FACT-CHECK: Are Arabs turning their backs on religion?

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by Dr. Moamer Khalili

The first issue is that religiosity is understood quite differently by an Arab (and indeed a Muslim) than by your average secular western European. 

A recent poll of twenty-five thousand Arabs was published last week by Arab Barometer, a “…nonpartisan research network that provides insight into the social, political, and economic attitudes and values of ordinary citizens across the Arab world” (Arab Barometer). It was one of five major surveys conducted by the organization and provides significant and relevant information about the region. The data is also interesting reading for those concerned with Arab attitudes and opinions.

Spanning eleven MENA countries and commissioned by the BBC, the survey included multiple choice questions on the religious attitudes and practices of Arabs. This most recent poll found that the percentage of Arabs interviewed that identified as non-religious had grown from 8% to 13% since 2013.

Prominent British newspapers such as The Guardian and The Sun jumped to the conclusion that the Arab world was “turning its back on religion”. 

The Arab world is by any measure, in deep crisis. Politically, economically, socially and even religiously (the survey showed a dramatic increase in those reporting a lack of trust of religious leadership). That said, to claim that Arabs were abandoning their religion is – at best – a gross exaggeration. There are a number of important reasons why.

The question posed to participants in the poll was “In general, you would describe yourself as religious, somewhat religious, or not religious?” Basing your argument that Arabs are losing their religion solely on the answers to this question, while ostensibly straightforward, is somewhat problematic.

The first issue is that religiosity is understood quite differently by an Arab (and indeed a Muslim) than by your average secular western European. 

For example, I asked a family member whether they considered themselves religious. “Not really. But I hope, one day” she replied. This response came from someone who prayed five times a day, fasted Ramadan, wore the hijab, and paid zakat. By any western, secular measure, this person would be considered a religious, practicing Muslim. Yet, she did not consider herself as such. This is because for many Muslims, to be religious means to be engaged in many supererogatory acts of worship, not only those which are obligatory. Indeed many practicing Muslims would be loathe to make the claim that they were pious individuals out of modesty.

While the data for the 2018-2019 survey is not yet available on the Arab Barometer site (at the date of writing), this thesis is supported by the data of the previous 2016-2017 poll. Out of the 9,000 participants, around 10.4% said they were not religious. Of the 10.4% that said they were not religious, 18% of them said that they always prayed five times a day and another 11% on top of that said that prayed five times daily most of the time. To suggest that the 29% had “turned their backs on their religion” as these outlets have reported is quite the overstatement. It will be interesting to see how many of those in the 2018-2019 survey who said they weren’t religious are actually practicing Muslims.

I was recently in a popular mall in western Amman, one of the more secularised parts of the Jordan. Maghrib call to prayer had just sounded and I headed to the large prayer hall which could fit around a hundred people. I arrived early and managed to pray in what became a completely packed space. When I finished, I turned around to find people, young and old, waiting outside for their turn to pray. This does not look like a people who have turned their backs on religion. Quite the contrary.

Dr. Moamer Khalili is a doctoral candidate of religious and theological studies at Cardiff University. His area of research is modern atheism and Islamic theology. 

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