Arab Religiosity Survey Raises More Questions Than It Answers

Jonathan Gornall

AFP Photo: Mohamed El-Shahed

“Arabs becoming less religious,” proclaimed the Times of Israel. “Arab world turns its back on religion,” agreed the Guardian. Arabs, chorused The Times of London, were “losing their religion.” The headlines were as unambiguous as they were surprising and, on closer analysis of the research that triggered them, perhaps said rather more about the prejudices of the headline writers than the people they purported to be about.

But the rash of similarly themed articles that erupted across the world’s media in the third week of June raised other red flags – about the nature and funding of the research program that led to them and the dangers of the sort of racial profiling it unleashed.

The articles were based on “the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa,” carried out in conjunction with the BBC by an organization called Arab Barometer. Based at Princeton University, Arab Barometer describes itself as 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’s co-founder is Amaney Jamal, a politics professor at Princeton whose research is focused on “democratization and the politics of civic engagement in the Arab world.” Born in the US to Palestinian parents, Professor Jamal, author of the book “Barriers to Democracy,” also runs the Workshop on Arab Political Development, an “intellectual hub committed to an inclusive analysis of the political obstacles and opportunities facing the contemporary Arab world.”

Democratization is certainly the goal of one of Arab Barometer’s main funders. The work of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a US State Department program described as “a strategically important tool” for advancing US foreign policy, is focused on promoting “participatory governance” across the Middle East and North Africa. Arab Barometer also receives money from the US Institute of Peace, founded by Congress to “advance peace and US national security,” and USAid, part of whose mission is to “promote and demonstrate democratic values abroad.”

Since 2006, using organizations in the surveyed countries to carry out the groundwork, Arab Barometer has conducted five series of surveys across a number of countries across the MENA region on subjects ranging from economics, governance and corruption to religion, social justice and gender issues. All of these surveys, including the latest, have been distinguished by the exclusion of key Arab states, including the UAE, Oman and Qatar. Saudi Arabia has featured only once, in a survey carried out in 2010-11, and, along with the other five member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, was also excluded from the current survey.

A spokesperson for Arab Barometer said several Gulf governments, including that of the UAE, had “refused full and fair access to the survey.” Whatever the reason for that – perhaps, with some justification, they had concerns about how the findings might be used – their exclusion invalidates any suggestion that this survey is truly representative of the “the Arab world.”

The survey, whose results have been presented as being representative of the views of over 420 million people, canvassed the opinions of 25,000 people across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories. Six of these – Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan – were in North Africa, with only Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen representing the Middle East.

Contrary to popular Western belief, Arabs are not a homogeneous mass. There are significant cultural, political and historical differences, both between the surveyed countries in North Africa and those in the Middle East, and even among the five Middle Eastern states. Basing an “all Arabs believe the following” conclusion on such a limited, and diverse, cohort is equivalent to surveying the views of a sample of Danish, French, British and Belgian citizens and declaring the results representative of all Anglo-Saxons.

There is another issue, related to the scale of the findings, that undermines the sweeping generalizations of the subsequent coverage. According to the survey, since 2013 the number of people “across the region” who say they are not religious has risen to 13 percent from 8 percent, a figure boosted by particularly large changes reported in Tunisia and Libya (and anyway tempered by a margin of error of 3 percent).

Detailed data has not yet been released. But a BBC graphic appears to show that the increase among three of the four included Middle Eastern nations averaged less than 1.5 percent, while Yemen actually saw a decrease, to 5 percent from about 12 percent.

Of course, Arab Barometer did not write the headlines. But the BBC, its partner in this survey, was among the many news organizations that reported unequivocally that “Arabs are increasingly saying they are no longer religious.”

There were other findings other than the supposed decline in religion – honor killings, reported the BBC, were “more acceptable than homosexuality” and in every country “at least one in five people were considering emigrating” – but each of these is equally insupportable as a measure of truly pan-Arab opinion.

Such research, if it accurately reflects social trends, is invaluable for shaping policy responses to changing realities. If religion, a vital social lynchpin, truly is in decline in any Arab nation, then such societies may be heading for a deterioration in social cohesion.

But in claiming, as Arab Barometer does, to have given “a voice to the needs and concerns of Arab publics,” it is guilty not only of complicity with Western wish-fulfilment but also of perpetuating stereotypes of Arabs and their attitudes.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.