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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Religiosity in the Middle East

Obviously one of the major fault lines in modern times is between the Muslim world and the West. Personally, I am somewhat suspicious of 'Clash of Civilization' theses that the Muslim world and Christendom (as it were) are going to inevitably collide in apocalyptic conflict. Some of the assumptions underpinning such beliefs (at least on the Western side) are that Islamic orthodoxy (in particular Sharia law) is fundamentally illiberal and anti-individual (which I generally agree with), that it is inevitably isolationist and expansionist (in some forms, sure, but not in all), and that without a strict secular iron grip the majority of Muslims, because of their religion, will inevitably reject modernity and democracy and choose the path of war (madness, considering the huge pent-up demand for more secularism among the young of Iran, and the turnouts for elections in Afghanistan, to name two examples).

So, via Pandagon I was very interested to read this report from the American Sociological Association. Some of the data is well worth quoting:

Only 28 percent of Saudi citizens indicated that they participate in weekly religious services. The comparable percentage is 27 for Iranians, 44 for Jordanians, 42 for Egyptians, and 45 for Americans. It makes sense to think that when state religious authorities enforce strict codes of behavior, people would tend to rebel, and move away from officially sanctioned religious institutions. Little wonder, then, Egyptians and Jordanians, who live in countries where the state does not enforce piety, are more religious than Iranians or Saudis, who are both faced with local “virtue” police that are associated with the state.

Cultural transition involves conflicts, debates, discussions, and negotiation over significant issues. Reflecting this process is the recent publication of two new dailies and three women’s magazines in the country. Recently, religion has become one of the most important contested categories. Who has control over religion, how religious texts should be interpreted, and what type of rituals and figurative behaviors are considered Islamic are the issues being discussed and debated in Saudi society. While young people, women, and intellectuals all profess to be Muslims, they demand a more inclusive, a more pluralistic and tolerant religion.

During our visit, we learned that some Saudis had criticized the United States for failing to listen to their admonitions about Wahhabis. They indicated that more than 20 years ago they warned the U.S. government of the danger that religious extremists posed to the world. They were referring to the incident in which a group of Ikhwan (brothers) Muslim extremists took over the Mecca mosque. Current Wahhabi terrorists, they said, are the scions and followers of this brutal group.

It's worth reading the whole thing, but it does tend to undercut some of the more ranting LGF/Jihadwatch inferences that Saudi Wahhabism has so brainwashed the whole population of the peninsula that they are ready to pour out and slaughter the infidel en mass.

Plus it's pretty amazing that Americans are over 60% more likely to attend a weekly religious service than Saudis, at least according to this data.

Update (6:40 pm): Razib at GNXP has some interesting comments about this article that are worth reading. I think he is right that is very difficult to map Middle Eastern religious conventions on to American ones. Indeed, what constutes religiosity is hugely variable because it is such a personal matter. People's perceptions of themselves rarely match up to other's perceptions, particularly in areas of such contention as religion. There is, after all, a long history of people deciding that others are not sufficiently observant and trying to do something about it.

What I think is most interesting about this article is what it says purely about the Saudi Arabian context, and what it means for the long-term health of piety in countries where state-sanctioned religiosity is forced to interact with globalisation and modern technology/information transfers.

|| RPH || 9:29 PM || |