Changing Values in the Middle East: Secular Swings and Liberal Leanings

Global Challenges

Changing Values in the Middle East: Secular Swings and Liberal Leanings

Report
Posted on: 10th September 2021
Mansoor Moaddel
Professor of Sociology at University of Maryland, College Park
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    In our 9/11 – 20 Years On collection, we take this milestone anniversary as an opportunity to reflect and reassess, looking at what leaders and policymakers should consider to deliver lasting change.

    Executive Summary

    Executive Summary

    Two momentous events of the past 20 years have shaped debates and policy in the Middle East. Both marked the beginning of a new decade and have since had far-reaching consequences: in 2001, the 9/11 attacks on US soil prompted US President George W Bush to famously ask “Why do they hate us?”1On 20 September 2001, President George W Bush addressed a special joint session of Congress and the American people. He answered his own question: “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” as he went on to launch what he dubbed the “war on terror”; and in 2011, Arab nations experienced the largest popular protests to sweep the region. 

    Both events have deepened the desire to better understand Arab and Middle Eastern public opinion. Anecdotal observations, public demonstrations in both 2011 and 2019, and an increase in the availability of survey data from Middle Eastern nations show signs that societies in the region are undergoing a series of transformations that could fundamentally reconfigure both politics and culture over time. But is there evidence the region is moving in a positive direction? 

    This groundbreaking report is the result of close to 20 years of Middle East survey data comprising 70,000-plus face-to-face interviews. The results of these cross-national surveys carried out in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey throw light on the prospect for democracy in the region today. By assessing changes in values over a period of time towards secular politics, gender equality, the right to express one’s individuality and liberal values – all key dimensions of liberal democracy – we can assess the turns already occurring in the direction of liberalism. We identify the countries and cohorts of society that demonstrate the biggest hunger for reform or are making the biggest shifts in attitudes towards liberal values. And we argue that there is a unique opportunity for a gradual, progressive policy shift towards a liberal transformation.

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