Religiosity and Arab despotism

Data from the Arab Barometer —an indicator that periodically measures opinion trends in the Arab world—clearly shows that religion continues to play an essential role in the lives of most people across the region, particularly young people, and that this role is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

In the seventh round of the polls (2021-2022), it was found that people have become more inclined to consider themselves “religious”, especially young people, compared to previous polls conducted after the Arab Spring. As 9 out of 10 individuals polled in the 12 countries of the region covered by the index reported that they are religious.

It is noted that this change is particularly significant among young people. In Tunisia, those between the ages of 18 and 29 are now 15 percentage points less likely to consider themselves "not religious" than they were 3 years ago. In other countries, there was a decline among youth by 12 percentage points in Morocco and Egypt, 8 points in Jordan, 7 points in Algeria, and 5 points in Palestine. In Iraq and Sudan, there has been no significant change among youth, while only Lebanon is the country in which the percentage of youth who consider themselves "not religious" has increased significantly (13 percentage points).

Although the relationship between religiosity and tyranny has been a subject of study in political, psychological and social sciences at least since the fifties of the last century; There is no easy answer to the question of whether religiosity enhances or hinders commitment to democracy. Previous research has largely pointed to religiosity as a source of anti-democratic attitudes, however, recent empirical evidence is less conclusive, suggesting that the effect of religiosity on democratic commitment can be positive, negative, or neutral.

This is at the global level, as nearly 62% of the world's population considers religion important in their daily lives, according to the American Pew Center, which specializes in opinion polls. But what about the Arab region?

Five notes

In this article, we present some introductory remarks with which we open the discussion on this topic, but the focus will be on the perspective of religious individuals themselves, and not on the side of the producers of religious discourses, formal and informal.

First: the ladder of values and priorities

One study took care to answer the question: Did religiosity encourage or discourage participation in the protest against authoritarian regimes during the Arab Spring? Using unique data collected in Tunisia and Egypt shortly after their regimes fell in 2011, I examined how different dimensions of religiosity were associated with higher or lower levels of protest during these important events.

The study reached a new finding: reading the Qur'an, but not attending the mosque, was strongly associated with an increased likelihood of participating in the protest. Moreover, this relationship is not just a function of supporting political Islam movements, rather, Quran readers are more sensitive to inequality and more supportive of democracy than others.

These results indicate the nature of the individual's religiosity in terms of the values and priorities he embraces, and they truly represent his religious belief. Individuals are surrounded by multiple religious discourses – not a single discourse – that are adjacent to each other, intersect and struggle, but they are similar to each other because many of them are laden with authoritarian contents that come from two angles:

  1. Compliance and maintenance of established social traditions and norms (in other words, upholding the status quo).
  2. Traditional religiosity centered around official institutions, which is generally characterized by lack of cognitive complexity, lack of openness to new experiences, professionalism in text processing with the absence of pluralism in its understanding, and the absence of the ability to self-criticism.

Scholars who have field-studied the relationship between religiosity and democratic commitment write that “a large body of research indicates that church participation [by which I mean the institutional understanding represented by the church, and in our experience this applies to religious institutions in general] predicts a set of authoritarian attitudes, which are characterized by respect for law.” order, social traditions, and intolerance of dissenting groups.

Some studies explain the relationship between religiosity and democratic tendencies by pointing to the logical links between the content of religious beliefs and the relevant democratic norms, especially since religious leaders often interpret religious teachings differently to justify different ends.

In our Arab experience, "institutional" religiosity deepens tyranny as a result of the regimes' desire to control religious affairs, support it to preserve the status quo, and confront religious discourses that pose a threat to the regime.

Despite what appears to be a conflict and competition between the religiosity presented by official institutions, and the religiosity of organizations, groups, and methods, the two parties only present religion in terms of its ability to control and control the individual’s behavior, values, and beliefs, and not in terms of its ability to liberate it from its stable traditions and conditions that control it. The interests of those with political or financial power, and as I always say: "Tawheed is the highest stage of human liberation."

On one of the nights of Ramadan, the imam indicated that there are two branches of faith in Surat Al-Shura usually that many preachers do not talk about, and they are: “And their matter is a consultation between them,” and “Those who, if oppression befalls them, will win.” We are in the process of structured and unstructured coverage of some of the teachings of religion to support the status quo.

Another point: Religious traits may be positively associated with authoritarian personality traits, which include submission to authority and intolerance of dissenting groups. There is a particularly strong relationship between authoritarianism and the way religious texts are understood. Both of them are characterized by literalism in understanding and presenting texts according to a specific and single jurisprudential choice without highlighting their plurality. Both are characterized by low openness to multiple human experiences, claiming to possess the absolute truth, and low cognitive complexity.

Tyranny is positively linked to a formal religiosity in which there is no dialogue, and spaces for pluralism are diminishing.

Second: decentralization of religious discourses

Despite the attempts of all entities – official and unofficial – to control the entirety of religious affairs or significant sectors of it; The developments – for which we have seen great momentum since the new millennium – make such control impossible.

