By Muddassar Ahmed
December 18, 2019
The Arab world is fed up with Islam being used by politicians for their own gain. New survey results indicate the Middle East has entered a new phase in which Islamist forces have lost legitimacy — and we are already seeing the results in Iran.
The poll, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by Arab News, interviewed thousands of Arabic speakers across 18 Middle East and North African (MENA) countries to determine what they felt were the top problems for their countries.
The findings were decisive. Across the Arab world, the majority rejected their religion being used to advance a political advantage. Lebanon and Iraq, two nations that have been rocked by recent violent protests, saw the strongest opposition to Islamist political parties, with those figures rising sharply to 74 percent and 73 percent respectively.
The poll also revealed the majority of Arab world citizens believe Islamist groups will decline over the next decade.
Similar numbers in those countries, 75 percent of Lebanese and 63 percent of Iraqis, say that religion is affecting their home countries’ political decisions. Remarkably, clear majorities (68 percent in Iraq 65 percent in Lebanon) even supported the statement that global conflict would be reduced if religion and politics were separate.
What does this mean? After decades of political upheaval, much of it camouflaged in the attire of Islamist aspirations — whether led by the likes of ISIS or al-Qaeda — the verdict on the Arab street is unequivocal: Politics should not be a tool of religion.
This data must be taken seriously not just by Middle Eastern leaders, but by the West too. There is now a new generation of Middle Eastern citizens opposed to mosques interfering in political decisions.
As the poll results confirm, this new direction for the region includes a clear vision for a different type of politics – one that empowers women, prioritizes economic inclusion, supports the rights of religious minorities, challenges corruption and calls for greater transparency (all positions that were overwhelmingly supported by most respondents across the 18 countries).
For Western policymakers, these results indicate that the old Middle East we are familiar with is rapidly changing. In the past, leaders could use religion to drum up support, whilst today they are far likelier to be met with skepticism. The region is disillusioned with the use of Islam to justify political decisions taken by both Sunni and Shi’a leaders.
But Western policymakers should be aware that this does not translate into a rejection of religion. Despite their lack of support for the politicization of faith, two third of respondents (some 66 percent) classed themselves as actively practicing their religion.
In other words, most Arabs continue to see faith as crucial to their personal lives. The Islamists who use religion for their own political agendas will see a marked decline in their support, but it doesn’t mean that Islam itself has lost relevance for citizens, as we are seeing in Iran.
This presents a huge opportunity to forge a new, healthier balance between state and citizen.
It could also lead to a new role for American foreign policy in the region. Rather than retreating to the side-lines, the United States should play a more proactive role in building new partnerships in the Arab world. But instead of adopting a top-down approach, the new model should be based on shared values of economic inclusion, rights for women and religious minorities (the poll results also show that the majority of respondents supported having public places of worship for other religions).
Whilst previous U.S. efforts to engender reform in the region have been criticized by some as imperialist Western “civilizing” efforts, with the region’s new direction, it is unlikely such efforts will now be viewed by Middle Eastern citizens as an attempt to impose alien values upon the region.
But the window of opportunity is narrow.
Some 61 percent of respondents across the Arab world believed the future would be better if economic matters were put above all other policy issues.
Such a decisive lead for this issue is likely to be due to the sheer anger in the Arab world over corruption. Respondents from every MENA region overwhelmingly cited corruption as the single biggest problem for their country. And in Iraq, close to two-thirds of all respondents named corruption as the country’s biggest problem.
Another major concern for respondents across the Arab world was unemployment, with 42 percent of respondents worried about their ability to earn a wage. This is hardly surprising given that across the region, 30 percent of young people are currently unemployed.
There is a simple lesson here — should the economic situation in nations like Iraq or Lebanon continue to deteriorate, the incentive for the masses to rally around more extreme political positions may once again return.
The biggest message is that as hostility toward Islamism intensifies across the region, U.S. policymakers must also rapidly adapt to this new direction by prioritizing the creation of partnerships to incentivize Middle Eastern nations to improve domestic governance.
Muddassar Ahmed is a former independent adviser to the United Kingdom government. He is also is a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund and is on an advisory board at the Atlantic Council.
Original Headline: Political Islam Is Losing Favour with the Arab World; Now, The West Has A Crucial Role To Play
Source: The Daily Caller