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Iranians Move Into Front Line Of The Middle East’s Quest For Religious Change

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Iranians Move Into Front Line Of The Middle East’s Quest For Religious Change


Submitted by James M. Dorsey

A recent online survey by scholars at two Dutch universities of Iranian attitudes towards religion has revealed a stunning rejection of state-imposed adherence to conservative religious mores as well as the role of religion in public life.

Although compatible with a trend across the Middle East, the survey’s results based on 50,000 respondents, who overwhelmingly said they resided in the Islamic republic, suggested that Iranians were in the frontlines of the region’s quest for religious change.

The trend puts a dent in the efforts of Iran as well as its rivals, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, that are competing for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world.

Among the rivals, the UAE, populated in majority by non-nationals, is the only one to start acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities. Authorities in November lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples.

Nonetheless, the change in attitudes threatens to undercut the efforts of Iran as well as its Middle Eastern competitors to cement their individual interpretations of Islam as the Muslim world’s dominant narrative by rejecting religious dogma and formalistic and ritualistic religious practice propagated and/or imposed by governments and religious authorities.

“It becomes an existential question. The state wants you to be something that you don’t want to be,” said Pooyan Tamimi Arab, one of the organizers of the Iran survey, speaking in an interview. “Political disappointment steadily turned into religious disappointment… Iranians have turned away from institutional religion on an unprecedented scale.”

In a similar vein, Turkish art historian Nese Yildiran recently warned that a fatwa issued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet declaring popular talismans to ward off “the evil eye” as forbidden by Islam fueled criticism of one of the best-funded branches of government.

The fatwa followed the issuance of similar religious opinions banning the dying of men’s moustaches and beards, feeding dogs at home, tattoos, and playing the national lottery as well as statements that were perceived to condone or belittle child abuse and violence against women.

Funded by a Washington-based Iranian human rights groups, the Iranian survey, coupled with other research and opinion polls across the Middle East and North Africa, suggests that not only Muslim youth, but also other age groups, who are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority, aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

Their quest runs the gamut from changes in personal religious behaviour to conversions in secret to other religions because apostasy is banned and, in some cases, punishable by death to an abandonment of religion in favour of agnosticism or atheism.

Responding to the Iranian survey, 80 per cent of the participants said they believed in God but only 32.2 per cent identified themselves as Shiite Muslims, a far lower percentage than asserted in official figures of predominantly Shiite Iran.

More than a third of the respondents said that they either did not belong to a religion or were atheists or agnostics. Between 43 and 53 per cent, depending on age group, suggested that their religious views had changed over time with six per cent of those saying that they had converted to another religious orientation.

Sixty-eight per cent said they opposed the inclusion of religious precepts in national legislation. Seventy per cent rejected public funding of religious institutions while 56 per cent opposed mandatory religious education in schools. Almost 60 per cent admitted that they do not pray, and 72 per cent disagreed with women being obliged to wear a hijab in public.

An unpublished slide of the survey shows the change in religiosity reflected in the fact that an increasing number of Iranians no longer name their children after religious figures.

A five-minute YouTube clip allegedly related to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked the survey despite having distributed the questionnaire once the pollsters disclosed in their report that the poll had been supported by an exile human rights group.

“Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible… Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza… Religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority,” wrote journalist Nicholas Pelham based on a visit in 2019 during which he was detained for several weeks.

The survey’s results as well as observations by analysts and journalists like Mr. Pelham stroke with responses to various polls of Arab public opinion in recent years that showed that, despite 40 per cent of those polled defining religion as the most important constituent element of their identity, 66 per cent saw a need for religious institutions to be reformed.

The polls suggested further that public opinion would support the reconceptualization of Muslim jurisprudence to remove obsolete and discriminatory concepts like that of the kafir or infidel.

Responses by governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East to changing attitudes towards religion and religiosity demonstrate the degree to which they perceive the change as a threat, often expressed in existential terms.

In one of the latest responses, Mohammad Mehdi Mirbaqeri, a prominent Shiite cleric and member of Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts that appoints the country’s supreme leader, last month described Covid-19 as a “secular virus” and a declaration of war on “religious civilization” and “religious institutions.”

Saudi Arabia went further by defining the “calling for atheist thought in any form” with terrorism in its anti-terrorism law. Saudi dissident and activist Rafi Badawi was sentenced on charges of apostasy to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for questioning why Saudis should be obliged to adhere to Islam and asserting that the faith did not have answers to all questions.

Analysts, writers, journalists, and pollsters have traced changes in attitudes in the Middle East and North Africa for much of the past decade.

Kuwaiti writer Sajed al-Abdali noted in 2012 that “it is essential that we acknowledge today that atheism exists and is increasing in our society, especially among our youth, and evidence of this is in no short supply.”

Mr. Arab argues nine years later that his latest survey “shows that there is a social basis” for concern among authoritarian and autocratic governments that employ religion to further their geopolitical goals and seek to maintain their grip on potentially restive populations.

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.


