Ep. 8 | How Has the Pandemic Affected Religious Behavior in the Muslim World? | Tarek Masoud, Kadir Yildirim, and Peter Mandaville

Tarek Masoud
Kadir Yildirim
Peter Mandaville





The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the health crisis, government-imposed lockdowns, and economic recession would affect religious faith and behavior. While many social scientists expected it to strengthen religiosity as people turned to their faith for comfort in a time of need, others suspected a religious recession could result from the limitations on communal religious activity. In this episode, we speak with three political scientists, Tarek Masoud, A. Kadir Yildirim, and Peter Mandaville, about their new study of religious behavior following the pandemic in the Muslim-majority countries of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia in November and December of 2020.

Tarek Masoud is Faculty Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University, Professor of Public Policy, and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

A. Kadir Yildirim is Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Twitter: @akyildirim

Peter Mandaville is Professor of International Affairs at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Twitter: @pmandaville


Episode 8
Release date: June 8, 2021
Hosts: Meryum Kazmi and Harry Bastermajian 
Audio editing: Meryum Kazmi
Photo: Badshai Masjid in Lahore, Pakistan by Ayesha Asif via Unsplash
Transcription: Otter


Meryum Kazmi 00:25
Among the many signs of the COVID-19 pandemic's profound impact on daily life worldwide was the sound of the adhan, the call to prayer familiar across the Muslim world that normally calls the faithful to pray in mosques, instead telling them to pray in their homes or wherever they were. In this episode, we discuss a fascinating new study on the impact of the pandemic on religious behavior in Muslim-majority countries. Welcome to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi,
Harry Bastermajian 01:07
and I'm Harry Bastermajian. We're excited to be joined by three political scientists to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religiosity in the Muslim world.
Meryum Kazmi 01:18
Our guests are Tarek Masoud, Faculty Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University, Professor of Public Policy, and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government; Kadir Yildirim, Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy; and Peter Mandaville, Professor of International Affairs at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. Thank you all for joining us.
Tarek Masoud 01:51
Thank you.
Peter Mandaville 01:52
Great to be with you. Thank you.
A. Kadir Yildirim 01:53
Thank you.
Meryum Kazmi 01:54
So to start off, maybe you could tell us a bit about this project, and what made you interested in this research?
Tarek Masoud 02:00
I'll just start us off. Thanks very much, Meryum, for that. So, you know, political scientists have long studied religion. I mean, we sometimes say that we haven't paid enough attention to religion, but we actually do pay attention to religion, but it's religion as an independent variable, so as something that explains something else that we're really interested in. So we'll say, for example, how important is religiosity and religious attachment to voting behavior or to support for democracy or to violent behavior? And what I think Kadir and Peter and I have long felt is that actually religion and religious attachment and religious practice is something worthy of explanation in itself. It should not just be the independent variable, it should be the dependent variable. And this group of the three of us got together because Kadir lead a really innovative, Luce-funded project a couple of years ago on religious authority in the Muslim world that also was based on conducting large scale surveys in the Muslim world to try to understand how Muslims conceive of their faith and who has authority over their faith. And so when the coronavirus pandemic hit, we had already been involved in a conversation, the three of us, about how do we deepen and further this agenda of explaining where religion and religiosity and religious attachments come from. And when corona hit, it was an opportunity for us to really explore and test one of the few really powerful hypotheses that exist in the literature about where religiosity comes from. And this is a hypothesis that you would read in Marx, you had read it in Freud, you'd read it in Emile Durkheim, and a lot of other scholars who basically would make the argument that religion serves as a balm against bad luck and, quote, unquote, "adverse life events." And so, you know, I think kind of a soothing balm against misery and misfortune and so there's no greater misfortune that we could think of at least in our time than the pandemic and the associated economic and health effects and loss of life and so we thought it was an opportunity for us to really see if there was a change in people's attachment to religion and the religious behaviors as a result of this shock. There were a bunch of other questions that we wanted to ask, and maybe Peter and Kadir can chime in on those.
Peter Mandaville 04:49
Yeah, so I think that in addition to these kind of weighty, social scientific questions about the relationship between insecurity and religion, as regular observers of the Muslim world, we all began to notice all sorts of interesting discussions and debates popping up. You know, obviously, the pandemic initially hit on the eve of Ramadan and so we immediately started to see debates, for example, about whether tarawih and other congregational prayers count if they're performed through a virtual medium, for example. We began to see incidences of increased tension and new kinds of politics breaking out between state authorities and religious authorities in certain countries about access to and whether religious institutions should be open during this period. So there-- you know, there were all kinds of questions that we thought we would, that would be interesting for us to look into.
A. Kadir Yildirim 05:43
And also from a comparative perspective, you know, we see a lot of studies going on about how Christians of different convictions are being affected by the pandemic, how that affects their church attendance or different kinds of practices, and the Muslim world in this regard, sort of lags in terms of the studies that focus on that. So this will provide, you know, our study provides a good sort of comparative baseline to see people under different religious contexts respond to the pandemic's effects in similar ways.
Harry Bastermajian 06:23
Thank you for that. I mean, so you sort of touched on this, but if I could go a little deeper into the methodology. Kadir, you just mentioned, in terms of comparative studies, there have been studies looking into Christian communities. So, can you tell us how maybe that has influenced your methodology in the study of Muslim communities, or if there's anything different there?
