Surveying Muslims

The Pew Forum just published an impressive international survey of Muslims and their perspectives on religion, society, and politics.  The methodology section gives fair warning about the difficulties of attempting a survey across societies as diverse as Morocco and Thailand, Russia and Niger, in 80 languages, especially such a long survey.

Some results were not surprises.  The fact that most Muslims believe that suicide bombers targeting civilians is never justified in defense of Islam accords both with the traditional Sunni rejection of suicide missions and the widespread human desire for peace and stability.  The extreme exception, that of the Palestinian territories (where 40% said that suicide attacks may be justified), is revealing either of the desperation of the populace or its militancy, depending on your preferred political interpretation.  The fact that more parents are comfortable with sons marrying non-Muslims than with daughters doing so is to be expected, as is the awful fact that justification for “honor killings” is more widespread against women than against men.

The big news item seems to be that most Muslims “want Shari’a,” but disagree on what that means.  This was highlighted in the study’s Executive Summary, as well as in articles by the LA Times, CNN’s Religion blog, and al-Jazeera Arabic, to take three examples.  Some sources have then remarked with surprise that the majority of survey participants also favored freedom of religion.  I don’t find either of these results all that surprising.

It is important to remember that the concept of “al-shari’a” (الشريعة) in Islamic societies is very different from how “Shari’a” is considered in the West.  Public discussion of “Shari’a” in the West regards it as a foreign and alien legal system, focusing on how “out of step” Shari’a is with “modern values,” how harsh some of the prescribed sentences can be, and how it is only associated with violent militants.  Things look very different in Muslim-majority countries, where al-shari’a (when it doesn’t just mean “the law” – I looked in vain on the Pew Forum’s website to see how this question was precisely worded in Arabic) can mean a check on corruption and criminality, God’s revealed way of “fair dealing,” and the end of social ills such as public drunkenness and prostitution.  Far from being only associated with militants, this study reveals that in many countries (but not Azerbayjan) it can seem that almost “everyone in their right mind” wants al-shari’a.

It is indicative that in all countries (except Afghanistan, by one percentage point) more respondents favored applying Islamic law to “family and property disputes” than favored the death penalty for those who convert away from Islam (questions #92a and #92b), and while not so uniform, in most countries more people favored the application of al-shari’a to family/property than to the harsh sentences (flogging, cutting off hands for theft, stoning for adultery) which are constitutive of what many Western non-Muslim commentators mean by Shari’a itself.  Those latter numbers may still be uncomfortably high for many, but they indicate that those “harsh punishments” are not what many Muslims identify as the most important part of Islamic law.  Even apart from the question whether respondents consider al-shari’a to be susceptible of multiple interpretations, the precise connotations of the term vary widely.

And if shari’a means different things to different people, religious freedom can as well.  I once had a friend who was from Singapore but had lived for years in Japan, before I met him in a Chicago suburb.  He commented that Americans think they have religious freedom, but they’re wrong: the Japanese are much more religiously free to hold whatever views and engage in almost whatever practices they like.  He saw the US as surprisingly religiously closed.  But for many Muslims, religious freedom could look very different.  It might include worshiping your way in private, but there might be limitations in public and it simply does not extend to trying to convert Muslims away from the true religion.  Such a stance would still be called favoring religious freedom, and yet would be consistent with very traditional interpretations of the legal regulations on non-Muslims (often termed shuruṭ ‘Umar, “Umar’s stipulations,” after the second caliph, who allegedly developed the scheme in the 7th century).  Thus whether Muslims look for inspiration to Western liberalism or to Sunni fiqh, they are likely to say that religious freedom for non-Muslims is, within bounds, a good thing.

What surprised me were other results.  As much as most readers may try to aggregate these results across the wide domain of societies surveyed, it is important to see what this reveals about local differences as well.  Egypt stood out on issues of inter-religious hostility.  When asked question #90: “In your opinion, how many Christians in our country are hostile to Muslims?” and question #91: “In your opinion, how many Muslims in our country are hostile to Christians?”, participants were provided with the answers “most, many, just some, or very few”.  Nevertheless a large number of Egyptian participants broke with the survey expectations to volunteer the answer “all” (23% and 20% respectively to the two questions).  The fact that they volunteered an answer not within the structure of the form shows that they were not satisfied with the answer “most,” which may itself indicate that inter-religious tensions exceed those in other countries, or perhaps that they have grown dramatically within the past few years.  By comparison, no other country had more than 4% of respondents volunteer “all” to either question.  This means that Egyptian respondents were at least 5 times more likely to ignore the prompted options for these questions and insist on the fact that hostility was among “all” members of either group.

Nor were these questions the only indication of trouble on the Nile.  Egypt also had the highest percentage of respondents (55% of all respondents), apart from Afghanistan (61%), who favored applying Islamic law to non-Muslims as well as Muslims.  Given that the non-Muslim population in Egypt is far higher than in Afghanistan, the Egyptian respondents more likely had particular non-Muslims in mind.   More than any other country, Egypt had respondents who opposed religious freedom for non-Muslims (11% said it was bad that non-Muslims were “very free” or “somewhat free” to practice their religion; 12% said it was good that non-Muslims were “not too free” or “not at all free” to practice their religion).  Given these surprising results for Egypt particularly, it is to be regretted that due to an administrative error Egyptians were not asked whether sharia law should be open to multiple interpretations.

Given the answers above regarding Egypt, it was surprising to me that (with the exception of Tunisia) Egypt had the lowest percentage of respondents who regarded their own lives as reflecting the sunna or Islamic tradition.

I was also surprised at the proportion of respondents who “completely agreed” or “mostly agreed” with an alleged religious duty to convert non-Muslims (question #52): 88% of Egypt, 66% of Iraq, 92% of Jordan, 63% of Morocco, 82% of Palestinian territories, 52% of Lebanon, 73% of Tunisia.  The numbers for sub-Saharan Africa were even higher, but I was surprised that such a high percentage of Muslims would consider being actively “evangelistic” to be a duty.  Perhaps, again, the devil is in the details, and it would be nice to know the nuances of the question as asked in Arabic.

I had a couple other questions about the design of the survey, in addition to the phrasing of the questions regarding “al-sharia” in Arabic.  In question 84, for instance, respondents are asked to rate a variety of practices as “Morally acceptable,” “Morally wrong,” or “Not a moral issue.”  I wonder how clearly differentiated the first and third options were in the minds of respondents, or whether having both options in a certain sense “split the vote” among those who do not condemn the practice in question.  In question 53 about the justifiability of “honor killings”, the provocation is left much vaguer in the form of the question asked in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, leading me to wonder how much of the higher support for “honor killings” in those countries (each highest in its identified region) was due to broader respondent imagination of the types of provocation beyond the narrow “premarital sex or adultery” given in other countries.

Regardless of my quibbling questions, it is clear that the Pew Forum has done a massive amount of work compiling and analyzing the results of this survey, and they have done a huge service by making these results available online.  This is a tool which can be used to shatter many of the myths surrounding modern Islam.

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