Arabs becoming less religious more tolerant

One of the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, on how Arabs feel about a wide range of issues from religion and migration to women’s rights, sexuality and security, is proving an eye-opener for both the public and the authorities.

The survey was commissioned by the BBC News Arabic and undertaken on their behalf by the Arab Barometer research network. The poll, which covered over 25,000 people across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories between late 2018 and early-half of 2019, did not include the six nations that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

In addition to the Palestinian territories, other countries involved in the BBC survey were Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.

Some of the highlights from the survey include:

Over the past five years the number of people across the region identifying as ‘not religious’ has risen from 8 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in 2018. The rise is greatest in the under 30s age-group, among whom 18 percent identify as not religious, according to the research. Only Yemen saw a fall in the category.

Largest number of people identifying themselves as ‘non-religious’ were in North Africa, with Tunisia and Algeria leading the list followed by Morocco and Egypt, and in Lebanon. From 2013 to 2018, Yemen is the only country to buck the trend and become more increasingly religious, perhaps on account of the ongoing war in the country.

Most people across the region supported the right of a woman to become prime minister or president. The exception was Algeria where less than 50 percent of respondents found a woman head of state as acceptable.

But when it comes to domestic life, most, including a majority of women, believe that husbands should always have the final say on family decisions. Only in Morocco did fewer than half the population think a husband should always be the ultimate decision-maker.

Acceptance of homosexuality varies but is low or extremely low across the region. In Lebanon, despite having a reputation for being more socially liberal than its neighbors, the figure is 6 percent. More accommodating were Morocco and Algeria where 26 percent and 21 percent respectively were willing to accept homosexuality.

Interestingly, when it came to honor killings — where relatives kill a family member, usually a woman, for allegedly bringing dishonor onto the family — the rate of acceptance and rejection were similar to that for homosexuality. While the link, if any, between these two social phenomena were not clear, it appears that honor killings were equally, if not more, acceptable to homosexuality in the region.

Security remains a concern for many in the Middle East and North Africa region. When asked which countries posed the biggest threat to their stability and national security, after Israel, the US was identified as the second biggest threat in the region as a whole, and Iran was third.

Despite America being identified as a major threat to the region, the number of people considering migrating to North America has risen, and while Europe is less popular than it was it remains the top choice for those people thinking of leaving the region.

In every place questioned, research suggested at least one in five people were considering emigrating. In Sudan, this accounted for half the population. Economic reasons were overwhelmingly cited as the driving factor.