Is the MENA Region Becoming Less Religious? An Interview with Michael Robbins

In late 2019, the research network Arab Barometer released the results of new polling surveys that show that there has been a decline religious faith and trust in religious parties across the Middle East and North Africa.

Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom, a graduate student at Cambridge University and Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum, recently had the opportunity to discuss these findings with Michael Robbins, Director of the Arab Barometer.

Michael Robbins, PhD has been a part of the Arab Barometer since its inception and has served as director since 2014. He has led or overseen more than 50 surveys in international contexts and is a leading expert in survey methods. His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam, and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the Journal of Democracy.

Religion and Diplomacy: Trust in religious leaders has declined in the Arab world, though not as precipitously as trust in Islamic parties. What explains this discrepancy? Does this increase the importance of the support of charismatic individuals as opposed to parties or ideologies?

Michael Robbins: The loss of trust in Islamist political parties is most likely linked with the changes taking place across the region. The Islamist parties that came to power in Egypt and Tunisia did not have broad support from the populations. In Egypt, the Morsi-led government passed legislation without significant input from more secular powers and proposed a Constitution that was based more heavily on Islamic law. The Egyptian public rejected the narrow focus on the interests of the party’s religious base and turned against the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the regional importance of Egypt, many across the region likely came to fear that similar movements would not uphold their basic concerns and interests, which focus more heavily on economic well-being and good governance than a desire to implement religious law.

Second, the rise of the Islamic State has likely had a dramatic effect on support for Islamist parties. Despite the fact that the Islamic State represents an extremist interpretation of Islam that shares little in common with the ideologies of many long-standing Islamist parties across MENA, the near universal rejection of ISIS by Arab citizens has likely led many to distrust parties that take up the banner of Islam more broadly.

Third, the crackdown by some governments across the Arab world against the Islamist movement has likely had an effect. Egypt has banned the Muslim Brotherhood while certain Gulf countries have similarly sought to marginalize the Islamist movement. This campaign has likely contributed to the loss of faith in Islamist parties.

There has also been a decline in trust in religious leaders, although to a lesser extent. This decline follows a broader pattern of declining trust in major political and social institutions across the region in recent years. The results of the survey suggest that although religious elites retain significant influence across the region, confidence in them is still in decline. This relatively slower rate may be due to their charisma or religious knowledge, which invests them with significant authority in the eyes of many citizens.

R&D: Tunisians, Libyans, and Algerians appear to be significantly more irreligious than those in the Near East. Is there a growing divergence between religiosity in North Africa and that of the Middle East?

Dr Michael Robbins is the Director of the Arab Barometer.

Robbins: First, it is worth noting that only a minority of citizens in any country across the region describe themselves as not religious. Overall, the region remains overwhelmingly religious and will be so for years to come based on current trends.

There is variation in the degree of self-reported religiosity with parts of North Africa being less religious than the Middle East. To some extent, this may be due to the stronger links, particularly historically, to European countries. Today, slightly less than half of Tunisian youth describe themselves as not religious, which stands out across the region. France’s strong cultural influence in Tunisia is likely a major reason behind this development. Similarly, Algeria, to a lesser degree, has been similarly influenced by French culture and media, likely leading to lower levels of religiosity there than elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, Khalifa Haftar is aligned with the anti-Brotherhood bloc of Arab states and has promoted a secular vision for Libya. This changing situation is likely linked with significantly lower levels of religiosity in Libya in recent years.

Similar influences are not as widely spread across the Middle East, particularly in countries that are more strongly divided by sectarian identities. In countries like Iraq or Lebanon, religion remains central to self-identity and is less likely to be affected by broader social trends. Thus, there does appear to be diverging trends between North Africa and much of the Middle East.

R&D: Does North Africa’s comparatively greater religious homogenous demography or the Middle East’s greater heterogeneity matter in explaining some of the new trends about Islam in the wider region?

Robbins: Yes, this factor undoubtedly plays a role. Across North Africa, there are relatively few religious differences that increase the salience of religious identification. In this area, ethnic differences are the primary distinguishing characteristic, as opposed to religious cleavages. In countries like Iraq or Lebanon, the political system reinforces religious identities, which serves to increase the salience of religion in daily life. As a result, self-reported levels of religiosity are likely to remain more stable in the Middle East compared with North Africa.

R&D: While most Muslims are already non-Arabs, is the current decline in belief in Islam and Islamic institutions in the MENA region paving the way for greater influence for non-Arabs (e.g. Pakistan or Indonesia) in defining the future of Islam?

Robbins: It is certainly possible that these changes, at least over the long-term, could shift the center of gravity away from the Arab world. That said, the vast majority of Arab citizens remain religious and religion plays a key role across the region. However, there appears to be a form of religious vacuum forming where existing actors are declining in power and influence. In fact, this trend is not limited to MENA, but long-standing religious institutions around the world are losing power and influence. Across Arab countries, state-affiliated religious institutions continue to exist, but are losing legitimacy in the eyes of Arab publics. Similarly, the challenge from the primary opposition actor that took up the name of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, is also weakening. The question remains as to which actors will fill the void.

