In the MENA region, more and more young people are identifying as non-religious

In a region where religion and politics are intimately linked, one of the reasons for this decline in religiosity and the waning trust in religious institutions may be the disappointment with Islamist parties, in light of their poor performance since the so-called Arab Spring. Mass prayers are held in Tahrir Square, Cairo, shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. (Ricard González)

Following the umpteenth controversy surrounding the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, driven by President Emmanuel Macron of France on this occasion, various media outlets reported on the “protests across the Muslim world”, along with the heated statements made by several leaders in Muslim-majority countries. Although the demonstrations were not limited to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the controversy contributed to fuelling the stereotype of the ‘Arab world’ as an ultra-conservative region where everything is dominated by religion. There are, however, some indications that beneath this tempestuous surface lies an undercurrent, pointing to a shift in the opposite direction, especially among young people.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study pointing to this shift is the 2019 Arab Barometer, an annual macro-survey conducted since 2006 by an international network of institutions in which more than 25,000 people from 11 MENA countries took part. According to the survey, the percentage of respondents who described themselves as “not religious” rose from eight per cent to 13 per cent in a single year. The increase is even larger among the under-30s, rising to 18 per cent from 11 per cent the previous year. In some countries, the proportion of youngsters that are not religious is surprisingly high, reaching almost half in Tunisia, a third in Libya and a quarter in Algeria.

According to Georges Fahmi, an Egyptian researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, the figures are compatible with his empirical observations. “It is a trend that is manifested in different ways, ranging from the women taking off the headscarf or the men who no longer pray, or only pray on Fridays, but insist they are still Muslims, to those who have lost faith in religion altogether, saying they no longer believe in God.”

Many of the protest movements emerging over the last two years, chiefly led by young people, have not had an Islamist slant (Algeria) or have even been critical of the country’s Islamist leaders (Sudan) or of the sectarianism among the political elite (Iraq and Lebanon).

These demonstrations have been much bigger than any of the protests linked to the cartoon controversy. The Arab Barometer points, moreover, to a considerable decline in overall support for Islamist parties, which has dropped to 20 per cent across all age groups, as compared with 35 per cent in 2013. The level of trust in religious leaders has also fallen. Seven years ago, half of the respondents said they had a “great” or “medium” level of trust in religious leaders. That figure has now dropped to 40 per cent.

In a region where religion and politics are intimately linked, one of the reasons for this decline in religiosity and the waning trust in religious institutions may be the disappointment with Islamist parties, in light of their poor performance since the so-called Arab Spring, which brought down a number of dictators. For Fahmi, “the failure of political Islam to offer a coherent project inspired by Islam” such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia, “has left many young people frustrated and doubting religiosity as an indicator for being a good person. I have heard this idea many times in Egypt from women who have decided not to wear the headscarf”.

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“The increase in ‘jihadist’ attacks, many of them in Muslim-majority countries, is also a factor to be taken into account. Younger people in particular do not understand how you can kill in the name of religion, and so they distance themselves from it,” says Salaheddin Jourchi, a Tunisian Islamic thinker for whom the lack of trust in established institutions stems from the various crises – economic, social, political and the crisis of values – in MENA countries. “There is also a communication crisis on the part of the religious authorities, who are failing to connect with young people and their concerns,” he adds. The new generations are more outward looking than previous ones, especially thanks to the internet and social media, and there is an ever greater disconnect between their aspirations and the immutable official line.

A process of secularisation in the making?
Most analysts and academics point to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution as a turning point in the place occupied by religion in public life in the MENA region. The rise of Ayatollah Khomeini was a landmark in the region’s gradual re-Islamisation, or the rise of religious conservatism. But it has not been the only factor. Others include the resounding defeat of the secularising Arab regimes involved in the 1967 war with Israel and, above all, the increase in oil prices, which financed the export of hardline Islam from the petro-monarchies in the Gulf, through the building of mosques and the sending of imams laden with books and educational material. The economies of these countries, led by Saudi Arabia, also attracted millions of workers from other Muslim-majority countries, who would often go back, some years later, with a much more conservative outlook.

“Despite the disenchantment, many young people may practice less but they have not renounced their religion. What they want, rather, is reform. One indication of this is the renewed interest in Sufi spiritual orders,” says Jourchi.

Even in Tunisia, a country where the amount of young people who describe themselves as “not religious” – 46 per cent – is similar to that of the United States, there are few who feel they can admit to being agnostic or atheist without fear of reproach or reprisal of one kind or another. “We opened a ‘free thinkers’ page so that we can set up private groups for debate and discussion, where we can express our views without fear of what others might say or do. We were surprised to discover how many of us there were,” explains Karisma, a Tunisian woman who describes herself as “agnostic and liberated”, co-founder of the Tunisian Free Thinkers Association (and who uses this pseudonym for security reasons).

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Tunisia’s democratic constitution, adopted in 2014, is ambiguous if not self-contradictory regarding the role of religion in public life. At the same time as guaranteeing the right to freedom of conscience, its first article establishes that Islam is the country’s religion and article six sets out the state’s duty to protect all that is sacred and guard it from attack. The result is judicial rulings that violate freedom of expression or conscience. Blogger Emna Charqui, for example, was sentenced to six months in prison last summer for “inciting religious hatred” after sharing a satirical post on social media, calling on people to follow the preventative measures set out in response to the coronavirus pandemic, in the style of a verse from the Qur’an.

Apostasy is forbidden according to the dominant interpretation of the Qur’an, and some of the most fundamentalist interpretations even hold that it is punishable by death. “In Libya, under Sharia (Islamic law), the act of declaring oneself atheist can be denounced. Should this happen, the courts provide the accused with the opportunity to publicly retract the statement,” explains Karakuz (not his real name), a Libyan atheist from the Tripoli region. “People who know you don’t believe in God generally leave you be, as long as you don’t engage in inflammatory acts, such as publishing the cartoons of Mohammed. But the danger lies more with the Salafist groups than with the courts,” he adds.

Although the data suggests that the tide of religiosity is beginning to turn, it is hard to predict whether the trend will continue. If it does, a process of secularisation similar to that experienced in Western countries since the 19th century may emerge within a matter of decades. Although, as Fahmi warns: “The failure of political Islam could lead to more liberalisation or secularisation, but it could also lead to the adoption of fundamentalist ideas.” For Karisma, young people’s views on religion are increasingly polarised in Tunisia, with a rise not only in the number of youngsters that are “not religious” but also in the number of young extremists. Project director for the Arab Barometer, Michael Robbins, is cautious when it comes to making forecasts: “Some young people may return to religion as they get older and have families. It is too soon to know, but we will continue to track this trend in future surveys.”

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