Arab Muslim Millennial Attitudes on Religion & Religious Leadership - What Did We Learn?

Abaas Yunas

Tabah Futures Initiative

In late 2015, the Tabah Futures Initiative, a foresight research unit based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, partnered with Zogby Research Services to convene a project that would explore the attitudes of the Arab world’s millennials toward religion and religious leadership. Face-to-face polls were conducted with 5,374 young Arabs between the ages of 15 and 34 in eight Arab countries: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Morocco.

We initiated this project because 200 million Arabs are under the age of 34—approximately two out of every three people in the region. Millenials comprise the largest demographic in the Arab world today. If we continue to talk ‘about’ them, and not ‘to' them, we cannot expect to understand them. No conception of the region’s future can be created by simply making assumptions about the present; we must fully understand the present and current trajectories in order to look forward.

The Arab world’s experience over the last two years has cast more light on questions of religion, religious leadership and religious life than at any time in the region’s recent history. Common narratives about the ‘problem’ abound, but few, if any, people have asked critical questions like: how do young Arabs think of their faith today? Who do they go to for religious concerns? Is faith relevant to their lives? How do they make sense of their religious identity and their faith’s role in society? What are their opinions on extremist groups acting in the name of their faith? We sought to initiate a process that would begin to answer these questions and provide religious and policy leaders with evidence-based insights upon which further lines of inquiry and discussion could be built.

The results were revealing. Some were expected, some confirmed our anecdotal experience of the field, and some left us with much to ponder over. Detailed findings and explanations can be found in the official survey report on our website; however, I would like to mention four essential points here regarding the results and what they say to us.

First Point: The Third Shift   The findings from our survey demonstrate that we are in the midst of a third shift in the region’s religious landscape. Some religious leaders in the field have intuited this for a while. Its traces are now becoming ever-more perceptible in the public space as the older cohort of Arab millennials approaches its mid-thirties. In view of this, we in the Muslim world cannot think about religious life in the same way as our seniors did in the last decade, the 1990s or before that.

The period between the 1950s and 1970s ushered in an unprecedented era of ‘modernisation’ in the Arab world. The modernising classes were enjoying Western lifestyles, while religion was not very visible in society. People congregated around the main religious functions, but the vibrancy that religion later assumed was almost non-existent in this period.

The onset of the 1980s marked a decided shift in the region’s religious life. Islam was finally resurgent, though in a different manner than what would traditionally be understood as a ‘revival.' Political developments of the 1970s created the climate for this resurgence and defined it.

The resurgence of this period was not one of the unified Islamic experiences of inner moral rectification and outer devotional effort that had been the normative understanding of mainstream Muslims since the faith’s inception. Despite there being a spiritual awakening in this time, it was not to be the legacy of the era. The time period from the 1980s to well into the 2000s was marked by two major trends: the domination of a theological discourse that was, until very recently, a fringe interpretation of the faith, and the ascendancy of an activist form of religion that conflated religious identity with the pursuit of power and put concentration on structural change.

The grand culmination of this experience was felt most emphatically in the rise of violent extremist movements, born out of both trends.

For religious leadership, this development posed a particular problem, because it represented a new form of religious expression that isolated elements of Islam and made them the whole. The complementarity of the inward and outward that Islam espoused was greatly diminished.

This brings us to the current decade and quite possible the third major shift in the region’s religious landscape: the blossoming of the Arab Muslim millennial, a person whose formative years have been defined by the unravelling of previous trends and by numerous external events, factors and circumstances acting upon their religious identity and driving them to discover, and rediscover, the ultimate answers to what it means to be a person of faith today.

This third shift differs from those that preceded it. It cannot be compartmentalised into tightly defined categories. We cannot label it modern, liberal, conservative, secular or even an ideologisation of religion. This is what the findings have shown us.

The third shift in the region’s religious landscape welcomes a generation that is reconnecting with the meaningful and spiritual aspects of their faith, evidenced by the large numbers who chose Islamic ethics, values and spirituality as the most important aspects of Islam to them.