A. Kadir Yildirim 06:47
Right, sure. So to explore whether the pandemic shapes religiosity or affects religious practice in the Muslim-majority countries, we commissioned an online survey through YouGov in November, December of 2020 with more than 9,000 adults in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, about 2,000 from each country except Pakistan, where we had about 1,200 respondents. The sample was 50% female and the average age of respondents was 31 years old; females around 30, males a little over 32. And I want to acknowledge at this point, the Luce Foundation's support for our research, which was very important and they were quick to respond to our request. So we were interested in seeing how citizens of these five countries would respond to our questions and we wanted to make sure the respondents were self-proclaimed Muslims. And we relied on YouGov's online survey panels in these countries, in these five countries. Given the pandemic and the challenges involved in conducting field research, I think, especially in some of these countries, an online survey offered us the best path forward. While our primary interest lies in identifying individual level of religious responses to the pandemic in the Muslim world, we recognize that individual responses are sort of in place within country level, you know, differences, and that's why it was important for us to select countries, cases, that would reflect the variation within the Muslim world. So in that regard, we looked into state capacity, for example. We reasoned that states with higher capacity would enjoy greater trust from their societies, and would be less likely to lead citizens to alternative sources of protection from the pandemic, such as the religion. And by contrast, states with lower capacity would rely more on religion to address these kinds of relief. And we have a good, I think, variation between Turkey on the one hand and Pakistan at the other end, in terms of state capacity. Another factor that we looked into is whether electoral accountability would play into this, because we reasoned that in countries where democracy, electoral accountability, was a factor, governments might be more responsible to the pandemic and that's why people's recourse to religion and different kinds of religiosity would be lessened as a result. So, and in that sense, I think we again have a good bit of variation, you know, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia offering a lot of-- I'm sorry, Indonesia, offering the highest level of electoral accountability within our cases and Saudi Arabia being the least among the five countries. Governments' relation with religion is another factor that we took into account. To what extent does the government control religion, or control religious practice within the country? In some cases, it's a completely free market, such as Pakistan, for example, but in other cases, that government is really heavy handed in what goes into the religious space, whether this is in the case of Saudi Arabia, or in the case of Turkey, where all the mosques are controlled by the state and all the Friday sermons, for example, are centrally dictated. And the last factor that we wanted to consider was the study that Tarek mentioned, you know, the 2017 study that we conducted, where Tarek was part of the project on religious authority in the Middle East. So we wanted to make sure we had at least some countries from that study, carrying over to this one, to ensure that we had some sort of a baseline that we could compare the questions of religiosity, on at least some questions over time.
Tarek Masoud 11:21
Yeah. You know, just to chime in on on the methodological points. Kadir offered the logic of case selection, why did we choose these countries and not some other countries? And it's because those cases gave us some variation on some of these important factors that we think might explain the outcomes. If we could do the kind of gold-standard study, what we would have done was an experiment where you randomly assigned some people to experience a pandemic and other people not to experience a pandemic and the people not experiencing the pandemic is the control group. And then we'll measure their level of religiosity and other things that we're interested in for the control group that got no pandemic and the treatment group that got a pandemic and we see if there's a difference. Of course, you can't do that. This is what we would call an observational study and it obviously has some shortcomings, but I do think part of why the multicountry nature of the study is valuable is that the intensity of the pandemic is also not the same across all countries. And in fact, the intensity of the experience of the pandemic is not the same across all respondents. You know, some respondents pandemic really hit them hard. People in their family got sick, lost jobs, etc. Other people didn't experience that. So we're trying to leverage some of that variation to make a claim that you really can only make with an experimental study but obviously, that methodology is out of our reach for something like this.
Peter Mandaville 12:56
You know, and insofar as this is maybe a bit of an opportunity to make a pitch for other kinds of research we might want to do-- listen up foundations, please-- it would be great to look at some of these questions in the context of Muslim-minority settings, right? Obviously, here, we've got several of the largest Muslim-majority, most-populous Muslim-majority countries in the world. It would be interesting to know whether we see different dynamics emerging in settings where Muslim communities are in the minority. I would love to run a version of this with an oversample of Muslims in the United States or Western Europe, for example.
Tarek Masoud 13:30
Yeah, that would be awesome. Absolutely.
Harry Bastermajian 13:33
Thank you. So just going a little further maybe on that. The point about the the intensity of the pandemic, or maybe the intensity of feeling around the pandemic, that's really interesting to me. I mean, how, first of all, what goes into that feeling? What goes into the feeling of intensity? Is it economic? Are we talking about emotional distress from economic distress, from health issues? And how do you measure that?
Tarek Masoud 14:08
That's great, Harry. Basically, what we tried to do is the following. In order to measure the level of strain and discomfort and distress that people felt we used a battery of questions that was actually deployed by the US Census in their COVID-19 pulse survey, which asked respondents how often during the prior seven days had you felt nervous, worried, apathetic, depressed. I mean, the wording is a little bit different than what I gave you but those are the ideas. And so we use that to measure, I mean, assuming, of course, that people are being open about how they're feeling, we use that to measure their subjective report on their psychological states. We then also ask them about their food insecurity, to what extent have you had difficulty getting food or, you know, etc. And we asked them about employment income, did you or somebody in your household lose employment income? Are you worried about you or somebody in your household losing their employment income? And those are what we might call more objective measures of at least the economic drivers of the strain. Now, it's also of course, you know, we don't want to be saying that the only thing that causes people to feel strain is if they lose income. It's very possible, for example, that people could experience no hit to their income and not expect to experience a hit to their income but the experience of living in this world at this time, causes people to seek the comfort of religion and we don't really have anything that would help us to get it that, and that is obviously a shortcoming. And we probably could have designed a set of questions that would have helped us get there but what we thought was the questions about income were objective and so you're starting with an objective reality, which is, did you lose some income or not? And then you have the intermediate variable, which is, how much stress you feel? And then the dependent variable, which is, how much do you turn to religion? Now, of course, because this is an experimental study, the causal chain I just laid out for you does not appear as neatly in the data, and we should talk about that but that's kind of why we focus so much on the objective.