We realized early when we started the experience of Islam Online 1999/2000 that the content presented must be governed by the value of pluralism in Islamic ideas, fatwas and practices, and of course political choices, and this is not by virtue of this being a characteristic related to the nature of religion itself – as we understand it – but by virtue of the first generation of the Internet that Social networking preceded the emergence, and is characterized as a "globalized" tool that must reflect multiple idiosyncrasies, while the next generations of the Internet will give greater impetus to pluralism that may reach the stage of fragmentation.

Contemporary religiosity of young people is "network", and it does not have a central point from a sheikh or a specific religious opinion, and it is based on the voracious consumption of material and intangible symbols and the rapid conversion from them, and this may explain the rapid rise and fall of religious symbols and their disappearance.

This network is reinforced by the absence of major religious references that shaped the religious conscience since the seventies of the last century, and over the course of four decades until the first decade of the twentieth century – such as Ibn Baz, Al-Ghazali, Al-Qaradawi, Al-Bouti, Fadlallah, Khomeini, Mahdi Shams Al-Din, etc. – in addition to the crisis of the major Islamic organizations in The region and the erosion of its theses in the era of the Arab Spring.

Third: the context and its importance

Although Arab public opinion – according to the data of the Arab Index – supports and favors democracy, and evaluates the level of its achievement in Arab countries in an unfavorable assessment, it is clear that the reluctance to engage in politics or "political indifference" is prevalent. This may be expected in the context of limited political participation, or that what is available is not convincing to the citizen in terms of influence.

The matter is exacerbated by the low participation of Arab citizens in voluntary civil and civil organizations, as the percentage does not exceed 13%, and the percentages become even lower than that, if we measure the extent of the “participation” of the respondents in the organizations to which they reported that they belong. Affiliation to family associations and organizations is still higher than affiliation to civil, civil, cultural and voluntary associations. The percentage of those affiliated with a political party or movement is only 14%, compared to 64% who are not affiliated and there is no party or movement that represents them.

What is the relationship between these indicators and the issue of religiosity and tyranny?

Democratic consciousness is shaped and civic culture is strengthened through practice, not through theoretical awareness only. We witnessed many examples from the experience of Islamists in the region, as their further involvement in electoral processes – and I do not say democracy – led to more acceptance of the rules governing these processes. Engage in electoral processes.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring gave a great impetus among the religious people to change in peaceful ways, which cast a shadow over the approach of change by violence among the jihadist groups, but this soon receded – or at least became questionable – after the setbacks that these uprisings suffered and the intervention of the army in Egypt in 2013.

Youth awareness may be formed according to an epistemological model based on pluralism and the absence of a center, as I have mentioned. However, this awareness will only be enhanced by the amount of civic and partisan participation, which is largely lacking in the Arab reality.

Contemporary religiosity of young people is "network", in which there is no central point of a specific sheikh or religious opinion, and it is based on the gluttonous consumption of material and moral symbols and the rapid conversion from them, which may explain the rapid rise and fall of religious symbols and their disappearance

Fourth: mixed effects

Different dimensions or expressions of religion—that is, elements relating to different aspects of religious experience—are likely to be in tension with each other within a single individual.

For example, religious belief is closely associated with values that promote the maintenance of social order, such as tradition and compliance with social norms, and thus reduces the individual's protest potential. On the other hand, attending religious social activities positively contributes to political protest by increasing the visibility of group interests, recruiting religious people into the political process, and increasing the likelihood that participants will acquire civic skills.

Participation in religious social activities may have a positive effect on interest in politics, as religious leaders or social networks mobilize believers, increase political awareness, and increase the political prominence of group identities.

Conceiving religious experience as a multidimensional phenomenon explains some of the contradictory results of the relationship between religiosity and despotism. This suggests that it may not be religious belief or socio-religious behavior per se that maintains or disrupts democratic commitment, but rather the psychological mechanisms behind it and the context in which it operates, as I have indicated.

One of the problems of contemporary religiosity is that it is like the closet of "al-Karakib", in the Egyptian expression, and it is the place where we put many things that have no connection between them, and at times it may be dangerous to put them next to each other.

Fifth: closed groups

Democratic commitment is reflected in:

  1. Supporting the democratic system and its institutions.
  2. Commitment to democratic principles, primarily related to:
  • Political participation.
  • and support for political equality, including political tolerance, which refers to acceptance of the different and the desire to extend political rights to the different.

The problem in our region is that the decade of the Arab Spring has witnessed an increase in the use of patterns of religiosity in the political struggle.

We have witnessed closed religious groups, often with like-minded individuals, and political discourse among them may lead to demarcation of group boundaries and heightened awareness or exaggeration of one's own grievances, and threat perceptions from other groups.

Strong religious identities are also associated with higher levels of perceived threats from dissenting groups, particularly in the context of conflict between them, which often leads to social and political intolerance.

A minimum level of consensus and addressing polarization is one of the conditions for democratic commitment, in addition to expanding the spaces of the public sphere in which individuals present and express their visions and interests, as equal citizens and not as individuals belonging to closed religious, ethnic and sectarian groups.

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