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Public Opinion in Islamic Countries: Survey Results

by Monsoor Moaddel
Eastern Michigan University

Over the past two years, my colleagues in Egypt, Jordan, and Iran and I have uncovered counterintuitive findings and other interesting similarities and differences across public worldviews in these countries prior to and after the horrific terrorist events of September 11, 2001. Preliminary analysis of responses1 provided, among other things, a window into public opinion on key religious, political, and gender issues. These issues were also recurrent themes in almost all significant cultural episodes experienced in these countries in modern times. I report here a sampling of our findings from our pre-tested 19-page questionnaire.

This research began in 1999 as a collaborative pilot project in Egypt, Jordan, and Iran, and it is the first comprehensive comparative sociological survey of several major Islamic countries.2

Pre-9/11 Worldviews: Religion Is More Than Nation

Our surveys found that religion plays a crucial role in the lives of the great majority of respondents. Most revealing of the strength of religion in these three countries is that it appears to be a more important basis of personal identity than nationality. At least 94% of all respondents said they believed in all of the following: God, life after death, existence of a soul, and heaven and hell. Virtually all Egyptians said that religion was very important in their lives (97%)—as did 96% of Jordanians and 79% of Iranians. In all three countries, people were more likely to describe themselves as Muslims, above all, than as Egyptians, Jordanians, or Iranians. In Egypt, 79% of the respondents said that they were Muslims above all, while 10% said they were Egyptians above all. The comparable figures were 70% versus 14% in Jordan and 61% versus 34% in Iran.

Iran Throws a Curve

One particularly noteworthy counterintuitive finding is that Iranians, despite living under a theocratic regime, placed less emphasis on religion and more emphasis on nationalism than did Egyptians or Jordanians. They also appeared to be more critical of religious authorities than concerned with the “threat” of Western culture. Whereas, in Iran, 47% of the public indicated that religious authorities adequately responded to social problems, comparable figures for Jordan and Egypt are 60% and 70%, respectively. A lower percentage of Iranians (12%) participated in weekly or more frequent religious services than did Egyptians (22%) or Jordanians (28%). And a lower percentage of Iranians (55%) than Egyptians (64%) or Jordanians (85%) considered Western cultural invasion to be a very important problem.

Attitudes About Family/Marriage

On social issues such as the ideal number of children in the family, attitudes toward marriage, and women working outside the home, there were also variations. In Egypt, 82% considered two or three children to be the ideal number. In Jordan, 71% considered four or more to be the ideal number. In Iran, by contrast, 76% felt that two or less was the ideal number of children in the family. While there is strong support for marriage among Egyptians (95%), Jordanians (87%), and Iranians (67%), a considerably higher percentage of Iranians (17%) agreed with the statement that marriage has become an outdated institution. The corresponding figures for Jordan and Egypt are 12% and 4%, respectively. Finally, a larger percentage of Iranians (40%) than Jordanians (23%) or Egyptians (19%) strongly agreed with the statement that a working mother, just like a non-working mother, could develop an intimate relationship with her children.

Impact of 9/11 on Egyptian Worldviews

A second survey in Egypt was carried out about five months after 9/11 (n=1000). Before and after comparisons of the data on some of the most important social issues display an interesting, and even surprising, pattern of change. Not unexpectedly, given the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after 9/11, there was a significant increase in negative attitudes toward the West and Jews after 9/11. While 63% indicated that Western cultural invasion was a very serious problem when surveyed prior to 9/11, it rose to 71% after 9/11. Before 9/11, 68.4% expressed the view that they did not wish to have Jews as neighbors, compared to 99.8% after 9/11.

What surprised us was the change in Egyptian worldviews in a direction less favorable toward religious institutions, less favorable toward the way the country is run, and more favorable toward democracy and gender equality. After 9/11, a much lower percentage of the respondents affirmed that religious authorities adequately responded to moral problems, spiritual needs, family problems, and social problems. In particular, after 9/11, 57% indicated that religious authorities adequately responded to the social problems, compared to 81% before 9/11 (see Figure 1).