A. Kadir Yildirim 16:46
Let me chime in here. So obviously, we're interested in religiosity and it was important for us to come up with a way to measure religiosity. We didn't want to constrain ourselves to one particular dimension of religion or religiosity, religious practice, so we had to sort of gauge in the most appropriate way how people live religiosity, expressed their religiosity in a Muslim context. So we tried to tackle that in a number of ways by essentially creating an index of different components of religiosity that people have discussed in the literature. So the most obvious examples, or elements, components, of that is the daily prayers that Muslims are prescribed to pray five times a day and reading the Qur'an. These are the most obvious markers of religiosity and we've included them. We asked people how much do you pray, or how much do you read Qur'an, and we asked them to compare that to the period before the pandemic. So, this is self-proclaimed levels of religiosity, a comparative basis, which is important for us. Another way that we tried to sort of measure religiosity is a little bit more, I think, more modern ways of religiosity, which is reading religious books and following religious programming on TV in particular. So this is a little bit less direct but people view those as elements of religious practice and religiosity. And lastly, because this is a pandemic and because there are lockdowns at various points in time, we wanted to measure how people were attending mosque and participating in more sort of communal elements of religiosity; mosque attendance, and participating in religious lessons, for example, or study circles. So we brought all of those together to create an index and that, I think, worked pretty well.
Tarek Masoud 19:03
Yeah, and you know, one of the interesting things, I mean, I guess we'll talk about the findings in a minute, but we did see a lot of people reporting increases in their religious behaviors, praying more, reading more Qur'an, reading more religious texts. Of course, when you get to the communal aspects, you see a lot of people reporting that they're doing that much less and that's, of course, a result of the lockdowns. And one thing I think we didn't explore, but we'll probably need to explore in future work, is if I'm the kind of person who is used to going to the mosque and now I can't, that is in itself a source of strain and stress. And so exploring that aspect, you know, the fact that some people, the pandemic actually prevented them from engaging in religion, religious practice, in the way that they are used to, could actually be a source of stress. And we know that there are some people, and we actually have a question on this that we're analyzing, but we know that some people believed that these lockdowns and the extent to which they locked down religious institutions were illegitimate, right? You know, we have a question where we quote, something that one of us, I think, read somewhere. We asked people how much they agree with the statement, "Instead of closing down the mosques, we need to open them so we can ask Allah for forgiveness," and you know, some people agree with that statement. And so there's many more complex ways of thinking about the relationship between the pandemic and religious behavior than the causal mechanism we're presenting here.
Meryum Kazmi 20:53
It would be great to hear more about your findings. Who did you find reported a change in religious behavior and in what countries?
Tarek Masoud 21:01
That's great. Let me just give a broad overview and then maybe Kadir and Peter can kind of dive in particularly to the country level dimension variation, which is really fascinating. But basically, what we found was that the people who said that they expected to or had experienced household income loss were A) much more strained and B) much more likely to evince or to say that they were engaged in more religious behavior as a result of the pandemic. So it's important to say about that religiosity question, we ask you, are you praying now more than you did before the pandemic? Are you reading Qur'an now more than you did before the pandemic, etc? And people who lost income feel more strained, people who lost income also are reporting more religious behavior. The question then is, what's the relationship between the strain and the religious behavior? And here is where the finding is really interesting and consistent, frankly, with those decades of older theorizing, because we found that among the people, conditional on job loss or income loss, if you say, I'm praying more and I'm engaging in more religious behaviors, you lost your job, right? So have those people lost their jobs, the ones who are engaged in more religious behaviors, actually report feeling much less stressed, worried, nervous, than the ones who lost their jobs and aren't engaged in the religious behaviors. And so again, you know, the way we set it up is to be able to make a credible causal claim that it's because you're engaged in the religious behavior that functions to psychologically protect you against the stress of losing income. That's why we ask, not how much you pray, and then just measure how much these people are praying compared to others. But we say, are you praying more than before? And so people say, "I'm praying more than before," who, conditional on job loss, actually feel less stressed than those who aren't praying or reading Qur'an more than before. So that was a really interesting finding consistent with, again, that Durkheimian argument, that argument from Nietzsche, etc, and also with some of the more recent studies that are being conducted in Germany, and I think there was one in Italy. But that, you know, if we pool the entire sample, and we're treating an individual Indonesian as the same as an individual Turk, when we start to disaggregate by country, find different effects by country. Maybe Kadir can chime in. Turkey is, of course, as always, the outlier here. Go ahead, sir.
A. Kadir Yildirim 24:02
Yes, well, looking at the data, what we're seeing is Turkey on average, doesn't see a lot of change in terms of religious-- in terms of religiosity, you know, we don't really see any increase in religious practice as attested by the respondents themselves. One reason we can figure why that's the case is it's because even going before the pandemic, Turkey has overall a more secular society. Turks are more sort of friendly with secularism as a personal choice, as well as a form of governance. And that affects how they respond to different kinds of adversities, including this pandemic. So, in that regard, I think this is one reason why we are seeing a difference in Turkey. Another-- we haven't tested this in particular-- but one thing I can speculate is, right now, there is an Islamist government, in Turkey, in power, and from qualitative sort of evidence, we know that many people have actually set distance between religion and themselves, because of the practices, because of the policies, of the existing government that's been in power for about two, almost two decades. And so, this could be another mechanism that affects how people respond to the pandemic and the adversities that they face as a result of that. Rather than turning to religion, they find solace and reprieve in different arenas.
