The Pew poll, Tunisia and the Muslim world

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani - Oussama Romdhani
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The poll results just released by the Washington-based Pew Research Center on “The World’s Muslim, Politics and Society” have received a lot of media attention. Beyond the sweeping generalizations and politically-expedient notions of many of the news reports, the Pew poll results tell interesting stories about different countries. The degree of learning depends however on the ability (or the willingness) to interpret the poll results within their socio-political contexts.

What made headlines this time is the high level of support for “making Shariah the law of the land” in many parts of the Muslim world. 74% in the Middle East-North Africa region, 84% in the South Asia region and 77% in Southeast Asia support that notion. In reality, the 38,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in 39 countries, as part of Pew’s “Global Attitudes Project”, only confirmed an already-well documented trend: the growing influence of religion in society and politics in the Mm world. But there is more than that in the results.

But why do levels of support to the notion of “Shariah-based law” vary from a country to the other; and do all Muslim populations define “Shariah” the same way? According to the Pew Research Center analysts, the difference in attitudes towards the Shariah lies often in the long history of “secularization” in certain countries and not in others. Turkey and Albania, where support to “Shariah-based law” does not exceed12%, have a long history of politically-induced secularization. But why doesn’t this argument hold in the case of Tunisia, a country ran by for more than five decades by “assertively- secular” governments. There, although support for “Shariahh as law of the land” in Tunisia (56%) is higher than in Turkey. It is however lower than in Morocco where support for “basing the law of the land on the Shariah” reaches as high as 83%.

Respondents in Tunisia and Morocco, the two Maghreb countries included in the survey, do in fact offer a perspective regarding the place of Shariah in society and politics, which is different than the rest of other Muslim countries. The consensus in both countries of North Africa is that there is no one single definition of Shariah. In fact, 72% of Tunisians and 60% of Moroccans believe the Shariah should be open to “multiple interpretations”. A similar public opinion attitude reflecting probably the two countries’ common tolerant Islamic legacy.

In reality, the 38,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in 39 countries, as part of Pew’s “Global Attitudes Project”, only confirmed an already-well documented trend: the growing influence of religion in society and politics in the Muslim world. But there is more than that in the results.

Oussama Romdhani

A 2012 Pew survey fine-tunes even further the way the Muslim public, in various countries, views the relationship between laws and the teachings of the Quran. That poll showed that a large majority of Tunisians (64%) and a plurality of Turks (44%) believe “laws should follow the values and principles of Islam; while majorities in Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt believe “laws should strictly follow the Quran”.

In the same vein, support for a religious role in politics is not an invitation to theocracy. In the Middle East and North Africa region, public opinion widely supports the notion that “religious leaders” should have “a large or some influence” in politics. Majorities hold that particular view in Jordan (80%), in Egypt (75%) in the Palestinian territories (72%). and in Tunisia (58%). In the Arab Spring countries, in particular, the unfettered political and intellectual climate has allowed “religious leaders” to exert a greater measure of influence in politics than they were ever able to wield since independence. This is obvious, in Tunisia, in Libya as well as in Egypt. Islamist party leaders do, also, exert influence in the fields of politics. The electoral results in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey have so far reflected this trend.

Despite the important political role conceded to religion and religious leaders by Muslim public opinion, the poll results show no nostalgia to authoritarian politics. “In 31 of the 37 countries where the question was asked, at least half of Muslims believe a democratic government, rather than a leader with a strong hand, is best able to address their country’s problems,”, concluded the Pew survey. Majorities hold this “pro-democracy” view in Lebanon (81%), Tunisia (75%), in Turkey (76%) and in Egypt (55%). It is unlikely that the democratic transitions of the Arab Spring countries will give rise to new “charismatic” leaders or “strongmen”, be they religious or secular. Past experience, before the 2011 revolutions, has shown the populations that unchecked power leads necessarily to despotism.

