To Be Muslim (Fall 2013 Trust Magazine)

Author: Deborah Horan

11/14/2013 - In Iraq, millions of Shia pilgrims trek to the shrine of Hussein, the slain grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In Turkey, Sufis spin in trancelike meditation as they pray to God in unison. In West Africa, men chant, “There is no God but God,” sometimes for hours, to commune with the Divine. And in Nigeria, Sunnis celebrate a major religious holiday with a parade of the Emir on horseback.

What unites these groups and Muslims around the globe is their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as fasting and almsgiving. But the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not monolithic in their commitment to their faith; their views on politics and democracy, women’s rights, and what practices are acceptable in Islam; or even who counts as a Muslim.

The Pew Research Center captures this diversity in a groundbreaking survey. It is notable for its sheer size and the wealth of comparative data it provides on what it means to be a Muslim at a time when the importance of Islam is on the rise in world affairs. The center quantifies—often for the first time—the opinions of Muslims about Islam from Senegal to Indonesia and most countries in between where Muslims make up a majority or significant minority. The survey illuminates attitudes that help to explain the underlying drivers of cohesion and conflict. And it paints a picture of a religion that varies greatly in its lived experience from country to country. The work of the center creates a rich repository of Muslim attitudes toward their own religion, giving voice to millions of people who adhere to a faith that is often misunderstood, particularly in the West.

Researchers from the center’s project on religion and public life analyzed data collected through face-to-face interviews with more than 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries and territories in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia. The survey asked about Islamic law, called Sharia, marriage and divorce, religious extremism, the Sunni-Shia divide, belief in the imminent return of Jesus, and much more. The resulting wealth of opinion underscores both the unity and the diversity of the world’s second-largest religion, which is growing in the United States.

The survey finds that Muslims’ commitment to their faith also varies greatly by region: Religion matters most in the lives of Muslims in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, where more than 9 out of 10 Muslims in most countries surveyed rank highly the importance of faith in their lives. This percentage drops significantly in Central Asia and Europe, perhaps suggesting a lasting imprint from communism in former Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries. In Albania, for instance, just 15 percent of Muslims say religion is “very important” in their lives.

The survey finds that majorities support enshrining Sharia in all regions except Europe and Central Asia. Sharia refers not only to divine law, but also to Islamic jurisprudence, and offers moral guidance for nearly all aspects of life. Experts say many survey respondents likely equate Sharia, derived from the Arabic word for “path,” with justice and righteousness, especially in their personal and family life. At the same time, majorities of Muslims in most countries consistently say democracy, rather than a strong leader, is best suited to solve their country’s problems.

Significant regional variations

The findings are described in two seminal reports published in August 2012 and April 2013. A third report based on the survey and focusing on the beliefs and practices of Shia Muslims is to be released this year. The first report, “World Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” garnered attention worldwide for revealing the vast regional variation in Muslims’ commitment to their faith and their views on who counts as a member of the Islamic faith, among other findings. The second, “World Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” uncovers informative answers to questions about Sharia, democracy, politics, and the role of women in family and public life.

Many of the findings are roughly consonant with what scholars of Islamic tradition say they expected but had never been able to quantify on such a large scale because of a lack of empirical data. “These polls are useful for both their global demographic breadth and their comprehensiveness in terms of the topics and themes,” says Peter Mandaville, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. “You hear constantly that the Muslim world is very diverse. What came through is that there are quite intense regional variations.”

The survey, translated into more than 80 languages and dialects and representing about two-thirds of the world’s Muslims, was conducted in every nation with a Muslim population of more than 10 million except China, India, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, which were excluded because of security considerations or concerns about interviewing women and men at home about potentially sensitive topics. For the same reasons, opinions in several smaller Muslim-majority countries also were not captured, including those in Libya, Turkmenistan, and countries on the Arabian Gulf. A separate survey was conducted later in Iran, bringing the number of countries polled to 40. Although some countries were excluded from the study, the results—from divergent views about Sharia to differences over women’s rights to varying attitudes toward violence in the name of Islam—provide empirical evidence that the survey represents a broad and deep picture of how Muslims see themselves and their societies in the modern world.

The work is notable not only for its global reach, but also for the depth of questions it asked about a range of topics, says Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and a well-known pollster of Arab attitudes toward politics and media in the Middle East. “It is very extensive,” Telhami says. “The Pew work provides a comparative perspective that is very hard to find somewhere else.”

Such broad analysis is useful for those seeking to understand support for democracy in the world, says Bret Nelson, a research analyst at Freedom House, a watchdog organization that monitors levels of freedom around the globe. “Some of the brainier details are really fascinating,” he says. “They raise more questions, and give us more things to consider.”

