Expert Commentary

Religion in the Arab Spring: Analyzing participation, motives, root causes

2014 Princeton study, published in in the Journal of Politics, examining empirical evidence relating to why people participated in the Arab Spring.

In May 2014, Egypt voted in former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in a presidential election criticized by many international observers. Meanwhile, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has once again been driven underground, and according to a recent Pew survey more than half of Egyptians say a stable government is more important than a democratic one. This can make it easy to forget that only three years earlier, the Egyptian people revolted in Tahrir Square against the authoritarian, military-backed Mubarak regime and overwhelmingly elected Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi to the presidency.

The constantly evolving situation in the Middle East has prompted ongoing interest in, and research on, the various factors leading to the Arab Spring. In a 2014 study — “Religion in the Arab Spring: Between Two Competing Narratives” — Princeton University scholars Michael Hoffman and Amaney Jamal explore the motivations behind some of the initial uprisings of 2011. In particular, they examine the relationship between people’s religious beliefs and the likelihood of their participation in the protests. There is still a debate over whether the revolution was spurred mainly by secular liberals in favor of increased democracy or those who opposed the irreligious regimes condemned in sermons at their mosques. To address this question, the authors use the “Arab Barometer” survey, which consists of in-person interviews conducted from nationally representative samples. They selected data specifically from the 27 governorates of Egypt and the 24 governorates of Tunisia, partly because these two countries are where the Arab Spring “gained the earliest momentum,” thus inspiring subsequent protests.

Key findings from the study, published in in the Journal of Politics, include:

  • “It is clear that the Arab Spring protests were not, in general, motivated by antireligious sentiment.”
  • In both Egypt and Tunisia, “individuals who read the Qur’an more often were three to four times as likely as others to participate in the protests.” In Egypt, more than 10% of those interviewed who ‘‘always’’ read the Qur’an reported participating in protests (in Tunisia over 19%), while less than 4% of those who ‘‘rarely’’ read the Qur’an said that they had participated (in Tunisia fewer than 6%).
  • In contrast, “the effect of communal prayer is much weaker and works in the opposite direction; citizens in each country who engaged in communal religious practice were somewhat less likely than others to engage in anti-regime protest, but this effect is substantively small and fails to reach conventional levels of significance in any of the models in either country.”
  • Taken together, this indicates that, “belief rather than communal practice was the more important source of religious motivation for protest. It appears, therefore, that the role played by religion in the Arab Spring — at least from a behavioral perspective — was primarily psychological rather than organizational.”
  • The authors suggest several potential mechanisms to explain these findings or “a means by which individual piety might induce individuals to engage in higher levels of anti-regime protest.” These include: 1) grievances: “more religious people mobilized in greater numbers because they viewed the regimes they targeted as unfaithful to Islam,” or “depending on the context, religion may make individuals more inclined to mobilize in order to change their societies” and 2) opportunity: “piety may enhance citizens’ self-efficacy and levels of interpersonal trust, which may serve as resources for greater political participation,” or “the perception that ‘‘God is on my side’’ can, under the right circumstances, be a powerful influence on political efficacy.”
  • “Qur’an readers are significantly more likely to perceive inequalities in their treatment from the regime and are more supportive of democracy than are [religious text] nonreaders.”

The authors summarize these findings by stating: “Qur’an reading motivated protest rather than facilitating it.” They conclude by noting that this could hold important implications for the future of the region: “The next phase of Arab politics may involve moves towards democracy, but it is unlikely to involve a move away from religion. Thus, the traditional temptation to associate democracy with secularization — particularly common in the West — is likely to be misleading in the Arab world.”

Related Research: For more perspective on these geopolitical events, see a 2012 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,“Social Media and Participation in Political Protest: Observations from Tahrir Square”; a 2014 paper from New York University, “People Power or a One-shot Deal? A Dynamic Model of Protest”; and a roundup of recent research on the Arab Spring and the Internet.

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