A significant new survey of the views of Muslims across the globe on religion, politics and society found that most Muslims do want sharia or Islamic law to be the law of the land in their countries. But a majority also supports democracy and religious freedom for non-Muslims – and “Muslims have differing ideas of what sharia means in practice,” said Jim Bell, who led the research project for the Pew Research Center.
The scope of the survey is massive, involving more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages in 39 countries, with interviews conducted from 2008 to 2012. This new report – “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” – is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and The John Templeton Foundation.
In August 2012, the Pew Research Center released the first report resulting from these interviews, focusing on unity and diversity in Muslim religious belief and practice. The second report, released April 30, was paired with the launch of a new website on global religious futures.
The new report from the survey reveals both deep religious faith and complexity of views among practitioners of the world’s second-largest religion. The report states, “in all but a handful of the 39 countries surveyed, a majority of Muslims say that Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven and that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. Many also think that their religious leaders should have at least some influence over political matters. And many express a desire for sharia – traditional Islamic law – to be recognized as the official law of their country.”
At the same time, however, most Muslims do not sense an inherent tension between being devout in their religious faith and living in a modern society, or between religion and science. Many favor democracy and enjoy Western movies and music (while also holding the view that in general Western culture undercuts public morality).
There were regional variations in responses as well. Muslims in the United States reflect their interfaith culture. They were more likely than Muslims elsewhere to have close friends from other religious traditions, and were more welcoming to the idea that religions other than Islam could also lead to eternal life.
Around the world, a majority of Muslims said they did not support suicide bombing or other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam. Overall, 72 percent of Muslims said violence against civilians is never justified. Among Muslims in the U.S., 81 percent said such acts are never justified.
In some countries substantial minorities (as much as 40 percent) did say that suicide bombings or violence against civilians are sometimes justified. In the Palestinian territories, 40 percent of Muslims said violence against civilians can sometimes be justified, as did 39 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan, 29 percent in Egypt and 26 percent in Bangladesh.
At least half the Muslims in most countries are concerned about religious extremists in their own countries. There were regional variations in answers regarding religious hostility as well, with substantial percentages of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa saying that most or many Christians are hostile towards Muslims, and that Muslims are hostile towards Christians there as well.
The survey found “solid majorities” (upwards of 70 percent) of Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Asia favored the establishment of sharia law, although support was lower in southern and eastern Europe and in central Asia. Even in countries with strong support for sharia as the law of the land, however, there also is significant support among Muslims for religious freedom for those of other faiths – a reflection in part of the idea that Islamic law should only apply to Muslims.
Many Muslims also favored democracy over authoritarian rule.
And Muslims also seemed more comfortable with the idea of sharia applied to domestic life, for resolving property and family disputes, and less so as a basis for severe punishment (such as whippings or cutting off hands) for criminal cases in the public sphere.
There also are wrinkles of understanding within that broad support. For example, more than 9 of every 10 Muslims in Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Malaysia said a wife must always obey her husband. But majorities of Muslims in many countries said a woman should be able to make her own choice of whether to wear a veil.
Muslims who pray several times a day were more likely to support sharia law, and support tended to be higher in countries such as Pakistan or Morocco, where the constitution or laws favor Islam over other religions.
These results also reflect the recognition that there may be variations in how Muslims interpret “sharia” and perhaps “democracy” as well.
“What does sharia mean to ordinary citizens?” asked Amaney Jamal, an associate professor of politics at Princeton University and a special adviser to the Pew Research Center, in discussing the findings during a conference call with journalists. The idea that sharia “is this unified holistic system of Islamic governance is perhaps false . . . There really isn’t a monolith code of sharia laws,” but variations across Asia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Africa, Jamal said.
In countries with very narrow or rigid specifications of Islamic law, citizens tend to be perhaps less supportive of Islamic law, she said. In places with little religious conflict and where Islamic law is less onerous, there is wider support for the idea of Islamic laws being “divinely inspired” and that they support Islamic ideals such as social justice and equality. “There is no one common understanding of sharia,” Jamal said.
At the same time, many Muslims don’t necessarily perceive incompatibility between the idea of Islamic leaders being involved in government and in their support for democracy, said Farid Senzai, an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University, who teaches courses on the politics of the Middle East. The Arab Spring movement, for example, shows that “clearly, Muslims have supported democracy” in Egypt, he said. “Every country and every region will find a different balance between religion and democracy.”
Overwhelmingly, more than three-quarters of Muslims believe that certain behaviors (prostitution, homosexuality, drinking alcohol, suicide, and abortion) are immoral. Views on polygamy, divorce and birth control are more mixed – with differing results depending on the country in which interviews were conducted. In Jordan, only 3 percent of Muslims considered divorce immoral, for example. In Liberia, 72 percent did.
In most countries, a majority of Muslims said “honor” killings are never justified – although there were exceptions. In Iraq and Afghanistan, majorities did favor executions outside the justice system of women seen to have brought disgrace on their families through premarital sex or adultery.
In some regions, many Muslims acknowledged they do not have a significant understanding of Christian practices. In only three of 37 countries where that question was asked (in some countries, particular questions were omitted because it was seen as particularly sensitive) did at least half of Muslims say they know a great deal about Christian beliefs and practices. Familiarity with Christianity tended to be significantly higher in sub-Saharan Africa, and to be lower in South Asia and Southeast Asia.