Arabs Can Walk and Chew Gum

Readers of my column will have realized by now that I am impressed by survey research, especially when recurring surveys of the same population provide accurate insights into people’s core values, along with analyses of their views on the political issues of the day.

Readers of my column will have realized by now that I am impressed by survey research, especially when recurring surveys of the same population provide accurate insights into people’s core values, along with analyses of their views on the political issues of the day. This is the case with the results of the second annual Arab Opinion Index that have just been released by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, comprising interviews with over 20,000 men and women across 14 Arab countries in 2012/13 (covering 89% of the Arab population, with a 2-3% margin of error).

The most important aspect of this survey in my view is its clarification that most Arabs seek to live in democratic governance systems and also define themselves as religious. One of the great Orientalist slanders about Arabs and Muslims around the world in recent decades has been the questioning of whether our societies could become democratic. This questioning prevailed before the current revolutions and uprisings started 30 months ago, when skeptics saw our chronic autocracies and monarchies as proof of our inability to practice democracy; and today the same skeptics see the slow steps to stable democratic systems in several Arab countries as new proof that Arabs/Muslims and democracy are incompatible.

The survey results from this year (and last year) show that 82% of Arabs see a democratic political system as appropriate for their own country. A large majority of Arabs also defines itself as very, or to some extent, religious—but a majority also opposes religious officials having influence on public affairs or on the electorate’s voting choices. The population is almost evenly divided on whether “it would be better if religion were separated from public life.”

I interpret these results to mean that Arabs broadly want their religious values to shape their public policies, but they also want their personal freedoms and rights to be guaranteed by a non-religious governance system. Striking that balance between religiosity and democratic pluralism is exactly what the current slow-moving constitutional development processes are all about in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Here the important results of the survey’s questions about the public’s assessment of the revolutions/uprisings portray a citizenry that clearly appreciates that time is needed to achieve the goals of new democratic systems of governance to replace the old autocracies.

A majority (65%) believes the Arab revolutions will succeed. This comprises those who feel the revolutions already have achieved their goals (20%), or will do so in 1-3 years (26%) or in 4-7 years (19%), while only 11% feel the revolutions will not achieve their goals. This confident and patient majority defines the aims of the revolutions as including “securing human rights, guaranteeing public liberties including freedom of expression and of association, laying the foundations for democracy, combating corruption, and achieving social justice.”

A 61% majority of respondents described the Arab uprisings as a positive development, and 22% saw them as negative. On the situation in Syria, 77% supported the departure of Bashar Assad from the presidency and 66% saw a full regime change in Syria as the most desirable solution to that crisis.

Of course, these are snapshots of people’s sentiments at a particular moment, and they can change in line with changing conditions on the ground. Yet these findings strike me as significant because they provide two consecutive years of large-scale polling that captures relatively consistent expressions of people’s political sentiments and their underlying values across the entire region. If the democratic process is valuable—which it clearly is—and the consent of the governed matters—which it certainly should—then it is probably worth our while absorbing the meaning of those opinions and values that so many Arabs express here (which are in line with findings from most other surveys in the past decade, by the way).

It is important to recognize that one’s values-based aspiration for democratic life can be deep, genuine and stable, while one’s ability to make that aspiration a reality in a country like Egypt today can be ponderous and erratic. The findings from polls like this—not to mention daily conversations with Arab men and women across the region—suggest the need for more qualitative research that drills deeper into how individuals feel they best reconcile their religiosity with their democratic instincts, and where they draw the line between public life, organized politics, personal liberties, and divine exhortations.

The 2012/13 ACRPS also has fascinating data about Arab citizen sentiments on Arab nationalism, the perceptions of the USA, Israel and Iran, media use, and other relevant issues (http://english.dohainstitute.org/). On the key issue of how religion and democracy can and do coexist in the minds of ordinary Arabs, this survey is an important addition to that growing body of evidence that in the enticing world of religion and politics, Arabs, in fact, can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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