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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: February 2016

15 - Arab Muslim Attitudes toward Religious Minorities



Recent developments in the Arab world have shattered the feeble equilibrium that once existed. Uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere have undermined long-established dictators and created an ever-present threat of violence in many parts of the region. In many cases, religious minorities are particularly endangered. The conflict in Syria has taken an increasingly sectarian tone in lockstep with its increasing level of violence. Conditions have become so severe that some Arab Christian observers outside Syria believe that this conflict “will likely be the final blow for Syria's embattled Christians.” Electoral victories for Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt (albeit a short-lived victory in the latter case) have certainly not comforted Christians and other non-Muslims in the Arab world. It seems that the birthplace of several of the world's largest faith traditions is still a hotbed of conflict between religious groups, and the outcome remains as uncertain as ever.

The growing uncertainty in the region – particularly for religious minorities – creates a vital need for understanding the social forces that shape relations between the faiths in these countries. If the Arab Spring revolutions were to bring about a more “popular” form of government, in contrast to the dictatorships that preceded them, then it is crucial to examine what popular demands might be. Popular rule does not necessarily mean tolerance. As Tocqueville famously warned, rule by the majority can result in highly unequal treatment of minority groups. There is thus no logical necessity that elections, however free and fair, will lead to improved conditions for non-Muslims in the Arab world; in fact, many observers have predicted just the opposite.

This chapter remedies some of the uncertainty regarding Arab attitudes toward religious minorities and religious freedom. Using recent original data from the Arab Barometer, it examines the attitudes of Arab citizens toward religious minorities through a number of different religious and political lenses. Furthermore, it considers the origins of these attitudes. Views about non-Muslims (and political policies relevant to them) were collected in ten Arab societies, providing valuable insight into the minds of everyday citizens in this important part of the world. In order to understand the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Arab world, we must consider the beliefs and attitudes of the Muslim citizens who make up the majority of the population in these countries.

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