However, they aren’t a silent generation either. They are engaged with the issues facing their countries and region. They care about social and political developments from within the framework of their religious devotion. The findings showed us that for those Arab millennials for whom 'political issues facing Muslims' were important, spirituality and living an ethical life were key, too. This leaves much for religious leadership to consider.

This is also a generation that has the courage to call out imbalances in the way their faith is portrayed. They are less likely to brush the bad under the carpet. The respondents were almost in full agreement that scholars and preachers have to change the way they present the faith and make their discourse more relevant to the realities facing younger generations.

Second Point: Renewal, Not Reform   This is a generation that blurs the lines of conventional thinking on issues of reform, renewal, the role of religion, and its efficacy in contributing to people’s lives and the societies they live in.

In the polls, Arab millennials rejected the idea that the source of their religion is the problem. They did not agree that it needs to change, or ‘reform’, to borrow a Western-intellectual term. The concept of reform as understood in the context of the Protestant Reformation is alien to the Islamic tradition, not least because the conditions and context in which the Reformation occurred do not—and cannot—exist in Islam. Arab millennials instead support a process known within the Islamic scholarly tradition as ‘renewal', as demonstrated by their support for a change in how religion is communicated and the topics addressed by religious leaders. So, Arab millennials have a high degree of trust and confidence in their religion.

This is a generation that has the courage to want others to know them by their faith. The waves of globalised culture, liberal thinking and intense secularism that some Arab societies experienced in the last century have not diminished the centrality of faith to the lives of Arab millennials. At the same time, this generation also acknowledges the tension it faces in preserving its religious identity and practice in the midst of the temptations and enticements of modern society.

They do not believe that their religion has been a causal reason for the region’s recent decline. The discourses of the region’s thinkers, intellectuals and historians on this point seem to have little impact on the views of this generation. Even the atrocities of extremist groups acting in the name of religion have not diminished their opinion on religion, as majorities see an important role for Islam in their country’s future. What their conception of that role is remains to be investigated.

Arab millennials also expressed nuance in their opinions regarding state involvement in religious affairs. They saw a role for state involvement, but even this had limits.

Third Point: Religious Leadership   The findings raise substantial questions for religious and policy leadership in the region. If nothing else, they bring to the fore that issues exist at the grassroots level. It is at this level that religious identity is continuously being defined, redefined, enhanced and enriched. These are issues that formulate and shape people’s religious lives on a daily basis. If the various leaderships in the region want to turn a page on the exploitation of their religion, then they have to attend to these root issues.

What are these issues?

Amongst them, we’ve seen: a high recognition of the ulama as rightful authorities of interpretation of the religion, and a high degree of trust in the office of the Grand Mufti (where he exists), but low levels of interest in seeking knowledge and understanding faith, and referral to fatwa centres when there are questions. This leaves many open-ended questions: if one recognises the authority of a profile (ulama) but does not have the requisite, base understanding of religion, and does not refer to this profile when there are questions, then it leaves room for anyone to come forth as an authority in the religion. This has been duly witnessed in the region in recent times, when individuals with backgrounds in empirical fields have been taken as authorities in scripture and theology.

The Friday sermon question is another core issue. Notable numbers found it somewhat ineffective; it was either a tirade, bland or the government’s voice. Traditionally, the Friday sermon was a communal event and an opportunity to listen to a devotional reminder. Today, though most Arab millennials have said they don’t go to the sermon to seek guidance and direction, it is still the one outlet in which the broadest cross section of the community gathers and listens to a religious address. Its importance can not be overstated.

Fourth Point: Need for Further Research   The findings demonstrate the value, significance and need for creating a knowledge base, with further evidence-based insights into the region’s millennial generation and the religious experience of its societies. Not only is a better comprehension of our real-world, contemporary context unattainable without this, but also no intervention, solution or proposal can be built on an assumption. As the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali once said, ‘the worst condition for a human being to be in is to not know and not know that they do not know.'