Tarek Masoud 25:52
You know, that last point that Kadir makes is a really fascinating one, because, you know, again, I've studied Islamism, Kadir has studied Islamism, Peter has studied Islamism, and we always think, "Okay, to what extent is Islamism being driven by attachment to Islam?" You know, Islamism-- that's actually a bad term, but you know, let's say, voting for parties that say, "I'm going to implement the Shari'a," for example, or voting for parties that make at their core, an argument about Islamic identity. And so we always think of the religious attachment as again, a causal factor. And what others pointing out as well, in Turkey, you have a political party that, you know, frames itself as being a pious party connected to Islam. Kadir called it an Islamist party, although I'll note, Kadir wrote an amazing book about this party in which he calls it slightly different from an Islamist party. But nonetheless, Islamic identity is central to the AK Party and what Kadir is pointing out is that what we're starting to see is actually, when you have a prominent political party that makes religion its core identity, the other citizens who may not like this party may express that dissatisfaction with that party by actually pulling away from religion. There's a study by David Campbell from Notre Dame and his co-authors where he's finding this in the United States. People are actually, some people are becoming less willing to express themselves as evangelical Christians because they see the Republican Party, a party that they're not on board with, adopting that identity. So this is also, you know, Kadir's explanation of why the Turkish data is not necessarily congruous or not singing the same tune as the other data may be driven by this interesting phenomenon in which religion isn't just affecting politics, but politics is affecting people's practice of religion.
Peter Mandaville 27:56
And one brief point I would add, Meryum, in relation to your question about our findings, kind of about the significance of our findings, obviously, we already spoke to the ways in which it seems to confirm a long-standing sociological thesis or dictum about the role of the social world of religion under conditions of adversity. When the pandemic broke out, there was this little speculative scramble among scholars working in all fields, like "What does the pandemic say about the things I work on?" And so within religious studies, there was this mini debate that broke out purely speculatively, at that point about what the impact of the pandemic on religiosity broadly would be-- no, wrong to say that it was wholly speculative, because some of these intervening the debates, some of the people involved in it were drawing on data from previous cases of large-scale adversity. But the two sides of this debate-- one basically doubled down on that long-standing thesis that we've already laid out for you about, you know, people turning to religion as a source of security under conditions of adversity, the other side of the debate argued that we would see something like a quote unquote, "religious recession," the idea being that as people are less able to participate in particularly communal religious activities, they will begin to feel less in touch with their religion, that the pandemic by its very nature would just lead people to focus on other issues and religion would kind of fall by the wayside. I think one of the things that's interesting and useful about our data is that it actually allows us to play a role in starting to actually answer that question with some serious empirics. And it's obviously clear where we fall on that question, right, we're confirming the long-standing thesis.
Tarek Masoud 29:47
Yeah. You know, there's another set of findings from recent survey work in the Arab world, so not the Muslim world-- and you know, as the outgoing director of the Program on Islamic Studies at Harvard, I do know the difference-- but studies of the Arab world, recent studies of the Arab world, found that or argued that religiosity in the Arab world is actually declining and this was based on some very high-quality data from the Arab Barometer comparing a couple of waves and finding that in the most recent wave of the Barometer, people are more likely to say that religion isn't important to them. And, you know, I think all of us in some ways, the three of us felt that that was certainly surprising because this is a part of the world in which religion, I think, is quite central. I mean, I've in my own life made the argument that sometimes we think religion is way too central. We make these kinds of, quote unquote, "Orientalist" arguments where we view the average Arab as a kind of, you know, to use Sadiq al-Azm's term, Homo Islamicus who just acts in a deterministic way. But nonetheless, religion is important there and so we found this finding to be a little bit surprising. And I think, part of the explanation for it is Kadir's explanation that how much of this is driven by the fact that people don't want to be associated with the quote, unquote, "Islamist" parties that they associate with, the failures of the Arab Spring, or maybe that they're afraid of associating themselves with because of fear of state response. But one of the things I think this data and these findings that we've begun to uncover suggest is that that, quote, unquote, "trend" to the extent that it's real, may not be long for this world. It may, in fact, be that because there is this shock, and frankly, the world is full of shocks. You know, this is a part of the world that, even at this late date in human history, suffers from considerable insecurity along a number of dimensions, even before the pandemic. It may be that we shouldn't make too much of this quote, unquote, "secular trend" towards secularism and that, in fact, the drivers pushing people to continue to look for solutions in religion are important. And one thing we've hinted at but haven't really talked about fully is the causal mechanism that we've identified that links strain to religiosity is a psychological one, right? We've said, people feel stressed out, they feel worried, they feel apathetic, so they seek comfort in the divine. There is, of course, a much more quotidian mechanism by which you might expect strain to lead to more religious behavior in practice, but doesn't work through psychology. It would be something like, "I lost my job, I lost my health care, and the only organizations in society, because the states are utter failures, the only organizations in society that can offer me that are the organic religious charities that are so in evidence and so I seek that material succor from those organizations and then as a result I'm now embedded in religious networks and start to act religiously." And then that would also help us, as Kadir said, understand why Turkey is a little bit different, because Turkey is a very strong state, because actually in Turkey, you don't need to really rely on religious charitable networks for your health care, then this mechanism wouldn't necessarily operate. We don't find a lot of very clear evidence for this in the data either way, but it's nonetheless, there's a lot of different mechanisms that we might expect to operate to produce the broad association that we observed the data.
