Iranians move into front line of Middle East’s quest for religious change
A recent online survey by scholars at two Dutch universities of Iranian attitudes towards religion has revealed a stunning rejection of state-imposed adherence to conservative religious mores as well as the role of religion in public life. Although compatible with a trend across the Middle East, the survey's results based on 50,000 respondents, who overwhelmingly said they resided in the Islamic republic, suggested that Iranians were in the frontlines of the region's quest for religious change.
The trend puts a dent in the efforts of Iran as well as its rivals, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, that are competing for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world.
Among the rivals, the UAE, populated in majority by non-nationals, is the only one to start acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities. Authorities in November lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples. Nonetheless, the change in attitudes threatens to undercut the efforts of Iran as well as its Middle Eastern competitors to cement their individual interpretations of Islam as the Muslim world's dominant narrative by rejecting religious dogma and formalistic and ritualistic religious practices propagated and/or imposed by governments and religious authorities.
"It becomes an existential question. The state wants you to be something that you don't want to be," said Pooyan Tamimi Arab, one of the organisers of the Iran survey, speaking in an interview. "Political disappointment steadily turned into religious disappointment… Iranians have turned away from institutional religion on an unprecedented scale."
In a similar vein, Turkish art historian Nese Yildiran recently warned that a fatwa issued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Directorate of Religious Affairs or the Diyanet, declaring popular talismans to ward off "the evil eye" as forbidden by Islam, fuelled criticism of one of the best-funded branches of government. The fatwa followed the issuance of similar religious opinions banning the dying of men's moustaches and beards, feeding dogs at home, tattoos, and playing the national lottery as well as statements that were perceived to condone or belittle child abuse and violence against women.
Funded by a Washington-based Iranian human rights group, the Iranian survey, coupled with other research and opinion polls across the Middle East and North Africa, suggests that not only Muslim youth, but also other age groups, who are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority, aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion. Their quest runs the gamut from changes in personal religious behaviour to conversions in secret to other religions—because apostasy is banned and, in some cases, punishable by death—to an abandonment of religion in favour of agnosticism or atheism.
Responding to the Iranian survey, 80 percent of the participants said they believed in God but only 32.2 percent identified themselves as Shiite Muslims, a far lower percentage than asserted in official figures of predominantly Shiite Iran. More than a third of the respondents said that they either did not belong to a religion or were atheists or agnostics. Between 43 and 53 percent, depending on age group, suggested that their religious views had changed over time, with six percent of those saying that they had converted to another religious orientation.
Sixty-eight percent said they opposed the inclusion of religious precepts in national legislation. Seventy percent rejected public funding of religious institutions while 56 percent opposed mandatory religious education in schools. Almost 60 percent admitted that they do not pray, and 72 percent disagreed with women being obliged to wear a hijab in public.
An unpublished slide of the survey shows the change in religiosity reflected in the fact that an increasing number of Iranians no longer name their children after religious figures. A five-minute YouTube clip allegedly related to Iran's Revolutionary Guards attacked the survey despite having distributed the questionnaire once the pollsters disclosed in their report that the poll had been supported by an exiled human rights group.
"Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible… Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza… Religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority," wrote journalist Nicholas Pelham based on a visit in 2019 during which he was detained for several weeks.
The survey's results as well as observations by analysts and journalists like Mr Pelham stroke with responses to various polls of Arab public opinion in recent years that showed that, despite 40 percent of those polled defining religion as the most important constituent element of their identity, 66 percent saw a need for religious institutions to be reformed. The polls suggested further that public opinion would support the reconceptualisation of Muslim jurisprudence to remove obsolete and discriminatory concepts like that of the kafir or infidel.
Responses by governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East to changing attitudes towards religion and religiosity demonstrate the degree to which they perceive the change as a threat, often expressed in existential terms.
In one of the latest responses, Mohammad Mehdi Mirbaqeri, a prominent Shiite cleric and member of Iran's powerful Assembly of Experts that appoints the country's supreme leader, last month described Covid-19 as a "secular virus" and a declaration of war on "religious civilisation" and "religious institutions."
Saudi Arabia went further by defining the "calling for atheist thought in any form" with terrorism in its anti-terrorism law. Saudi dissident and activist Rafi Badawi was sentenced on charges of apostasy to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for questioning why Saudis should be obliged to adhere to Islam and asserting that the faith did not have answers to all questions.
Analysts, writers, journalists, and pollsters have traced changes in attitudes in the Middle East and North Africa for much of the past decade. Kuwaiti writer Sajed al-Abdali noted in 2012 that "it is essential that we acknowledge today that atheism exists and is increasing in our society, especially among our youth, and evidence of this is in no short supply." Pooyan Tamimi Arab argues nine years later that his latest survey (on Iran) "shows that there is a social basis" for concern among authoritarian and autocratic governments that employ religion to further their geopolitical goals and seek to maintain their grip on potentially restive populations.
Dr James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.