Arab world survey shows different attitudes to religion and public life
Bassem Aly, Monday 11 Jun 2012
Arab and foreign academics discuss a recent survey examining possibilities of democratic transformation in Arab world after recent uprisings

On Monday, the Egyptian capital Cairo saw the launch of the “Arab World in Transition - Arab Democracy Barometer” Conference aimed at discussing the survey findings conducted in a number of Arab countries by the Center for Social Studies at the University of Michigan, in cooperation with various Arab research centres.

The academic survey attempted to research political attitudes and values of Arab men and women, and to re-define the stereotypes that hinder mutual understanding and cooperation.

The conference was attended by number of foreign and Arab political and intellectual figures.

Entering its second phase, in partnership with the Arab Reform Initiative and the Palestinian Centre for Political and Survey Research, the Arab Democracy Barometer conducted surveys in a number of Arab states (Jordon, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Mauritania, Syria and Iraq) to examine the future of democratic transition during the historical "Arab Spring" period.

"As a matter of fact, the Arab Spring did not achieve any of its publicly-sought goals; but its efforts to bring about change deserve respect and appreciation," said Egyptian MP and Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies expert Amr El-Shobki.

El-Shobki pointed out that the aftermath of the Arab Spring witnessed the rise of unprecedented, challenging ideas related to political and economic reform.

Mark Tessler, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, argued that it was not the responsibility of scholars to predict the Arab Spring as an event. Rather, their "core task" is to examine the readiness of the Arab world to rise up and demand change in light of the political, social and economic environment.

The survey sought to measure and follow over time the behaviour of citizens in relation to various concepts such as pluralism, freedom, tolerance, principles of equal opportunity, social values, religious and political identities, good governance, understanding of democracy and the extent of civic and political participation.

The surveys were conducted in 2010 and 2011, and the results were published and distributed during the conference. On the first day of the two-day scholarly gathering, the Arab Democracy Barometer tackled issues related to clerical interference in government decisions in nine states (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan.)

The survey conducted in Yemen and Sudan showed a significant increase in support for such interference, while it was opposed in Algeria and Tunisia, which reiterated the study's findings that in those two countries, a high importance is attached to separating religion from political life. Samples from Egypt and Iraq also agreed with this perspective.

The sample also showed that 81 per cent of respondents believed that male political leaders are better than female leaders. However, when it came to favouring education for boys over girls, or believing that non-Muslims in Arab countries should not enjoy the same political rights enjoyed by Muslims, the rates were much lower, standing at 33 per cent and 39 per cent respectively.

The results also indicated that two out of every eight citizens support the intervention of Islam in politics and society. This percentage increases in conservative communities with lower rates of education.

Although broad analysis of the research findings suggest that Arab public opinion is divided concerning the role of Islam in politics and the community, there are major differences between countries on the issue.

American University in Cairo professor Ibrahim Awad argued that the key concern in post-Arab spring politics does not involve an "Islamist-secular" debate, but rather the insistence of the Arab masses on democracy as the awaited, future political system.

Awad added that Arabs are able to perceive the different elements that lead to well-constructed, consolidated democracies. "The Arabs are aware that democracy is not only about elections; it is a much deeper and more complex process," he said.

The report also indicated that conclusions or judgements cannot be drawn from any single measure. Varying views on the influence of Islam are due to political views and cultural backgrounds, or the personal experience of individuals. This is also affected by the nature of the ruler and varies according to different segments of the population.

Ahram Online will report on more extensive results that will be released by the participating scholars over the coming days.