Meryum Kazmi 33:55
I'm curious to kind of know more about this, I guess, the effect of political developments on individual religious religiosity. You mentioned the Arab Spring, the AK Party in Turkey. And especially because historically, governments have played such an important role in public religious life in Muslim societies in implementing Islamic law and also upholding certain social norms. So I guess I'm wondering, do you think these developments mean that religiosity is just changing manifesting itself differently?
Tarek Masoud 34:38
That's, a great question. You know, and in other words, if I can, let me try to reframe your question as a sharp critique of what we're saying. Because it sounds like what you're saying is, "Well, look, guys, you're measuring changes in specific religious behaviors, and you're framing that as change in religiosity but in fact, religiosity could be constant throughout this period, and it's just expressing itself in different ways." Was that sort of the argument?
Meryum Kazmi 35:09
Yeah, I'd say so.
Tarek Masoud 35:10
Yeah, that's, you know, that's a really powerful critique that, you know, I would need to think about, what do you do, let me call on my smarter friends.
Peter Mandaville 35:20
I absolutely think you're onto something there Meryum, because I think that we've been actually watching a broader sociological shift in Muslim religiosity over the years. And this is linked to kind of a broader trend towards individualization in some cases, that people are increasingly interested in religion more for the idea that religion is a source of ethics, a switch of spirituality, a way of self care, if I can put it that way, that would mean that they're not necessarily going to articulate that religiosity in ways that would show up on the religiosity index that we're using in this data. I think other forms that it takes are, for example, the idea of the sort of trend towards Islam as a lifestyle, right, and this is sort of in line with theories about the increased neo-liberalization of societies globally, right, that increasingly, we are disciplined as human subjects to focus more on, you know, how we live our lives, how do we spend our leisure time? How do we shop? These kinds of things, right, so that you look for certain kinds of religious affiliation to be expressed in domains other than where you would conventionally expect to find religion, right? I'm going to shop Islamically, I'm going to consume Islamically, I'm going to listen to certain kinds of music, gravitate with certain kinds of content. You know that does-- it's an expression of a certain kind of Muslim self, but it's not one that would necessarily show up using some of the conventional metrics that we usually deploy when trying to gauge levels of religiosity.
Tarek Masoud 37:12
Yeah, can I actually, that's a fantastic and really important point, Peter. And you know, just thinking about how would we test Meryum's conjecture? So the idea that Meryum is offering is that, you know, the level of religiosity, the level of spirituality that is not actually changing in response to the pandemic, and what we're picking up is some change in religious behaviors that could be driven by something else, I think one way in which you can begin to inch towards an answer is to leverage some of the other questions in the data. So one question, for example that we have is, how important is God in your life? And we've asked it in this survey, but we've also asked it in the prior survey that Kadir lead in 2017. And we have to do a little bit of weighting because the samples aren't quite the same but if we're right, what we should find is more people now say God is important in their life than said prior to the pandemic. If we find in fact that those levels are the same, then absolutely these changes in religious practice, may not be capturing a change in underlying attachment to religion. I suspect they will. You know, there's something about folk wisdom. Remember that line we've all heard, "There are no atheists in foxholes," that wasn't something that a counter-intuitive, contrarian, political scientist came up with. That captures something true about the human experience. And so, my feeling is like, when your data actually says something that your grandmother or grandfather would have said, then, you know, you would tend to think, "Okay, there's probably something to this." But Meryum, you've offered what we would call a robustness check that we need to undertake in order to make sure that we're on the right path.
A. Kadir Yildirim 39:15
If I can add something to the discussion, so over the course of the last century, what we're seeing is Islamist groups and parties have successfully, to a large degree, politicized religion, throughout the Muslim world. And this has continued over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century, especially starting with the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, first and foremost. But what we're seeing, and we found this in our 2017 study-- we conducted an experiment in that study-- we found that there is actually a strong thinking or sentiment that not all religion should be politicized. There are, in some ways, people who do like their religion, like their faith, but they don't necessarily want it to be politicized in different ways, maybe not always, and what we've found in that experiment in the 2017 survey was that people actually discounted preachers, for example, that were associated, affiliated with the Brotherhood, or other Islamist groups in the region. And that was a strong indication that maybe we need to be a little bit more nuanced in terms of what religion means and to people maybe in different contexts. So, coming back to the pandemic, I think, to the degree to which religion has been polarized, or religious responses have been polarized in the pandemic government policies or otherwise, is going to be a factor moving forward as to how will people react to religion and shape their religiosity, if religion, in a similar way to the United States-- you know, at one point in time back last spring, you'll remember that church attendance was an important issue for a lot of Christians. In a similar way, now, with some lockdowns going on in some of these countries, still, that is becoming a thorny issue for some people. So that can create some pushback based on the identity of the government, whether its Islamist or not. So I think that's going to play a major role moving forward and tell us how long lasting these shifts in religiosity can become.
