friday 28/06/2019
Muslim men perform the Eid al-Fitr prayer at Muscat's Al-Zawawi Mosque in the heart of the Omani capital on the first day of the holiday marking the end of the fasting holy month of Ramadan on June 5, 2019. (AFP)
Muslim men perform the Eid al-Fitr prayer at Muscat's Al-Zawawi Mosque in the heart of the Omani capital on the first day of the holiday marking the end of the fasting holy month of Ramadan on June 5, 2019. (AFP)

BEIRUT - People across the Middle East and North Africa are growing less "religious" and increasingly disappointed by Islamist movements, which emboldened and were empowered by the "Arab spring" uprisings, according to a BBC survey conducted by the Arab Barometer.

More than 25,000 people were interviewed for the survey Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian territories between late 2018 and spring 2019.

The survey suggests that since 2013, the number of people across the region identifying as "not religious" rose from 8% to 13%. The rise is greatest in those under 30, among whom 18% identify as not religious. Only Yemen saw a decline in the category.

In Lebanon, where people are defined by their religion from birth and atheism or "no religion" is not included in the country’s 18 sects, personal piety has declined some 43% over the past decade, indicating less than a quarter of the population now define themselves as religious, the survey found.

While Arabs are said to be increasingly turning their back on religion, their trust in Islamist movements has declined dramatically since the "Arab spring" revolts. Branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran-backed Hezbollah have all suffered a decline in how they are perceived.

Many of the Islamist groups, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, emerged from the chaos in the aftermath of the uprisings. However, despite their initial success, “there is increasing evidence that Islamism has been in decline over the last eight years,” the survey said.

It said it documented a decline by 24% in trust and popularity for Tunisia's Ennahda Movement, the Islamist party that is part of the ruling coalition in the country where the protests started in 2011. The party has been rocked by accusations last year that it ran a secret organisation to infiltrate the military and other state institutions. Elections this year would be a test of how much the drop in trust will affect the party at the ballot box.

In Jordan and Morocco, trust in the Brotherhood has dropped by about 20% since 2012-2013. In Sudan, where pro-Brotherhood countries such as Turkey and Qatar tried to gain influence, the figure is even higher at 25%.

In Egypt, where the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi was elected president in June 2012 before vast protests brought an end to his short and divisive rule, trust decreased by around 4%.

The figure was similar in Libya, where fighting continues to rage seven years after Muammar Qaddafi’s reign was brought to an end, sparking a conflict between an Islamist-backed administration in the west and a rival parliament in the east.

Confidence in religious leaders in the Palestinian territories has also declined significantly — by 22% since 2012. The survey suggests that trust in Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has dropped from 45% to 24% as living conditions in the territory have plummeted under a crippling Israeli blockade. Hamas, which receives large donations from Qatar, was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

The largest decrease in trust in religious leaders over the past three years was recorded in Morocco — at 20% since 2016, said an Arab News analysis of the survey.

Lebanon is the only country in the survey where trust in religious leaders has increased. In fact, it has doubled since 2016. This could be due to the country’s sectarian political makeup, the survey contends, reported Arab News.

The survey found that security remains a top concern for many in the Middle East and North Africa region. When asked which countries posed the biggest threat to their stability and national security, after Israel, the United States was identified as the second biggest threat in the region as a whole and Iran was third.

In every place questioned, research suggested at least one in five people were considering emigrating. In Sudan, this accounted for half the population. Economic reasons were overwhelmingly cited as the driving factor.

Most people across the region supported the right of a woman to become prime minister or president, the BBC said. The exception was Algeria where less than 50% of those questioned agreed that a woman head of state was acceptable.

But when it comes to domestic life, most, including a majority of women, it added, believe that husbands should always have the final say on family decisions. Only in Morocco did fewer than half the population think a husband should always be the ultimate decision-maker.

Acceptance of homosexuality varies but is low or extremely low across the region. In Lebanon, which has reputation for being more socially liberal than its neighbours, the figure is 6%.