Arab Youth Survey: Religion 'too influential' in Middle East, say young people

Sectarian conflict could be to blame for the rise in sentiment, scholars say

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Two thirds of young Arabs believe that religion is too influential in the Middle East and eight in 10 think religious institutions need reform, according to the findings of a major survey.

The 2019 Arab Youth Survey, published on Tuesday, reveals that attitudes to religion and its role in society is changing rapidly among young adults, with a more secular approach becoming increasingly appealing to 18 to 24-year-olds across the Gulf, Levant and North Africa.

Respected scholars said young Muslims were facing a “deep intellectual crisis” which involved them being caught between an increasingly modern and connected world and outdated rules set by conservative scholars.

Religious institutions were urged to embrace reform and modernisation if they are to remain relevant.

They also said religious and sectarian elements may be to blame for conflicts across the region.

A desire to end the conflict in Syria – regardless of whether Bashar Al Assad remains in power – was another major finding.

A majority in the region, meanwhile, now sees the US as an enemy rather than an ally, while Russia’s influence is perceived to be growing.

The Arab world is also opening up around mental health issues, the findings suggest, with 31 per cent saying they know someone with a condition such as depression or anxiety.

In a result that will surprise many, 57 per cent of young people across the Arab world – and 32 per cent in the GCC – said it was easy to obtain drugs.

The annual survey, now in its 11th year and commissioned by the Dubai communications agency Asda'a Burson Cohn & Wolfe, involved 3,300 face-to-face surveys carried out in January across 15 countries and territories.

Syria and Qatar were not included this year. Respondents were asked for their views on a range of issues, including current events, conflict and international relations.


Researchers, however, highlighted the findings around religion as their most significant. The proportion of young people who said religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East has risen from 50 per cent in 2015 to 66 per cent this year. Half now agree the “Arab world’s religious values are holding the Arab world back” compared to 42 per cent who disagree.

The desire for a less prominent role for religion and a hope for an end to conflict may be interconnected, said Adam Ramey, associate professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi.

He said respondents may blame religion for conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and the hostilities in Yemen.

Iran’s use of sectarian ties to fuel conflicts in Yemen, Syria and beyond has been destabilising the region.

The research pinpointed a lack of Arab unity as the third-most pressing concern of the region’s youth, behind only the rising cost of living and unemployment.

“Seeing the way those figures [around religion playing a lesser role] have increased over time is quite staggering,” Professor Ramey said. “There are regional differences, but to go from 50 per cent to 66 per cent in a few years is a striking finding.

“I think seeing all the regional conflicts and disagreements, especially Syria and Yemen which both have strong sectarian elements to them, is leading young people to see a problem.

This is not to suggest that young Arabs have become irreligious – the data does not show that. But it clearly demonstrates young Arabs... would like to see less religion in the governing of national affairs

“I would imagine there would be a similar trend over time among older generations – that people are saying religion is playing too big of a role – but I think the numbers would be significantly less.

“If you think about it, an 18-year-old in the region was born around the time of 9/11.

"For the vast majority of their life, there’s been the war in Iraq, the Syrian Civil War, all of the upheavals through the Arab Spring and now the conflict in Yemen, so conflict for basically their entire lives.

“For a lot of them I think there's a desire to return to normalcy, they want peace, they want jobs and they want a good education and stability.”

The findings around religion were described as “remarkable” by Afshin Molavi, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

“This is not to suggest that young Arabs have become irreligious – the data does not show that,” he said.

“But it clearly demonstrates that young Arabs are losing faith in the governance of their religious institutions and that they would like to see less religion in the governing of national affairs.”

Almost half of young Arabs, 49 per cent, believe religion is losing influence in the Middle East compared to 29 per cent who believe it is gaining influence.

The results of the survey were “bittersweet”, said Mohammad Shahrour, an academic at the University of Damascus and an Islamic scholar who has been a long-standing and at times controversial proponent of religious reform.

Many young Arabs see the United States and Iran as enemies, according to the survey. Ramon Penas / The National
Many young Arabs see the United States and Iran as enemies, according to the survey. Ramon Penas / The National

They showed that faith remains important to young Arabs, but that the generation also faced a “deep intellectual dilemma” when it came to reconciling conservative teachings with the world they inhabit, he said.

"We see that young Arabs remain attached and devoted to their faith despite being unconvinced of some of the inherited thoughts and religious strictures, which discourage individual thought and which force youth to live within the confines of halal and haram – what is permissible and what is forbidden," he wrote in an op-ed commissioned by the report's authors.

“This generation of Arabs grew up in the midst of a far-reaching civilisational upheaval with access to increasingly advanced technologies. This allowed them to keep pace with worldwide developments, opening their minds to virtually all cultures and civilisations.

“While we see urgency and necessity in fulfilling these calls for reform, religious institutions and leaders turn a deaf ear, quite regrettably, to such demands, under the pretext of safeguarding religion. Reform could very well be the best approach to preserving and sustaining the faith.

It is clear that the rising generation in the Arab world is debating religion on different ground then their parents

The results showed that just over a third, 35 per cent, believe that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist and Saudi dissident, would have a long-term negative impact on how Saudi Arabia is viewed internationally.

Sixteen per cent believed it would have no real negative impact, although 44 per cent said it would have only a temporary negative impact.

Khashoggi was killed at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul last October, in what the kingdom said was an unauthorised “rogue operation”.

Meanwhile, the share of young Arabs who view the US as an adversary has nearly doubled since 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president, to 59 per cent. In contrast, 64 per cent now see Russia as an ally.

Nearly three quarters – 73 per cent – want the Syrian civil war to end regardless of whether Assad remains in power. Around 80 per cent remain concerned about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There was a steep rise in the number of people who think Sunni-Shia relations are getting worse, with 59 per cent saying they had worsened over the past decade – an 11 percentage point increase compared to last year.

Leaders from Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, to Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt’s President, have also called for reform of religious institutions, said Nathan Brown, a specialist in Middle East politics based at George Washington University in the US.

“Opinion polls always pack in some ambiguity,” said Prof Brown, a former president of the Middle East Studies Association.

“Embracing reform of religious institutions sounds like a major step – but it is also one that could mean many different things.

“What is a bit more striking are the comments about the role of religion.

"It is clear that the rising generation in the Arab world is debating religion on different ground than their parents, who lived during an era of what was often called a ‘religious awakening’, and that there might be wider gaps opening up among members of the society.”