by James J. Zogby
At the close of 2015, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) conducted face to face polling of 5,374 Muslim youth between the ages of 15 to 34 in eight Arab countries: Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine. We had been commissioned by the Tabah Foundation to explore the views of Arab Muslim millennials, specifically with regard to their attitudes toward religious identity, religious leadership, the role of the state in religious affairs, the need for reform, and religious extremism. The results of the study provided fascinating insights into the views of a much “talked about” but not often “talked to” generation of Arabs.
What we learned was that, in the main, Muslim millennials: were committed to their faith; recognized a need for renewal in Muslim discourse; saw a need for a more visible role for women in religious life; believed that religion would play an important part in their country’s future; and rejected extremist groups as a perversion of their faith.
While there were observable differences in the attitudes of young Arab Muslims from the different countries included in the study, overall we found a generation committed to their Muslim identity, seeing their faith as more of a “private spiritual affair” than “just about beliefs and laws defining right and wrong”. It was noteworthy that the importance of Muslim identity was more pronounced in societies that were more pluralistic (like UAE, Kuwait, and Egypt)—the very same societies where young Muslims indicated that they felt tension between the “temptations of today’s society” and their Muslim faith.
When asked to identify the most important aspects of their faith, most frequently cited were “living by Islamic ethics and morals” and addressing the “political issues facing Muslim societies”. And while majorities in most countries disagreed that religion was the source of decline in the Arab World and believed that religion has a key role to play in their country’s future, there were differing views about the role of the state in administering religious affairs. Only in Egypt, Kuwait, and Palestine, were majorities inclined to support the state’s involvement in anything related to religion. The only areas where majorities in all eight countries agreed with government intervention were in “ensuring that religious discourse is not used to promote violence, incitement, and hatred” and in banning movies, TV, etc, if they “breach the values of society”.
Substantial majorities of millennials in all eight countries felt that the “language used to speak about Islam” and the topics and issues addressed by scholars and preachers needed to be made more relevant to today’s life, which is why many also claimed that Friday sermons were either a “tirade”, “boring”, or “the government’s voice”.
Muslim millennials frequently pointed to their country’s Grand Mufti or other prominent religious scholars as being the authorities to consult on matters of religion, but a significant number pointed to religious TV shows as “their most important source or guidance and direction”. And majorities of young men and women in every country agreed that there was a need for more women religious scholars and preachers.
What also came through quite clearly was the fact that Muslim millennials overwhelmingly reject extremist groups and movements largely identifying them as a “complete perversion of Islam”. And they identify “corrupt, repressive, and unrepresentative governments” and “extremist religious teaching” as the principal reasons why some of their contemporaries join these groups.
The upshot of this study is that Arab Muslim millennials, like their age cohorts in other parts of the world, are struggling to find their place in a rapidly changing world. They are neither a “lost generation” nor are they an amorphous unthinking mass without definite ideas about the future of the societies they will soon inherit. They are not to be feared, nor should their insistence that there be change be ignored. As the Tabah Foundation noted in commissioning this study “it is only by knowing this generation that we can address the seismic religious, cultural, social, and political shifts taking place in the Arab World today and in the future”.
The full report will be released at an event in Abu Dhabi this coming week and will be available on the Foundation’s website.
Image: Young marchers in Egypt in 2011
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.