Social contexts

In Tunisia and Turkey, the level of support for women’s “right to choose whether they wear the veil or not” is nearly as high as 90%. The high percentage of support for the wearing of the veil can be misunderstood if the political history of these two Muslim countries is not taken into consideration. This attitude is more than anything else a vote against past aggressive opposition to the veil by the state. For decades, the political authorities of Tunisia and in Turkey were unwilling to accept the wearing the hijab as a woman’s individual prerogative. Various government agencies wasted a lot of energy and credibility trying to enforce unenforceable policies, in public schools and civil service. The French government’s opposition to the hijab in its public schools probably gave the veil even more legitimacy in the Maghreb. This helps explain why not only in Tunisia, but also in Morocco, large majorities think that the matter of wearing (or not wearing the veil) should be left for women themselves to decide.

By comparison, in countries with no history of government interference against the wearing of the veil, there are lower levels of support for “the right to choose”. Public opinion, there, is in fact split between those who see the wearing of the veil as a social obligation and those who consider it an “individual right” that deserves to be protected. Pluralities and not majorities defend that right in Egypt (46%), Jordan (45%), Iraq (45%) and Afghanistan (30%). It is also noteworthy that, in both Tunisia and Turkey, men support “the right of women to decide whether to wear the veil or not” by a high margin, while in places such as Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, they do not.

But the issue of polygamy is a totally different story. Tunisia’s legal ban on polygamy and the successful de-legitimization of this practice by the post-independence governments, helps explain why 67% of the Tunisian public today believe that “polygamy is morally unacceptable”. Majority of Muslims in Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe (including 78% in Turkey) also say that “polygamy is morally wrong”. But outside such regions, “Tunisia is the only country where more than six-in-ten reject polygamy,” notes the Pew report. In other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, public opinion opposition to polygamy is in fact much lower than Tunisia’s. It varies from 2% in the Palestinian territories, to 6% in Egypt and Jordan, 18% in Iraq and 24% in Lebanon. Tunisia also stands out as the only Muslim country, outside Central Asia and southern and Eastern Europe, where public opinion supports, by a percentage higher than 80%, the wife’s “right to divorce her husband.”

More or less the same argument applies to the issue of family planning. Only in 3 out of 21 Muslim countries (where the question could be put) did more than half of the respondents say it is “morally acceptable” for married couples to limit the number of their children. Tunisia is the only country in North Africa or the Middle East where the percentage of support to family planning raises above 50%. Women’s rights and family planning have been among the top social priorities of Tunisia since the early days of independence.

The question of “inheritance equality” between sons and daughters is another story, however; and that shows in the poll results. The “assertively secular” governments of Tunisia after independence did not (and could not) introduce equal inheritance between both genders, the way the ban on polygamy and repudiation was enshrined by Habib Bourguiba in the Personal Status Code. Feminist organizations have tried for years to lobby for “equal inheritance” but their “cause” could not carry momentum. Today, according to the Pew poll, support among Tunisians for “equal inheritance” remains at a low 15%, compared to 43% in the Palestinian territories and 88% in Turkey.


But in many other aspects, Tunisia is no exception to the rest of the Muslim world. As in most of the other Muslim nations, the majority of the Tunisian population holds highly conservative views regarding a wife’s expected obedience to her husband, and the moral denunciation of alcohol consumption, homosexual behavior and sex outside of marriage.

The poll results also reflect the confusing cross-cultural interaction in which many in the Muslim world, including the citizens of Tunisia, find themselves today. Many in North Africa and the Middle East seem to be caught between two conflicting tendencies: “liking Western entertainment” and resenting the different values that come with Western music, movies and television.

Many in the region say they “like Western culture”. This includes many citizens of countries traditionally in close contact with the West, because of many reasons including business relations and emigration, such as Moroccans (52%), Tunisians (38%), Jordanians (36%), Egyptians (33%), and Turks (49%).

But in the same countries there is an even higher percentage of the population that believes that Western entertainment “hurts morality”. Such is the predominant view in Morocco (72%), Jordan (69%), Tunisia (63%), Egypt (62%) and Turkey (50%).
Such ambiguities are a reflection of the cross-currents at play. The future mindset of Muslims will be probably determined by the their own past legacies, their own frustrations and contradictions, but also by the willingness of the West to accept that cultural globalization is not the one-way stream we all once thought.


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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