Tarek Masoud 41:48
Yeah. You know, just to comment on something Kadir just said, I mean, I think one thing that probably has frustrated the three of us is how much some scholars of an older generation, nobody of our generation, but you know I'm talking sort of mid century, would conflate the kind of everyday religiosity you observe in the Muslim world with a particular political program. So you'd show up in Cairo, and you'd see that there's a bunch of mosques and you'd say, "Well, this is why people are voting for the Muslim Brotherhood when they get the chance. Clearly, these people have a passion for Islam." And I think we could accept the argument that Muslims have a passion for their religion, but that doesn't necessarily mean that that's going to express itself politically. One of the things we said in our associated Monkey Cage Washington Post blog article about this was because the pandemic is resulting in this kind of shift to religiosity, will this have a political effect? And I think we wouldn't push that point too strongly because it's not a direct, deterministic relationship where people are suddenly more religious, and now they're going to be voting more for Islamic political parties. The other point that Kadir made, frankly, that I thought was really important and needs to be underlined, does take us a little bit away from the pandemic but it's just a really important observation about religion and politics and how we seem to study it differently in the Muslim world than we do in the West. If we had a Muslim country president who went and stood in a major square and held aloft a copy of the Qur'an, there would be breathless articles about how this was theocratic and there would be-- these articles would not just appear in the newspapers, there would be scholarly articles trying to understand why people are so theocratic etc., whereas here in this country, we had a president who actually did that and nobody said he's a Christian fundamentalist. If you think about just how important certain religious markers are for political candidates, Barack Hussein Obama had to show that he was a churchgoer in order to attract the votes of certain constituents. And yet we never say, and nor should we say, that "Oh, clearly, Christian fundamentalism is super strong in the West." So you can have religion in politics without having politics be about religion. And I do think that's an important question and important thing for us to recognize. And it's a way-- frankly, one of the slight upsides of this moment with the President, the former President-- I know we're getting beyond the pandemic-- is just how I think it's caused many of our colleagues who study politics in non-Muslim contexts to understand that many of the things that they observe in the Muslim world as being anomalous are actually quite ordinary and you see them in a lot of different contexts. And that's why, just to come back to something Peter said, that's why we're really gratified also that there is this research in the Western countries on the impact of COVID-19 on Christian religiosity that's actually finding something very similar to what we're finding.
Harry Bastermajian 45:28
Maybe this question might tie into that. During your research, what role of technology? Did you see sort of, it helping people connect, whether it's through, you know, as you mentioned, religious programs or education, or perhaps virtual jumu'a prayers or something like that? I mean, I think the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of the world online. What impact has that had on the religiosity? And just as a bit of a follow up too, has this somehow changed the dynamic of the conversation around religion as it pertains to national borders? I mean, one of the interesting things I thought about the COVID-19 pandemic is that in many countries, it became-- we talk about vaccine nationalism, right? I mean, is there anything like that that you've seen in your research?
Peter Mandaville 46:33
So there are a couple of questions we asked that that did get issues relating to technology and use of technology during the pandemic. One of them asked about the extent to which people are watching more religious television shows, for example, you know, are you more engaged with religious media? And we also asked people, we just asked a general question to all respondents about, you know, when they're seeking guidance in matters of religion, what kinds of sources do they turn to? Do you ask friends or family? Do you go to your local imam? Do you listen to national religious leaders, maybe affiliated with official state religious institutions? Do you consult Shaykh Google and get on the internet? Or are you going through social media? And this was a particularly interesting question to me because very early in my career, mid to late 90s, some of my earliest publications were about the impact of the internet on religious authority in the Muslim world. And this was sort of still in the period when people were kind of breathlessly excited about the supposedly democratizing effect of the internet, that all of the incumbent staid, ossified authority figures in Islam or any tradition of knowledge you might care to mention, were now going to be swept away by these dynamic empowered voices that are using technology to make themselves heard. And there was sparks event going on but, frankly, the incumbent guys managed to get online pretty quickly too and figure out how to use it to maintain their position. There was something that came up in our data now, and this is less directly related to the pandemic, but it's interesting to me just because this is a question I've been tracking over time through some work that I did with the Pew Research Center in the mid-2000s. We put into the Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 2006 virtually the identical question that we used in our survey now about where people turn for guidance in matters of religion. And the clear pattern then was that people turn first and foremost either to friends and family or to the local imam or mosque. And what we see in our data now, although there is some variation between countries, is that there's certainly, compared to that Pew data, a clear shift towards a greater reliance on the internet and social media. Now, some of that is going to be explained by the fact that internet penetration rates in some of these countries have increased markedly since 2006. But just from what I've seen in some of the more ethnographic research that I've done over the years is that there absolutely is this increased reliance on media and technology as a source of religious knowledge. Now, you asked about the kind of border crossing, transnational effects here and we had some questions on a survey that asked about the relevance of certain religious figures and how people view them in different countries. Some of the figures in question are specific to particular countries where you would only know about them if you happen to be based in that country, but some of them are sort of transnational, global, Muslim figures. And to me, there are some interesting, frankly, policy-relevant findings in the data we have when I think back on when I served in the Obama administration at the State Department and there was this big push that was done on the issue of Countering Violent Extremism, CVE, as it was called in the aftermath of ISIS. And part of that was this idea, it was, to some extent, a return to early, post-9/11 discussions about, "We need to find the moderate Muslims," "We need to find the shuyukh who can provide something like a theological antidote to ISIS," like ISIS is pumping all these bad messages out through the communication networks so we need to find alternative Muslim authority figures who can counteract that with more positive and moderate messages. And certain fairly well-known religious authority figures, like Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayya became caught up in this and was lifted up by the US and trotted around the world to various CVE summits where he gave these speeches. And there was, at some level, among some of my colleagues in the State Department, an idea that if this guy who's this global Muslim authority figures speaks, then somehow young people will say, "Oh, okay, sorry. I didn't realize that ISIS is totally wrong. So if Shaykh Bin Bayya says it, then it must be fine." But our data shows very clearly that the vast majority of Egypt's population has never heard of him. And so the idea that this is going to be a credible, impactful voice on these kinds of issues, I think, is somewhat questionable.
