Opinion polls that contribute meaningfully to our collective understanding of the Middle East and opinions of Arabs across the region are vital. For too long, commentators and analysts, many in the West but elsewhere too, have presumed to know what Arabs think, to discuss the mind of the Arabs, or to buy into the group-think mirage of the region. It is ludicrous, of course, and as the latest Arab News poll highlights, opinions and views vary widely.
Just how significant a role religion does and should play in the lives and politics of the region is one of the great debates of the day. It matters in particular in two of the countries engulfed in serious protests at present: Iraq and Lebanon.
The headlines from this poll back up previous studies indicating that more people in the Arab world, whilst still seeing religion as an essential part of their lives, want to see a greater separation of religion and politics. They are less willing to support any extremist agenda.
Younger people are also veering away from religion more than previous generations. A BBC poll in 2018 indicated that Arabs were perhaps less religious than before, borne out by comparing it to a 2013 poll. This applies to many other areas of the world. Polls show that American Christians are also becoming less religious.
Such views figure highly in Iraq and Lebanon, where protesters over the last two months have been pushing for an end to sectarian models of government in an attempt to weaken divisive and counterproductive identity-driven politics.
Iraqis and Lebanese agree by 74 percent and 63 percent respectively that religion affects political decision-making by their government. And more than two-thirds of those polled in both countries do not dispute the statement that separation of religion and politics would lead to fewer wars.
Will they get their wish to rewrite their political systems? At present, despite the widespread and powerful nature of these protests, it would appear not. The existing elites in Iraq and Lebanon do not appear to be budging, and neither country looks like it is heading to a post- sectarian future anytime soon.
Strangely, however, the only politically significant leader in Iraq to be backing the protesters is Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite cleric from Najaf, but many other clerics do not back this position. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has unambiguously opposed the protests. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah has accused the protesters of being foreign agents.
None of these polls will make much impact perhaps in Europe and North America. How many will take note and believe that the Arab world is changing and becoming more opposed to extremism? It runs counter to the well-oiled narrative common in the media.
Yet the Arab News poll is also revealing of what other challenges Arabs see as relevant to their future. Religion is not seen as some great threat, but what clearly keeps people awake is the state of the economy. Iraqis and Lebanese strongly agree (57 percent and 61 percent, respectively) that the future would be better if economic matters were prioritized above everything else.
It has been a core feature of the protests, of which corruption — seen as the top problem in both countries, where it is endemic — and youth unemployment have been among the primary drivers. One wonders why the figures are not even higher when you consider how resource-rich Iraq is, but how poor public services are, and how frequently useless the flabby institutions of state are.
Iraq and Lebanon face multiple challenges, but the study’s message is clear: Fixing the economy, stemming corruption and creating jobs should be the primary focus. How that will be done, particularly in a country as indebted as Lebanon, is at the heart of the current crisis.
The poll does reveal a perhaps surprisingly optimistic outlook. Most of those polled foresaw that extremism in the region was in decline, envisaging a drop in terrorism in the coming years. Only 28 percent saw radical Islam as having a negative impact on society in the Arab world, and just 15 percent saw extremism as the main cause of conflict in the region.
Western policymakers and media moguls should take note. Everyone must hope that they are right, even if the risks remain high. Increasingly, polling shows — as this one does — rising support for inclusiveness (especially women’s rights) and less aversion to women having a prominent role in political life. Both Iraq and Lebanon have a poor record on female involvement at the upper echelons of their politics.
Arabs polled also seem to be clear on the way forward. That matters. The economy must come first. To achieve that, they desire improved governance, with systems they can trust and where religion plays a part in daily life but less so in politics.
Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech