Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2020.

Arab youth view religion as important but feel alienated from its current form

Afshin Molavi


Unemployment and the economy are usually considered the two most pressing issues for many Arab youth, but this is only half the truth. The findings of the 2020 ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, similar to last year, have shown that religion remains a crucial characteristic of Arab identity, even among the younger generation. The findings also show the youth’s view of religious institutions and their need for reform since they do not keep up with the changing world we live in.

Arab youth have to navigate through the different layers that make up their identities from religion, tribalism and family, nationality, heritage and language. The findings show that religion remains the most important component of personal identity for 40 per cent of Arab youth followed by family/tribe (19 per cent) and nationality (17 per cent). The strong affiliation with religion is most prevalent in North African countries (61 per cent) and least so in the GCC (27 per cent).

Despite the importance of religion to Arab youth, a vast majority of them also consider religion too influential in the region. When asked if “religion plays too big a role in the Middle East” 67 per cent of those surveyed agreed, the highest ever over the past few years.

These numbers do not reveal conflicting views regarding religion but demonstrates the dilemmas facing Arab youth. The perception of religion in Arab societies has been affected by different regional and domestic events. The rise of radical movements in the region as well as political Islam following the Arab uprisings have all been part of the recent history that still impacts Arab youth. Moreover, the way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth who can now see through it. On the other hand, rising nationalism in some parts of the Arab world has also played a role in shifting and redefining what constitutes one’s identity. All of these developments, which have unfolded this past decade, continue to play a role in the youth’s perception of religion and how it affects their identity.

The predicament facing Arab youth regarding religion is further complicated by the orthodox approach followed by religious institutions in the region. Last year, 79 per cent of the youth expressed the need to reform religious institutions whereas 66 per cent have shared similar views in this year’s survey. The current interpretation of religion and the way it influences the legislative system in many Arab countries can depict an outdated reality. This is particularly so when it touches the private sphere through the personal status law, especially on issues concerning women. Moreover, Arab cultural heritage is at times heavily influenced by traditional interpretation of religion. This presents a conflict to the youth whose modern lifestyle is often at odds with their culture, making their lives riddled with inconsistencies, which can further stir feelings of guilt and anxiety.

The youth have also witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today. The habit of initial rejection and prohibition followed by acceptance and adaptation is not a source of confusion anymore but a demonstration of the institutions’ inability to deal with change. This has increasingly built-up a lack of trust in religious institutions, which strengthen an individualistic approach towards understanding religion away from the influence of its institutions.

In some Arab countries, attempts have been made over the past years to inhibit and prevent radicalisation. These efforts have been perceived as crucial due to the rise of radical movements in the region and the subsequent wave of terrorist attacks that hit Western and Arab cities. Much of the reforms of the religious discourse and its institutions have either focused on deradicalisation or mending bridges with the West. But the need remains to target those who are neither radicals nor Western; the normal Arab youth who still view religion as important but feel alienated from it in its current form.

The need to address the concerns of the youth, especially regarding the role of religion pertaining to their identity, is of dire importance. Better equipped religious institutions need to relieve the youth from the burden of navigating religious issues by themselves, which might create more confusion than answers.

Absorbing and accepting the changes of today can restore the youth’s confidence in religious institutions during challenging times. For example, the decision to impose restrictions on this year’s Hajj was supported by 78 per cent of those interviewed in the COVID-19 Pulse Survey. This demonstrates that despite the importance of religion for the youth, they still approved of measures that were initially subject to some debate. In addition, enriching the religious discourse should not be limited to traditional outlets but should also include school curricula and cultural events that can provide the youth with food for thought, not room for doubt.

In these challenging times, the youth are witnessing a rapidly changing regional order and their lives are impacted by an uncertain economic situation. Providing the youth with some level of comfort is perhaps more needed now than ever before. Attempts to create more jobs and provide a better economy for the youth is crucial, but this does not mean overlooking issues that affect their sense of identity and religion. Efforts to address these issues will be a crucial milestone that has not yet been achieved, nor has been more needed now than ever before.

Maybe the youth do not talk much about religion, but it is certainly on their minds.

Eman Alhussein is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC. She was previously a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Research Fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Alhussein’s research focuses on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. Her areas of interest include identity and nationalism, gender, cultural and societal change, and religious discourse and reforms. She holds an MA in Gulf Studies from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.