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.”


Beirut wakes up to a nightmare after port explosion kills 135

Updated 06 August 2020

Beirut wakes up to a nightmare after port explosion kills 135

  • Cost of damage estimated at $15 billion
  • Port officials under house arrest

BEIRUT: Most people experience nightmares only when they sleep. On Wednesday, Beirut woke up to one.

The once bustling port area of the Lebanese capital, the site of Tuesday’s massive explosions, lay in ruins. Amid the flattened remains of warehouses, one of which had been used for years to store 2,750 tonnes of confiscated, highly explosive ammonium nitrate, all that remained standing was the twisted, mangled ruin of a grain silo, its precious contents now unusable.

Farther into the city, where the shock wave from the main blast caused devastation over a radius of more than five kilometers, residents mourned the dead, continued to search for missing loved ones and surveyed the ruins of their homes and businesses.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated the cost of the damage at up to $15 billion, an impossible amount for an already bankrupt economy. Maroun Helou, the president of the Lebanese Contractors Syndicate, estimated that about 50,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

The official death toll rose on Wednesday to 135. More than 5,000 people were injured and dozens are still missing, many of them believed to be port workers buried under the rubble at the heart of the explosion. The Lebanese flag flew at half-staff across the country as a mark of respect for the victims.

Lebanese Red Cross chief George Kettana described the blast and its aftermath as “an unprecedented disaster.” He added: “Seventy-five of our ambulances have transported 100 dead and more than 4,000 injured so far and there are (still people) missing.”

Surgeons continued to operate on the injured on Wednesday, after hospitals were overwhelmed on Tuesday. Some of the wounded told how they were taken to hospital on motorcycles driven by passers-by because ambulances were unable to reach them.

Security forces cordoned off central Beirut to prevent theft and looting. The few pedestrians that could be seen found it difficult to walk on streets covered in shattered glass.

One shop owner said: “I experienced all the wars that took place in Beirut, and the attacks against it, but I have never witnessed such devastation in my life. How will we survive? Everything has been destroyed. We are tired. We want salvation.”

Eleven members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, who were on boats anchored at the port, were injured by the blast. They were taken to Sidon for treatment, as emergency departments in Beirut struggled to cope with the flood of wounded. The tourist ship Orient Queen sank in the port. Two crew members were killed and seven injured.

Pierre Ashkar, head of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, said: “Ninety percent of Beirut’s hotels have been damaged and there are large numbers of wounded people in hotels, including employees and customers.”

Although silos used for storing wheat — which were rebuilt 15 years ago after suffering damage during the Civil War — were destroyed in the blast, analysts said this is not expected to cause a bread shortage. One expert said: “Wheat will not be stored during reconstruction of the silos. Instead, it will be unloaded from ships directly to trucks that will transport it to the mills.”

The Lebanese cabinet, which met for an unscheduled meeting on Wednesday, has declared a state of emergency lasting two weeks, which gives the military the authority to maintain national security. It also ordered that all those responsible for the management, storage, guarding and scrutiny of the chemicals in the warehouse at the port be placed under house arrest, and vowed that those responsible for the explosion would be identified.

While visiting the port to survey the damage, President Michel Aoun said: “The city of Beirut has turned into a disaster city. But the enormity of the shock will not prevent us from carrying out investigations and revealing the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible, holding the officials and inattentive people accountable and imposing the most severe penalties against them.”

A senior judge instructed the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces to carry out swift investigations into the circumstances of the explosion, including identification of those tasked with ensuring the safe storage of the chemicals, and those in charge of maintenance work reportedly being carried out at the warehouse shortly before the blast.

The details of the confiscation of the ammonium nitrate about six years ago are still somewhat unclear. The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, said there had been correspondence about the chemicals at the time of the seizure and guards were assigned to them, but that port authorities had no authority to move or dispose of them. He added that the judiciary had issued instructions for a gap in a gate to be closed to protect the chemicals from damage or theft and this was implemented by port authorities.

There have been suggestions that welding work at or near the warehouse caused a fire that triggered the explosion.

Meanwhile, messages of support and promises of aid poured in from world leaders. The cabinet was informed that French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Lebanon on Thursday to “stress solidarity with the Lebanese in the ordeal that befell them.”

In a call to Prime Minister Hassan Diab, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged “the support of the United States for Lebanon, and its willingness to provide urgent assistance,” the PM’s office said.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri also visited the scene of the explosion. He was greeted at the nearby memorial to his father, Rafic Hariri, by protesters tried to throw stones at him.
Meanwhile dozens of aircraft loaded with medical aid, including field hospitals, were sent to Lebanon by Arab and other foreign countries.

However, Suleiman Haroun, the president of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, said: “The stock of medical supplies for hospitals is exhausted. We do not need field hospitals, but rather tools and supplies.”