Democracy, Education, Gender

Likewise, after 9/11, 77% indicated they believed that Egypt “is run by a few big interests,” compared to 69% before 9/11. On the issues of gender and democracy, those who strongly believed that men are better political leaders than women declined from 49% to 34%, while those who strongly disagreed with the idea that university education is more important for boys than for girls increased from 37% to 48%. Finally, the respondents’ favorable attitudes toward democracy significantly increased on all indicators. For example, those who strongly agreed with the notion that “while democracy may have problems, it is better than any other system” increased from 56% before 9/11 to 69% after 9/11 (see Figure 2).

These changes remained significant even after controlling for age, gender, marital status, and education, but the changes were more pronounced among people with at least a university education. We cautiously predict that Egypt is going to experience a fairly strong pro-democracy and somewhat secularist movement in the near future. This movement would certainly be oppositional and likely to display critical attitudes toward the West.

History Repeating Its Self-reflection?

It is difficult to explain how 9/11 could have caused such changes in Egyptian worldviews. However, there are historical instances in Islamic countries in which a major dramatic event constituted a milestone, signifying a cultural turn. Examples of such instances are the mutiny of 1857-59 in India and the crisis of 1860 in Syria. In one, religious extremism was used to justify violence against the British and in the other violence was perpetrated against religious minorities, in particular, Christians and Jews. Although several historical factors were at work in bringing about these events, it has been argued that the archaic form of struggle, the violence, and bigotry displayed in both instances awakened the people’s minds to the horrors of their moral stagnation and stimulated a fresh critical look by the intellectual leaders at their own society—including its principles of social organization, treatment of women, and attitude toward outsiders.

Something similar to these self-reflections may be transpiring in Egypt today. Observing the extensive destruction of life and property in the United States by their “Muslim” brothers and learning in detail about the attitudes of al-Qaeda and Taliban toward freedom and women in Afghanistan might have affected some Egyptians’ views about the role and function of religion in society. These anti-western terrorist attacks might have emboldened some secularist groups to launch criticisms against the religious extremists. Some religious extremists, in turn, being exhausted by more than 20 years of fruitless armed confrontations with the regime might have become encouraged to renounce violence. It may not be coincidental that we are hearing Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the group responsible for the massacre of tourists at Luxor, Egypt, in 1997) criticizing their violence of the past and al-Qaeda for its recent killing of innocent men, women, and children on 9/11.

What political form these changes will bring about and what type of leadership will emerge in Egypt is hard to tell. What is known is that Egypt after 9/11 appears to be thinking differently from the way it did before that fateful day.

Mansoor Moaddel is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He can be reached at Moaddel has organized a conference/workshop on the worldviews of the Islamic publics in Cairo, Egypt, which will take place February 24-26, 2003. The participants in this gathering will be social scientists from the United States, Sweden, France, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, and Turkey. The conference will address some of the methodological and theoretical issues faced by social science in Middle Eastern and Arab countries. For more information, contact Moaddel or the conference coordinator in Cairo, Hamid Latif, at or


1Responses were from nationally representative samples of adult males and femals (ages 15-65) including 3,000 Egyptians, 1,200 Jordanians, and 2,500 Iranians in 2000/2001 to a pre-tested 19-page questionnaire.
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2These surveys were supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Bank of Sweden’s Tercentenary Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. The post 9/11 survey was supported by NSF. My collaborators include, among others, Ronald Inglehart (University of Michigan), Saad ed-Din Ibrahim (Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Cairo), Abdul H. Safwat (Suez Canal University, Egypt), Hamid Latif (Ain Shams University, Egypt), Taghi Azadarmaki (University of Tehran), and Mustafa Hamarneh and Tony Sabbagh (both at the University of Jordan in Amman).
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