Tarek Masoud 51:47
Can I just ask a question, basically, of my co-authors? So we're finding obviously, that there is an uptake, uptick rather, in religious behavior, at least and I think we'll do the robustness check suggested by Meryum Kazmi, but I suspect that's a fairly stable finding. What do we say to those, or how would we respond to those who would then jump from that to an assumption that support for or appetite for, quote, unquote, more "extreme Islamic politics" will follow?
A. Kadir Yildirim 52:30
Because of increased religiosity?
Tarek Masoud 52:33
Yeah, people are becoming more religious, they're also more strained and probably more dissatisfied with their governments because their governments are not doing a good job. And so a hypothesis would be that we would consequently see more of this, quote, to use a term we don't like, "Islamic fundamentalism" or "Islamic extremism" or use whatever term du jour you want. I mean, my sense is that that's not the right inference to make but I know we're going to get that question.
A. Kadir Yildirim 53:05
Two quick observations. The first one is, this question assumes, or the hypothesis assumes, that religiosity is the major driving force behind Islamist politics, and it's not necessarily the case. It's not always the case. Sometimes it can be, sometimes there can be overlap between personal religiosity and sort of political perspective, view, ideological orientation, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. It depends on what kind of religiosity we're talking about. I mean, there are different kinds of religiosity, some of them relate to practice. Some of them relate to more, I think, sort of, the place of religion in one's mental makeup, so to speak, or belief structure, what kinds of, religious ideology, not political ideology, but religious ideology, one embraces, I think, also informs political preferences. Secondly, a point that I made earlier, the extent to which religion has become a polarizing issue has become a tension issue during the pandemic and that's going to inform people's political preferences on Islam moving forward once again.
Peter Mandaville 54:26
So I think another thing that the question assumes is that more religion is bad, right? The subtext here being more religion when it comes to Muslims is bad, right? Because I think this is also caught up in some of the same Orientalist tropes that we've already referenced earlier. So to me, I would push back against the idea that more religion necessarily means that people hold increasingly extreme religious views, right? One could become more religious in the sense of spending more time reading religious texts, spending more time praying, spending more time consuming and engaging with religious material, spend more time in quote unquote, "religious" ways, while still maintaining a form of religiosity that is very kind of mainstream, if I can put it that way, right? Just because you become more religious doesn't necessarily mean that you become more exclusivist or rigid in your religious views. So in order to answer that question, I would think that we would need to be able to have data that suggests that there are observable shifts in the nature and form of religiosity in a more exclusivist direction to be able to kind of answer that sort of question.
Tarek Masoud 55:50
I mean, if you think about that early literature, obviously, Peter and Kadir you guys are very well schooled in it, that tried to explain that earlier wave of quote, unquote, "Islamic militancy," so I'm thinking of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the great Egyptian sociologist who wrote a very important article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies in the 1980s, and this paradigm that we're actually harkening back to, this Durkheimian paradigm, that draws this connection between some social shock and religiosity-- I mean, that's what Saad Eddin Ibrahim invokes and that's what-- I don't know how explicit he is actually about invoking it so if I'm wrong about that, please don't be upset with me.
Peter Mandaville 56:36
There are flavors of it. Certainly,
Tarek Masoud 56:38
Yeah, absolutely.
Peter Mandaville 56:39
In that well-known article.
Tarek Masoud 56:40
Yeah and so then the question, but you know, it's always urbanization and as a result, this creates a psychological distress and they resolve it by harkening back to a particularly rigid form of Islam. So that's certainly going to be, I think, a hypothesis that we're going to have to contend with, even though I think we're sort of on the same page and I think where we would, what we could reach towards, and this is sort of inspired by your comment just now, Peter. You know, Meryum and Harry, there's a great study done by Dr. Amaney Jamal at Princeton, who's actually a co-author of mine, and one of her students is a great scholar at Notre Dame, Michael Hoffman, where they use some of their survey data to look at the religious correlates of participation in democratic protests during the Arab Spring. And they found in fact that people who are more steeped in reading the Qur'an were much more likely to engage in the costly collective action to bring about democracy that we know of as the Arab Spring. So that's an illustration of a religious behavior actually being correlated with a political behavior that I think we would all tend to valorize. And so maybe reaching towards that and uncovering a little bit of how maybe the heightened attention to religion, at least in some people, makes you think more about justice and social justice in ways that I think are world improving, rather than world shattering.
Meryum Kazmi 58:17
Thank you. So I think we've talked about this, but I'm wondering if you have anything more to add about what long term impacts you think there may be of increased religiosity after the pandemic or in the new normal.
Tarek Masoud 58:35
I mean, I think the puzzle for us, or the task for us, for this next step is to think about the political implications of it. So does the increased religiosity result in some change in popular preferences, not necessarily making them prefer Islamist parties or making them prefer violence, that you don't have to go that far, but you could say, well, if people are becoming more religious, are they now more likely to support particulars social policies for example, you know, might they be more interested now in redistribution than they might have been at an earlier stage? And so I think that might be one set of implications, or at least political implications, that would emerge from this finding.
