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Thursday 9 January 2014

A Very Revealing Chart About the Complexities of the Muslim World

I was actually going to post on a different subject today, but this was just too fascinating to me as a student of religion and culture, to pass up.

A significant study was recently undertaken throughout multiple Muslim countries. In it, participants were shown a series of pictures of a woman in different types of facial/head covering.  They were asked to identify which of these images depicted a woman most appropriately dressed for working.

These are the results:

So what this says is, to me at least, fascinating. Clearly by far and in general the most popular choice was the conservative but not ultra-conservative white al-amira.   But what's most significant, and remarkable, and goes a very long way to explain the overall fucked-up situation is the most notable outlier: Saudi Arabia.

The problem is that Saudi Arabia has a massive level of influence over the rest of the middle east.  This is a bit like how extra-conservative Texas ends up controlling the production of school textbooks throughout the country because of their printing market.  In Saudi Arabia's case, because they have Mecca and the other holy sites, and control over Hajj pilgrimage process, as well as few other elements like absurd oil-wealth, they get to impose an inordinate level of influence over the rest of the Muslim world.  Saudi Oil Millions have gone into supporting the extreme ultra-conservative wahabist sect and exporting those ideas to the rest of the Muslim world like a cancer; from an historical point of view, had the same study been done even two decades ago, you would have seen radically more liberal percentages across the board.  Unfortunately, its very likely that if this study is repeated a decade from now, barring massive unexpected changes, you will see all of these other nations drifting ever further toward the current Saudi position.

There are some other interesting details to all this: Lebanon's statistical split shows the division in that society (which was traditionally more liberal than the rest of the middle-east due to its strong modernist values, that have unfortunately been continually eroded over the last 30 years), while Pakistan's shows a split also but there it is a division between conservative and ultra-conservative, which presages just how doomed that nation is as a stable democracy. 

But the biggest, and most troubling, division is in Turkey.  What's portrayed here is a nation that has had a strong tradition of democratic, secular and pluralistic values for 90 years now, gradually pissing it all away into the hands of religious extremists. This is a very bad sign, because Turkey could be the best alternative to Saudi Arabia as a dominant influence in the region, if only it could be saved from subverting itself.  The religious fundamentalists there are playing an ever-increasing game of breaking down everything that was the brilliant Kemal Ataturk's legacy for his nation, and have now become so bold that they're pushing to have the Hagia Sophia converted back into a Mosque (which would no doubt involve the destruction of the priceless Orthodox religious icons that were restored when it was made into a museum). This is a clarion call to the fundamentalists who dream of tearing down Ataturk's secularism.

Anyways, the key message is clear: if there's any hope of a liberalization of Islam, Saudi Arabia needs to have its influence curtailed.  Just how that could happen is not really clear at this time.   The diminishing of oil's influence on the world stage might help a little, but that alone would not be enough. A regime change would only likely end up with far MORE fundamentalist forces than the Saudi Royal Family.  There seems to be few hopeful solutions, short of the miracle of some massive shift within the Saudi Royal family, where some new king turns out to be a huge reformer and has the strength, charisma and longevity to cause long-term and thorough systemic change.
The only alternative may be for some other key country to become a powerful and active force for liberal Islam; Turkey is the best bet we have in that regard, and sadly that fight is going the opposite of the moderate's way.


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  1. Unfortunately the most likely scenario is that the Saudi royal house would be overthrown, not by a more moderate regime, but by an even-more-hard-line one. Possibly linked to Iran (which I'm surprised not to see in the chart, btw).

  2. If I had to guess, I'd figure that they didn't get permission from the Iranian government to conduct such a study there.

    However, while I agree (and already said as much) that if the House of Saud were to fall what replaced it would almost certainly be an ultra-islamist sect, its pretty unlike they'd be "linked to Iran". The Wahabists despise Shia Islam, more than they hate the west.

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  4. Yeah saying that there would be a new hardline regime in Saudi Arabia linked to Iran would be like saying that Opus Dei will be taking over the Orange Order.

  5. Do you know where I can find more on this study by chance?

  6. It was done by the Middle Eastern Values Study, through the University of Michigan Population Studies Center.

    The same study also posed the question "Should women be allowed to choose their own clothing"? Only in Tunisia and Turkey did a small majority (56% and 52%) vote "yes". In Lebannon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt they all said no; the lowest result being Egypt where only 14% of people thought women should be allowed to dress themselves.