The survey sought to penetrate attitudes toward Islam in terms of theology, ideology, belief, observance, politics, and personal status—and not just for a Western audience, says Amaney Jamal, a professor of politics at Princeton University who advised the project. “We wanted to deconstruct this concept of Islam,” Jamal says. “It’s such a vast concept. We thought, ‘What does the world want to learn about Islam and what can we say that people in the Muslim world would be interested in reading?’ ” Some of the findings seemingly reflect the cries for political change that spread across the Middle East in 2011, just as the survey was getting underway. Surveys collected in Egypt, for instance, found 55 percent thought Islamist parties were better than other political parties.

The Pew Research Center’s project on religion and public life undertook such an ambitious poll as part of its global religious futures project, which is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation. The goal of the futures project is to study religion around the globe through surveys, demographic analysis, and other empirical research. “When you think about the politics of identity, it is very closely related to religion in many countries, to how people try to position themselves in the world,” says James Bell, who directs international survey research at the Pew Research Center. “Other international surveys have questioned Muslims about their faith, but none, I think, has delved as deeply into what it means to be a Muslim in today’s world.”

What it means to be a Muslim, it turns out, varies greatly depending on the norms of the country. The survey found that many opinions reflected prevailing cultural, legal, and political attitudes. In most countries where Islam is the officially favored religion, for instance, at least 7 in 10 Muslims support enshrining Sharia; the percentage drops to less than 3 in 10 in most countries where Islam is not the official religion. “That’s one indication that context matters,” says Bell. “It’s an interesting association. Whether it’s government responding or whether it’s culture shaping … it’s not clear to us. All we can say is that there is a correlation.” Context also matters in how Muslims define the boundaries of their own faith. The survey finds that more Sunnis in countries with significant Shia populations consider Shia to be Muslim.

Careful data collection

The “World Muslims” survey expands upon an earlier poll that examined religion in 15 sub-Saharan African nations with significant Muslim populations and is described in the 2010 report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Using that study as a base, the research team crafted additional questions, and asked them in late 2011 and early 2012 in 24 more countries and territories, including 21 in which Muslims constitute a majority.

To accomplish such a feat, project organizers relied on a core team of 10 experts in Islamic tradition whose areas of knowledge spanned regions and sects, plus more than 20 specialists who contributed occasionally. With the advisers, Pew researchers spent a year and a half devising questions, which were then pretested in each country. A key challenge was to ask about delicate issues while taking into consideration nuances in language and culture, as well as political or religious sensitivities.

Questions were modified or dropped if they were deemed too delicate to broach. Asking about democracy was considered too risky in Morocco and Uzbekistan, while questions referencing Christianity—even those asking about the Muslim belief in the imminent return of Jesus, which is a central tenet in Islam—were omitted in Afghanistan out of fear that they could be mistaken for proselytizing, which is illegal. Any modifications to questions were noted in the report.

In each country, the project commissioned local survey firms to review questions for clarity and cultural sensitivities, and to supply trained interviewers. To ensure that the surveys were statistically random, the local firms divided the country into regions, and then divided the regions again into administrative units. Neighborhoods within those units were chosen randomly, and houses on each street were also selected at random. In some countries, such as Afghanistan, village elders were given advance notice to ensure that pollsters were not met with suspicion. “You have to give a lot of thought to how data is collected,” Bell says. “Quality control is very important.”

The poll in Iran was conducted in early 2012, a few months after polling elsewhere concluded. The delay occurred because U.S. sanctions on Iran required the project to get special permission from the U.S. government to conduct work there. The most surprising finding: Only 40 percent of Iranian Muslims say religious figures should have a large influence on political matters.

Response to the survey was loudest in Indonesia, where the Jakarta Post ran an opinion piece questioning the finding that 72 percent of Indonesian Muslims favor adopting Sharia law. Pew Research followed up with a response that also ran in the Post. “We explained the scientific basis for our poll and why the findings were representative of Indonesian Muslims,” Bell says. “We also pointed out that the survey is unique in its ability to place Indonesian Muslims in a broad, global context.”

Project coordinators say they expect equally interesting findings to be included in the next report, which will concentrate on Shia Muslims. The report will analyze opinions in several countries with significant Shia populations, including Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, and will delve into the differences within the sect as well as relations with Sunnis. And the Shia focus is just one potential angle. With answers to more than 100 questions collected, the survey provides a baseline that can be used to measure change in attitudes over time, or to research attitudes toward other aspects of Islam, such as mysticism. “This is such a rich data set,” says Princeton’s Jamal. “There are lots more things that can come out of it.”

Deborah Horan is a Washington writer who covered the Middle East and has written about Muslim Americans for the Chicago Tribune.

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