Attitudes Towards Religious Minorities in the Arab World

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 14, 2016

In light of recent attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq by the jihadist group ISIS, as well as ongoing attacks against Christian minorities in other regions,  Cornerstone  has asked respondents to discuss global Christian persecution. Contributors focus on the patterns of persecution and the attitudes informing these human rights violations. 

By: Michael Hoffman

In recent weeks, much attention has been paid to the fate of Christians and other religious minorities in the Arab World. Recent events such as ISIS’s spread in Iraq and Syria have driven legitimate concern regarding the rights of non-Muslims in this volatile region. The expulsion of Christians from the Iraqi city of Mosul  is particularly alarming.

But what about the so-called “Arab Street”? Do ordinary Arab Muslims support anti-Christian or anti-minority policies? Are the actions of ISIS a reflection of the preferences of ordinary citizens, or simply the behavior of an isolated extremist group?

Using data from several sources, Amaney Jamal  and I have found that despite media coverage suggesting a lack of tolerance for non-Muslims, most Arab citizens report tolerant views toward Christians and other religious minorities. Employing the second wave of the Arab Barometer Survey , which surveyed nationally-representative samples of citizens in 10 Arab countries, we find that a majority of citizens in every country sampled express tolerance for non-Muslims in a variety of ways. When asked if they would be comfortable having members of another faith as neighbors, a majority of citizens in every country responded that they would be comfortable with this arrangement. Even in the least-supportive country (Saudi Arabia), 54 percent of respondents reported acceptance of non-Muslims as neighbors. In Egypt and Lebanon, virtually all respondents reported such tolerance. Interestingly, over 82 percent of Iraqis expressed comfort with having members of other faiths as neighbors. The expulsion of Iraqi Christians, it seems, does not align with the attitudes of an overwhelming majority of Iraqi citizens.

Support for non-Muslims’ right to practice their religions is even higher than the previous measure of tolerance. Even in the least tolerant country (once again Saudi Arabia), over 65 percent of respondents reported support for religious minorities’ right to practice. In Iraq this figure is a staggering 94 percent. Again, there seems to be little mass-level support for religiously chauvinistic policies.

The above questions ask respondents about their attitudes toward “members of other religions,” but much of the current debate in the region focuses on Christians specifically. To address this issue more directly, we employ questions from the PEW Forum’s global survey of Islam, collected between 2008 and 2012 in several Arab countries. When asking respondents about commonalities between Christianity and Islam, only a minority of respondents in each Arab country agreed with the statement that Christianity and Islam have a lot in common. The sole exception to this trend is Iraq, where 63 percent of respondents agreed with this statement. Thus, the notion that Iraqis are particularly hostile to Christianity seems to be false.

Despite widespread tolerance of Christians at the mass level, Arab citizens report low levels of knowledge about Christianity. Solid majorities of respondents in each country stated that they know “not very much” or “nothing at all” about Christianity. This trend extends even to Lebanon, a country with a large number of Christians, where nevertheless over 62 percent of Muslim respondents reported little or no knowledge about the Christian faith. On this measure, Iraq scored somewhat higher than many other Arab countries, with over 86 percent of respondents answering that they know little or nothing about Christianity.

In total, it appears that while knowledge about Christianity is low, tolerance of non-Muslims (Christian and otherwise) is high across the Arab World. While state policies and the actions of extremist groups often mask the high levels of tolerance in the minds of ordinary Arabs, the typical citizen in this region expresses a great deal of support for tolerant policies. Recent behavior by ISIS represents the opinions of a group of extremists rather than the Arab street.

Michael Hoffman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, specializes in the study of comparative politics. 

This piece was originally authored on August 27, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.