How Muslims really think about Islam

I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World’s Muslims especially interesting is that it ...

Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages
Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages
Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages

I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.

For instance, the survey found a really disturbing and widespread belief in most Arab countries that Shias are not real Muslims. Interestingly, in Iraq (82 percent) and Lebanon (77 percent), countries with Shia majorities but notably torn by sectarian strife, Sunnis are significantly more likely to say that Shias are Muslims than are Muslims in Arab countries with small Shia populations. But 53 percent of Egyptians, 50 percent of Moroccans, 43 percent of Jordanians, and 41 percent of Tunisians -- all countries with very small Shia populations -- said that Shias are not Muslims. In Indonesia, 56 percent said they were "just a Muslim" and rejected identification as "Sunni."

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Middle East is being reshaped by a rising Islamist generation, Muslims older than 35 are significantly more religious than those under 35. They are more likely to pray several times a day, to attend mosque, to read the Quran daily, and to say religion is important in their lives. And the margins are pretty wide. In Morocco, the older generation is 19 points more likely to read the Quran daily; in Tunisia, the older generation is 17 points more likely to attend mosque once a week; in the Palestinian territories, the older generation is 23 points more likely to pray several times a day. This generational divide was the widest in the Middle East compared to any other region of the world.

I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World’s Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn’t ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.

For instance, the survey found a really disturbing and widespread belief in most Arab countries that Shias are not real Muslims. Interestingly, in Iraq (82 percent) and Lebanon (77 percent), countries with Shia majorities but notably torn by sectarian strife, Sunnis are significantly more likely to say that Shias are Muslims than are Muslims in Arab countries with small Shia populations. But 53 percent of Egyptians, 50 percent of Moroccans, 43 percent of Jordanians, and 41 percent of Tunisians — all countries with very small Shia populations — said that Shias are not Muslims. In Indonesia, 56 percent said they were "just a Muslim" and rejected identification as "Sunni."

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Middle East is being reshaped by a rising Islamist generation, Muslims older than 35 are significantly more religious than those under 35. They are more likely to pray several times a day, to attend mosque, to read the Quran daily, and to say religion is important in their lives. And the margins are pretty wide. In Morocco, the older generation is 19 points more likely to read the Quran daily; in Tunisia, the older generation is 17 points more likely to attend mosque once a week; in the Palestinian territories, the older generation is 23 points more likely to pray several times a day. This generational divide was the widest in the Middle East compared to any other region of the world.

Another interesting question had to do with the question of interpretation. Asked whether there was a single interpretation of Islam or multiple interpretations, more than 50 percent answered "single" in every African country surveyed, as did more than 69 percent of every Asian country. Seventy-eight percent of Egyptians and 76 percent of Jordanians said "single," but no other Arab country had more than 50 percent.

There’s a lot more in this important and intriguing report. Anyone interested in how Muslims today think about their own religion should definitely check it out — and also look for the second report focused on political and social issues promised for later this year.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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