Arabs becoming less religious, BBC survey finds

Arabs becoming less religious, BBC survey finds

Major poll of Arab world shows Trump least popular foreign leader, Israel perceived as top threat, ‘honor killings’ more acceptable than homosexuality

Illustrative - Muslims attend the Friday noon prayer at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, December 28, 2012. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
Illustrative - Muslims attend the Friday noon prayer at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, December 28, 2012. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

A comprehensive public opinion poll conducted across the Arab world shows a growing number of Arabs are becoming less religious, the BBC reported Monday.

One of the key findings on attitudes toward a wide range of issues was a five percent increase since a previous survey in 2013 in the number of people across the Arab world who identify as “not religious.” Of the 13% of Arab League nations’ 420 million people who aren’t religious, the largest group is youth under 30, 18% of whom identify as not religious.

“It is critical that we are able to go on the ground and capture public sentiment,” said Professor Amaney Jamal, a co-director of the Arab Barometer project at Princeton University, which conducted the survey for the BBC.

More than 25,000 people were interviewed for the survey by the Arab Barometer, a research group that tracks public sentiment in the Arab world. The BBC News Arabic division commissioned the study, which was conducted in 10 Arab countries and the Palestinian territories between late 2018 and the spring of 2019.

Professor Amaney Jamal, co-director of the Arab Barometer project at Princeton University. (Courtesy)

The study included the largest Arab countries, but left out Saudi Arabia, whose 2017 population of 33 million ranks it sixth in the Arab League after Egypt (97 million), Algeria (41 million), Sudan (40 million), Iraq (38 million) Morocco (35 million).

Other findings included a majority of Arabs supporting the right of a woman to become leader of a country, except for Algeria, where less than 50% supported the prospect of a female president or prime minister.

At the same time, a majority of respondents including more than half the women polled said the man of the house should have the final say in domestic matters. Morocco was the exception — less than half of those questioned there supported the notion that a man should be the final arbiter in family decisions.

So-called “honor killings” — in which a family member kills a female relative over allegations her actions dishonored the family — remained more acceptable than homosexuality, which was met with very low rates of approval.

With people in the region aware of the political unrest in Tunisia, seen as the Arab country with the strongest democracy, Jamal said Arabs are wary of a move to liberalized democracy.

“Although people’s commitment to freedom and liberty is still very strong, I think people are questioning whether having a regime become more democratic is necessarily a good thing for their lives,” Jamal said in an interview posted on her organization’s website to comment on the survey. “People in the region are cautious about the potential effects of political liberalization.”

The survey also rated opinions of three world leaders — US President Donald Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump ranked a distant third with 12% approval after Erdogan (51%) and Putin (28%). Trump’s Middle East policies were also ranked below those of Erdogan and Putin.

Arabs maintain wariness of Israel, with respondents ranking the Jewish state as the biggest threat to stability and national security, with the United States next, followed by Iran.

With Arab countries ranked as some of the unhappiest places in the world to live, the study showed that 20%, or one in five people, in the countries polled, are thinking about leaving the region, most often due to economic concerns.

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