Days before vote, huge majority of Iranians favor Sharia law

Pew study signals strong support for religious influence in politics; another survey finds deeply unfavorable views of Islamic Republic worldwide

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An Iranian clergyman talks with men in the eastern city of Birjand, Iran. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)
An Iranian clergyman talks with men in the eastern city of Birjand, Iran. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)

NEW YORK — Iranians favor implementing Sharia law in Iran by a huge majority — 83 percent to just 15 opposed — according to a new survey of Iranians published Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

A majority of Iranian Muslims already believe that is the case in the country. Over one-third, 37%, believe Iran’s current system follows Sharia law “very closely,” while another 45% say it follows Muslim religious law “somewhat closely.” Among the 13% who believe Sharia law is largely not being implemented in Iran, a large majority, 78%, believe it should be.

The survey, published three days before Friday’s Iranian presidential election, found strong support for Islamic-inspired government in the country, despite the belief of many Westerners that the 2009 elections signaled a desire among Iranians to liberalize or overthrow the religious institutions that control the Iranian state.

The study was conducted from February 24 to May 3, through 1,522 face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of Iranians.

In a country ruled by an unelected theologian who serves as “Supreme Leader,” fully 40% of Iranians say religious figures should have “a large influence” on political matters. Another one-quarter, or 26%, say they should have “some influence,” while just 30% say they should have “not too much” — or no influence at all.

Younger Iranians are somewhat less likely to favor a strong influence by religious leaders in politics. Among Iranians aged 18-34, just 35% are in favor, compared to 46% for those over 34.

It’s unclear what the figures may signify. With a huge gap between support for Sharia law and support for religious leaders’ influence in politics, and with 44% of Iranians saying that tensions between more and less devout Muslims are prevalent in their country, the apparent consensus on instituting Sharia law may hide a deeper divide over what religious law represents.

In addition, Iran’s government has led a dramatic crackdown on dissent in recent years in the wake of widespread rioting following the 2009 elections. The limits on political freedoms and free expression may have some influence on the polling data. As Pew noted in its statement Tuesday publicizing the study, “Unlike in most countries surveyed by Pew Research, due to political sensitivities it was not possible to ask Iranian citizens to directly rate the performance of their government or religious institutions.”

The study also found that a majority of Iranians feel safe from “extremist religious groups.” Asked how concerned they were, if at all, “about extremist religious groups in our country these days,” a plurality of 35% said they were “not too concerned.” Another 13% said they were not concerned at all, and 14% volunteered of their own accord the view that such groups did not exist in Iran. Only 28% said they were concerned, with just 9% saying they were very concerned.

Disliked by much of the world

Meanwhile, a separate Pew study conducted during the same period among 37,653 respondents in 39 countries ( found that majorities in most countries have an unfavorable view of the Islamic Republic.

Some of the study’s findings are expected, including the huge majorities in the West that have unfavorable views of Iran. Among Americans, 69% have an unfavorable opinion of the country, compared to just 16% favorable. Among Germans, the figure is an even starker 85-7. Among the French, it’s 88-11. And in Britain, the figures are 59-17.

But more surprising is the deeply negative views of the country held by Arabs in the Middle East, and among countries ostensibly detached from the Middle East’s many conflicts.

In the Arab world, Iran is disliked by a huge majority of Jordanians (81-18) and Egyptians (78-20), and faces significantly unfavorable views among the Palestinians (55-37) and Tunisians (44-30).

Unfavorable views of Iran have actually intensified in many countries in the region since a similar survey conducted in 2007. In both Egypt and Jordan, the unfavorable figure rose by 28 percentage points, and among the Palestinians by 16 points. In neighboring Turkey, 68% dislike Iran, an increase of 12 points since 2007.

In Shi’ite-majority Lebanon, where Iran holds significant sway through its support for Hezbollah, a majority (60-40) holds an unfavorable view of Iran, but the figure divides starkly among Lebanon’s different religious groups. Shi’ites heavily favor Iran (89% favorable to 11% unfavorable), while Sunnis dislike it (93% unfavorable to just 6% favorable). Lebanon’s Christians are more divided, but a majority (62-38) holds unfavorable views.

The Arab Spring may have something to do with the decline of Iran’s stature in the region, as large majorities in Arab states — 66% in Egypt, 61% in Jordan and 61% in Lebanon — say Iran’s government does not respect the rights of its citizens. Majorities in Turkey (69%), Egypt (73%), Jordan (79%) and Lebanon (59%) are opposed to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Iran fares poorly even in the two countries, China and Russia, seen as delaying international efforts to stymie its drive toward nuclear weapons capability. In China, the unfavorable figures (58%) are nearly double the favorable (26%), while in Russia a lower unfavorable rating (42%) nevertheless towers over the favorable numbers (24%). And the trajectory is not moving in Iran’s favor, with Russian dislike for Iran up by 9 points since 2007. Similarly, majorities in Russia (75%) and China (62%) oppose Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. In both countries, large majorities (75-8 in Russia and 62-18 in China) oppose an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Even in Venezuela, whose most recent president Hugo Chavez built an alliance with Tehran, Iran’s unfavorable rating (51%) far surpasses its favorable (29%).

Elsewhere, fully 71% of Brazilians have an unfavorable view of Iran, compared to just 17% favorable. Among South Africans, the figure is 57-23; in Japan, 75-12; and in Mexico, 52-20.

Among the 39 countries surveyed, in only six did Iran’s favorable numbers outstrip the unfavorable: Pakistan, 69-6; Indonesia, 55-24; Malaysia, 48-25; Kenya, 42-34; and Senegal, 41-28.

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