There is a possibility that religious leaders who are adept at social media are likely to replace these long-standing religious actors. Although the vast majority of Muslims oppose the Islamic State, the speed with which ISIS could mobilize a large following was made possible by use of social media. Two decades ago, Yusuf Qaradawi was similarly able to build a large following through the use of online and satellite media. The capacity for religious actors to make use of new forms of media to promote their message will undoubtedly help define who has influence in the years to come.

Given the diversity of new media, particularly social media, citizens have greater options than ever before in whom they look to for religious guidance. The monopoly of state institutions or long-standing Islamist parties is weakening. This opening certainly creates a possibility for religious leaders outside of MENA, including countries like Indonesia and Pakistan, to increase their influence in the region.

R&D: Is the decline in religious belief impacting, or going to impact, other beliefs? Are issues such as homosexuality, the role of women, etc. still viewed through a religious lens or have they become cultural attitudes that are divorced from religious beliefs?

Robbins: It is too soon to say for sure that decreasing levels of religiosity across MENA will have a direct effect on these social issues. Acceptance of homosexuality remains low across the region among both those who are and are not religious. Existing cultural norms beyond levels of religiosity would have to shift significantly for views on this issue to change dramatically.

The same is largely true for issues related to women’s rights and roles. Across the region, those who are not religious are somewhat more likely to say women should play an equal role in society. However, the difference is not dramatic. For example, among those who are religious, 63 percent say that husbands should always have the final say in family decisions compared with 56 percent of those who are not religious. In other words, lower levels of religiosity do not directly translate into a dramatically different view of women. Rather, promoting women’s equality would also require a broader cultural shift about the place of women in society.

R&D: Fifty-one percent of Arabs polled in your survey expressed a positive view of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite the fact that he is arguably the most Islamic leader in Turkey’s history since the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Is this due to his religious postering or in spite of it?

Robbins: Among the world leaders we asked about in the survey, Erdogan is by far the most popular. However, his popularity is not universal. In countries that are more closely aligned with the Saudi- and Emirati-led bloc across the region, Erdogan has very low levels of support.  His support thus appears more closely linked with Turkey’s role in regional politics than with his embrace of Islam. Turkey’s opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, support for Gaza, and hosting of many Arab dissidents (despite the persecution of its own dissidents) are more likely the cause of his broad regional support. At the same time, his embrace of Islam surely doesn’t hurt him given that the vast majority of Arab citizens remain religious.

R&D: Do you believe that the rapid decline in religiosity means that these changes can be easily reversed in the coming few years or is this a steady trend?

Robbins: This is an open question and one of the reasons it is important to continue tracking levels of religiosity through future surveys. Although there has been a significant uptick in the percentage of Arab citizens who say they are not religious, the overall change has been only 5 percentage points since 2013, rising from 8 percent to 13 percent. In relative terms, however, this is a fairly dramatic increase, representing a 61 percent increase only five years. What is notable, however, is that this trend is especially pronounced among the region’s youth, with the percentage that are not religious rising from 11 percent to 18 percent during this period.

The fact that youth are less religious is not surprising, as it is something that has been seen across most other world regions. In Tunisia today, youth (47 percent) are as likely to say they are not religious as in the United States (46 percent). It is difficult to believe that Tunisian society will not continue to become more secular in the years ahead. In light of this trend, it’s unsurprising that Ennahda has formally declared it was no longer a religious party in 2016 for the sake of its political future. In other countries, youth are less likely than older generations to say they are religious, making it unlikely that the gradual turn away from religion in MENA will stop in the years ahead.

However, the majority of citizens in MENA will not turn their backs on religion in the near future. The survey finds that for most in the region, religions continues to play a major role in their lives. Three-quarters (77 percent) of all citizens say that they pray daily while half of Muslims read or listen to the Quran on a daily basis. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Muslim men report attending mosque once a week. In short, religious practice continues to be extremely important to most people living in the Arab region and will likely continue to do so for years to come.

R&D: The countries covered in the survey are less theocratic than those in the Gulf. What do you suspect are the current trends there?

Robbins: Unfortunately, it is difficult to say much about attitudes in the Gulf countries. The goal of our project is to conduct surveys across all parts of the Middle East and North Africa, including the Gulf, but for the most part we have not been able to gain free and fair access to conduct our research in these countries. As such, there is far less we can say about trends in religious practice in this region. In fact, even in Kuwait, which was the only country that provided us full access to conduct and publish the results of our survey, we were not permitted by authorities to ask questions related to religion.

If we were able to field questions on religion throughout the Gulf, I suspect that we would find that very few citizens would identify as not religious. Social conservatism strongly influences citizens in this part of the world and much of social life is centered around religious activities. Accordingly, I would expect that these areas would exhibit higher levels of religiosity if we were able to field the surveys in these countries. In part, this is also due to the fact that there is a credible exit option for many citizens in these countries who do not want to live under such conditions. Given the relatively high income per person in these countries, many less religious citizens have the option to live elsewhere in places where they are able to be somewhat less religious. Thus, among citizens who remain in these countries, it is less likely that we would see a significant increase in the percentage who are not religious.

This blog was originally published at “Religion and Diplomacy”.