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2 dutch universities would indicate ulterior motives directed by cia, bnd and mi6. dutch are notoriously unreliable and will lie/cheat/steal to suit the interests of the netherlands. almost jewish in their pursuit of
advantages and profits and so on.

Jens Holm

Errrh never heard again. Make a very short list for, what CIA is not running. Its much as nobody running Your brains about a lot of things.


its fake iam living inside iran and know that this must have been a survey of teheran liberal societies like always they have no clue of reaching iranians only the dual citizens


2 dutch universities dont mention that the people they invite are nearly 90% dual citizens XD


iam living in a place where its quite easy going meaning i can invite girlfriends do party and they basically leave my home half naked into their cars yet my whole neighborhood is quite religious and i dont even want to get into how much but their issue is that they dont understand that iranians arent shirazi london based fanatics and that iranians are simply living their lives like everybody else on this planet and of course if i was doing it in a village than i would have problems because all villages are kind of closed societies


the issue they absolutely dont get is that being religious is one thing but they since the revolution believe that iran clearly has to be fanatic about everything because the story of islamic fanatism is the lie they tell about iran


what these fools dont understand is the iranian society and therefore their delusions are filled by fake pictures from opposition media or liberal teherani dual citizens and such but truth is that when i put a cross on my door i would be done because the people themselves would pretty much slap me unconscience and scream at me and yes iran is not easy to understand but their retardedness is close to dreaming and wishthinking


my challenge for them would have been to go into the iranian streets and to count the times they hear ya ali or ya hussein and see how many times they hear mc donalds and co XD


iran is not even close to what they think it is and if they thought that iran would create lines for mc donalds resturants than they are truely mistaken all iran would do is burn mc donalds restaurants so iran is very much unlike the soviet union was during its end time even thou they try always to put forward the same picture and its an annoyance because its so delusionally false and only will backfire against them and mc donalds and co is what this all is about anyway not religion nor anything else


the west will get the opposite of what they dreamed for and instead of westernizing iran they will find out that iran will help to easternize them and to send them into their graves


they dont like islam? bad for them because they will see it increasingly!

johnny rotten

I stopped believing in polls when I learned to read and quickly realized it’s all bullshit.

Jens Holm

I do believe in well made polls. Many can be as You say. Those are bullshit, should be forbidden or named as “random asking..”.


Yes, I agree with you.
Polls are in fact ‘lobbyists’ for those who fund the polls.


I can’t talk about other countries but for Iran this poll is done by internet, the participants were selected by the pollster (is it a word?) and not through a website that anybody can vote. Anybody with the most basic knowledge of polling knows this is how you fine tune your poll to reach the desired conclusion.
I fully agree with @FlorianGeyer in this.

The reality can be seen in the streets, see how many participate in the Friday prayers, the population in farewell with our late hero General, how many go to visit the holy places and so on.

Ishyrion Av

There is definitely a hard core of people who practice Shiite islam in Iran, and those people can be seen in marches and funerals and Friday prayers.
But many other have to do this because practicing Islam is an informal mandatory condition to maintain your job or to acquire a job in a government held position.
And others – not only young people (which are numerous), but also old people easily say, in private conversations, that, even if they call themselves muslims, they don’t pray or practice the faith. Many feel disappointed by the government and reject Islam as they reject the government. All of them have strong Iranian feelings, patriotic I’d say, but they don’t connect anymore these feelings with the official faith.
And, of course, many dream to move in Canada or Australia.
This is what I noticed while in direct contact with Iranians. Of course, I don’t know so many I can make a statistic, but still, the trend is there.


Got source? Of course not!


are you kidding me XD


this is quite some nonsense and it shows you dont get iran neither iranians XD


you peoples delusions is visible because it shows that you really dont know anything about iran neither the ones who talk of hard core nor the ones who call of atheists and similar nonsense and the best are those who claim iran has become christian because iranians believe in christ and they are the best larpers with their lying and fake stories claiming to be christian but sinning all the way through their stories


the best thing was about saint mathaeus tomb where a christian went nuts and called us judas worshippers XD


the christian story about iran is that iranians worship the devil and generally western christianity aka fake church of fake savior is super backwards and evil

Ishyrion Av

I think you are spamming here, so I have to ban you. If you have something to say, make it coherent and in one post.

Jens Holm

Actually it has many more names. You have no patent in Yours.

Middle East is named like that because english is a dominant language. Its even used more and more. Here UK has declined but USA has replaced it and internet mainly is in english for main parts of the world, so we all have the same context.


i must simply say that this is kind of retarded nonsense and that the west does see what it wants to see and truth is iran is way more religious than they would like it to be even the fake polls of teheran liberal society doesnt change a thing about it


I have seen a lot of things citing this survey lately. Seems like they are trying to push this really hard right now for some new propaganda. The survey is BS. It targeted mostly people from Iran’s ethnic minorities, which have the highest rate of being non-shia and anti government. If I remember correctly, they specifically targeted online spaces of Iran’s minorities with a voluntary survey, and some Shia spaces, but I would assume any Iranian loyal to their country, religion, government, etc. would not participate in this survey. Regardless, more minority spaces were targeted anyway, making this survey worthless.

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