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Are Muslim religious conservatism and political Islam making a comeback?

James M. Dorsey




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Little did Elianu Hia know that a video he posted on Facebook in early 2021 would shape Indonesian policy and turn his life upside down.


A Christian in a Muslim-majority nation, Mr. Hia objected to vocational school authorities in the West Sumatran city of Padang, obliging his daughter to wear a hijab.


In a secretly taped video, his daughter's teacher insisted that wearing a hijab was mandatory. The teacher demanded that Mr. Hia put his daughter's refusal in writing, which would have been a first step to expelling her. The video went viral.


In response, Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas and his home affairs and education counterparts threatened to sanction state schools seeking to impose religious garb in violation of government rules and regulations.


Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas. Photo: kompas.com


“Religions do not promote conflict, neither do they justify acting unfairly against those who are different,” said Mr. Qoumas, a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement and foremost advocate of theological reform in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The school complied. Over the last two years, the number of Christian girls who shed the hijab has grown. But at the same time, Mr. Hia received threatening messages on Facebook and WhatsApp. “I lost count,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds of them.”


Mr. Hia’s air conditioning business started to lose customers. “Some customers asked me whether I was the one who was protesting the mandatory hijab rule. And they stopped requesting my services,” Mr.Hia said.


Struggling to repay a bank loan, he fired five employees and sold his truck and minibus. Almost two years later, Mr. Hia and his wife decided to sell their house while waiting for their daughter to finish high school. “I cannot earn enough money now. We have to move out of West Sumatra,” he said.


Mr. Hia’s experience tells the story of see-saw swings in the Muslim world between trends towards increased religious individuality, more personal understanding of religion, and skepticism towards religious and temporal authority, and support for greater public adherence to religious norms and often state-aligned clerics.


The swings potentially influence the public standing of Islamic scholars who align themselves with autocratic rulers like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has subjugated the kingdom's religious establishment to his will and pushed ahead with far-reaching social reforms anchored in civil but not religious law.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: AFP


Potentially, the swings also suggest that calls by Nahdlatul Ulama for reform of Islamic law in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and democracy, may encounter greater resistance beyond the group’s Javan stronghold in the archipelago state.


Finally, the swings point to a possible comeback of political Islam, a decade after groups like the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be down and out due to a Saudi and United Arab Emirates-backed public backlash that rolled back their initial success in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts.


The revolts toppled the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya. However, the Brotherhood suffered its most significant setback with a military coup in Egypt in 2013 that removed from office Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected president. The coup and brutal repression sent the Brotherhood into exile, where it has lingered ever since.


“Results from nationally representative public opinion surveys…strongly suggest that political Islam is making a comeback. In most countries surveyed, young and old citizens demonstrate a clear preference for giving religion a greater role in politics. This is the first time that support for political Islam has increased meaningfully…since the Arab Uprisings of 2011,” said Michael Robbins, director and co-principal investigator of Arab Barometer, a group that regularly surveys public opinion in the Middle East.


Mr. Hia’s story is one more piece of anecdotal evidence of a revival of conservatism also reflected in the polling of Mr. Robbins and others, even if the surveys suggest contradictory attitudes.


In a survey conducted in 2022 by UAE-based Asda’s BCW, 41 per cent of 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind.


Arab Barometer noted a stark increase in the number of Muslim youth polled in several Arab countries that wanted clerics have greater influence on government decisions. “In 2021-2022, roughly half or more in five of ten countries surveyed agreed that religious clerics should influence decisions of government,” Mr. Robbins said.


“While youth ages 18-29 have led the return to religion across MENA (the Middle East and North Africa), the rise in support for religion in politics is more widespread across society. In most countries, both older and younger members of society are shifting their views in concert,” Mr. Robbins added.


Similarly, more than half, 56 per cent, in the Asda’a BCW survey said their country’s legal system should be based on Shariah or Islamic law. Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture. Sixty-five per cent argued that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.


Yet, 73 per cent, up from 58 per cent in 2018, felt that religion played too much of a role in the Middle East. In addition, 77 per cent believed Arab religious institutions should be reformed.


While the support for the reform of religious institutions may work in Nahdlatul Ulama's favour and potentially threaten the autocratic grip on religion in Middle Eastern states, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's success in this week's first round of presidential and parliamentary elections offers further food for thought about the prospects of political Islam.


Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the May 14 parliamentary elections while the president is favoured to win a May 28 run-off for the presidency against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed officials of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Istanbul. Photo: TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Nationalism may have been a major driver of the electoral outcome, but so was religious conservatism.


“Erdogan has formed an unbreakable bond with Turkey’s largest sociopolitical bloc: religious conservatives. He also enchants them with a grand narrative: despite nefarious enemies and heinous conspiracies, he is making Turkey great and Muslim again,” said Mustafa Akyol, a Washington-based Turkish scholar of Islam.


Islamist scholars from across the Muslim world backed the alliance. Their support may not have played a major role in the first round but indicated political Islam’s newly found assertiveness.


In a statement, the scholars called on Turks to vote for Mr. Erdogan and non-Turkish Muslims to support his campaign.


They implicitly contrasted Turkey with its religious soft power rivals, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Indonesia, which have engaged with Israel to varying degrees and stress interfaith dialogue even though they differ sharply in their approaches and goals.


“Turkey has consistently defended the Prophet against Western offences, restored the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque (in Istanbul) to its original status, and advocated for Jerusalem and its ongoing issues,” the scholars said.


Controversially, Mr. Erdogan in 2020 returned the Hagia Sofia, a sixth-century Orthodox church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, to its original status as a Muslim house of worship.

Mr. Erdogan vowed that the conversion was “the harbinger of the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Islam’s third holiest site in Jerusalem.



Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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