Study sees religion as the moral compass of Arab societies

Updated 09 December 2019

Study sees religion as the moral compass of Arab societies

  • Over 70 percent of Arabs feel their home country is religious, according to a YouGov poll
  • Respondents think religion plays an important role in maintaining moral standards in society

DUBAI: The Arab world remains religious, with 72 percent of Arab respondents in a YouGov survey saying that their country is deeply religious or somewhat religious, and 66 percent classing themselves as actively practicing their religion.
In its partnership with the Arab Strategy Forum, Arab News commissioned the survey to gauge the views and concerns of Arabs today and their projections for the future of the region.
A total of 3,079 Arabic speakers aged 18 or above, residing across 18 countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), were interviewed for the study.
The highest numbers of respondents asserting that their home country is very religious or somewhat religious were to be found in Yemen (84 percent) and Sudan (84 percent).
Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, says the combined average of 72 percent is surprising as “you would expect, in a place like the Arab world, where religion is deeply rooted, that you would see more than 72 percent of people say religion is here to stay. I expected that from 90 percent of the people.”
Commenting on the other 28 percent who did not think their home country is very religious or somewhat religious, he said it is a significant number, indicative possibly of a millennial generation that is becoming more global, more tolerant, more open and probably as religious as the older generation but “they don’t see things only through the prism of religion.”



Overall, religion was viewed by a majority of Arabs as providing a moral compass, with 62 percent believing their countries need religious laws to maintain moral standards.
For his part, Dr. Albadr Al-Shateri, politics professor at the National Defense College, Abu Dhabi, said the MENA region has to chart its own course; it cannot, and should not, import models from other areas. “Islam will remain part and parcel of the identity of the region,” he said.
“A complete divorce with religion is not only impossible, but it is not desirable. Societies derive their morals and bearings from their culture and heritage.”
What the region needs, he believes, is a civil state and a religious society. “In other words, the state remains neutral on religious faith, but society assumes the role of the guardian of religion.” 
“We need to protect religion from politics. Society can manage its religious affairs and government can lend a hand but should not allow itself to be mired in theology or theocracy. This is not a separation of religion and state. This is a separation of functions of different institutions: one government and the other societal.”

Mark Katz, who teaches government and politics at George Mason University in the US state of Virginia, says the figures suggest that Arabs still look to their religion for guidance, but they are now more skeptical about whether those parties that claim to be guided by religion actually are, or whether those parties’ interpretation of religion is correct.
Secularization is seen from the YouGov study as having a potentially negative impact on respondents’ home countries, according to 37 percent of polled Arabs, especially in stable countries where religion is not fused with politics.
Some of the countries with the highest numbers saying that secularization will have a negative impact over the next 10 years include Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya and Qatar, as well as Tunisia and Yemen.
However, a combined average of 32 percent expressed neutrality on secularization or saw it has having a positive impact over the next 10 years. “They think of it in a positive light, which is very interesting, coming from cases like Iraq and Lebanon,” said Abdulla.
“It’s great news for secularization. It always had a bad perception, but now only 37 percent see it in a negative way … which is great because we’ve had enough of extremism.”
Abdulla says the numbers are perhaps a reflection of a changing world where diversity is welcomed. “We need to get over this negative perception of secularization, which completely misreads and misunderstands what it is all about,” he said.
“In Europe, in the West, as well as in Japan and South Korea, the concept has been a pillar of progress, advancement, prosperity and stability.”
Abdulla sees the figures as a change from the overwhelming negative perception of secularization that has been around for decades in the Arab world.
Looking at the figures, Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House, says regional countries where secularism was imposed have the most pervasive presence of religious extremism. 
“From the 1920s to the 1940s, there were liberal societies and governments in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and everywhere,” he said. “From the late 1940s and early 1950s onwards, a brutal kind of secularism was imposed on these countries, a sort of secular nationalism, including the Baath party and Nasserism, and this is when you see, historically, the rise of religious extremism.”
He says secular states and institutions that suppress a religious society will produce extremism, which has been witnessed in Turkey, once a model of secularism but where Islamists are now in control.
However, he said secularization is changing, if the protests in the MENA region are any guide. “It’s a good thing overall,” he told Arab News.
“It’s a deep cultural change and a generational change, although I don’t know where it is going. But it expresses the dissatisfaction with the current order. It may lead to something worse but only time will tell.”


Successor to slain Iran general faces same fate if he kills Americans: US envoy

Updated 23 January 2020

Successor to slain Iran general faces same fate if he kills Americans: US envoy

  • Washington blamed Soleimani for masterminding attacks by Iran-aligned militias against US forces in the region
  • Ghaani promised to “continue in this luminous path” taken by Soleimani and said the goal was to drive US forces out of the region

DUBAI: The US special representative for Iran said the successor to Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike, would suffer the same fate if he followed a similar path of killing Americans, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported.

Washington blamed Soleimani for masterminding attacks by Iran-aligned militias against US forces in the region. US President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike in Iraq after a build up of tension over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran responded to the killing of Soleimani, who was charged with expanding Tehran’s influence across the Middle East, by launching missile strikes on US targets in Iraq, although no US soldiers were killed.

After Soleimani’s death, Tehran swiftly appointed Esmail Ghaani as the new head of the Quds Force, an elite unit in the Revolutionary Guards that handles actions abroad. The new commander pledged to pursue Soleimani’s course.

“If (Esmail) Ghaani follows the same path of killing Americans then he will meet the same fate,” Brian Hook told the Arabic-language daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

He said in the interview in Davos that US President Donald Trump had long made it clear “that any attack on Americans or American interests would be met with a decisive response.”

“This isn’t a new threat. The president has always said that he will always respond decisively to protect American interests,” Hook said. “I think the Iranian regime understands now that they cannot attack America and get away with it.”

After his appointment, Ghaani promised to “continue in this luminous path” taken by Soleimani and said the goal was to drive US forces out of the region, which has long been Iran’s stated policy.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have steadily increased since Trump withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed tough news sanctions that have hammered the Iranian economy.

This month’s military flare-up began in December when rockets fired at US bases in Iraq killed a US contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the US embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the drone strike on Soleimani.