Peter Mandaville 59:31
I'm still wondering to what extent this is going to be an enduring phenomenon in that I, again, this is sort of a call for the follow up study that would take place at T plus, you know, once we're well into the after times, that of T plus six months, a year from the end of the pandemic, you know, we rerun this, and do we see evidence that the behavioral shifts that we pick up on in this survey, are still there or do we see people reverting to, you know, the previous patterns of behavior?
Harry Bastermajian 1:00:10
So, how is this project-- I'm going to sort of ask the professorial, academic question-- about how this project has informed your other research or maybe changed your approach or some of your perspectives on some of the questions. Maybe Kadir?
A. Kadir Yildirim 1:00:34
Sure, it's a great question. Thank you. I mean, this is what I study, what I examine, in my own research, going back to my studies on Islamist politics, the change, the shifts in Islamist ideology in several countries in the Middle East. And currently, I'm working on a comparative analysis, a book manuscript, on Islamist parties and Catholic parties and I tend to see things in a comparative perspective. So I think what we're doing here is something that's going to contribute to the literature in an important way and that is, how do people's religious practices and ideas and beliefs change in response to, I think, objective challenges that can be a sort of catastrophe, so to speak, in terms of their health, or economically at a personal level? So this is going to give us important, I think, information to maybe put to rest, sort of century-long debates about religiosity's response to major changes, stressing events in human history. So in that sense, I think, going forward, I'm very interested in seeing how this plays out in cross-national, cross-religious contexts.
Tarek Masoud 1:02:21
Yeah, I might just add that, because your question, Harry, was how has this changed your research agenda? And I think just the collaboration with Kadir and Peter has really opened me up much more to this basic question of thinking about religion as a caused thing, and what are the drivers of religious behavior? What are the political drivers? What are the sort of social and structural and environmental drivers as well? And then, frankly, like Kadir I've studied Islamism and I've always reacted to what Peter described as that kind of Orientalist argument that, "Oh, people are voting for Islamists or people are engaging in behavior that we think of as Islamist because of religion" and so that always made me want to show in fact that the motivations of people in this part of the world are very diverse and aren't just religious, but that can tend towards making an error where you say, "Actually religion doesn't matter at all." And so finding a place where we, as scholars of the Muslim world, both resist the temptation to reduce everything about that world to religion but, nonetheless, recognize the importance of religion in some of the social and political phenomena we understand. I think this research has been, for me at least, part of a journey towards trying to find that happy medium, and of course, you can have no better partners in that endeavor than these two gentlemen.
Peter Mandaville 1:04:01
You know, I think that if you told me at the outset of this work that the first piece we would publish out of it is kind of about question of whether there appears to be a relationship between people's experience of adversity and insecurity and increased religiosity, I wouldn't have thought that that was the first piece we did just because I was interested in kind of far more ground-level behavioral questions about ways people were doing religion differently because of the pandemic, but I'm glad that we were able to kind of get at some of those larger questions. As someone who continues to study Islamist groups and the forces that shape their changing social and political fortunes in different countries, I think the piece of this that's most interesting to me to watch and that I've been led to focus on more because of this work is less the question of, "Oh, people are expressing greater interest in religion, does that mean they'll vote for Islamist parties?" It's more the side of me and the side of the literature on contemporary Islamism that highlights the ways in which Islamist movements and groups have been very good at leveraging social precarity as a mechanism to build constituencies for themselves. And if we imagine that the pandemic is likely to be a source of enduring precarity, precarities of various sorts, whether we're talking about basic livelihood issues, insecurity, unemployment, health, and Islamists have a track record of being responsive to and having the capacity to provide basic social services, sometimes, in cases where the state is not able to, and leveraging that into increased political success, I'll be watching some of that against a backdrop, of course, where when we think of classic cases, like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the level of the oppression that that movement faces right now means that that sort of response is less available to them than it was at the heyday of their work in that vein in the 1980s, and 1990s. But there are other settings where I think Islamists will have the ability to respond to this catastrophe in some of those ways and it'll be interesting to see how that correlates with their changing political fortunes going forward.
Meryum Kazmi 1:06:24
So how can listeners learn more about this study and follow your work?
A. Kadir Yildirim 1:06:30
We're currently working on a long format report that we hope to finish, publish, by the end of the summer and we will have a number of events to publicize our major findings. And this will go beyond just the question of religiosity but more issues related to religion and the pandemic. And we'll tackle many more important issues that people, at least in the academia and policy world, are wondering about. And also we are currently working on an academic article that is based on our publication in Monkey Cage, looking more sort of specifically at the causal mechanisms at work, in terms of how the pandemic affects religiosity in the Muslim world. And we will be publishing these, the report jointly with other institutions and all the events in all three institutions.
Tarek Masoud 1:07:28
Yeah, and that article that people can look at is in the Washington Post's political science blog, the Monkey Cage called, I think it's called, "Will the Pandemic Spark a Religious Revival in the Muslim World?" It came out in April and so if people can't wait, they can start there, but we'll have more products to release soon.
Meryum Kazmi 1:07:56
To learn more about their work, you can follow Kadir Yildirim on Twitter at @akyildirim and Peter Mandaville at @pmandaville.
Harry Bastermajian 1:08:04
We'd also like to thank you, our listeners for your engagement with our podcast and its first academic year. We hope you've enjoyed our episodes and will continue to follow the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University on Twitter @HarvardIslamic.
Meryum Kazmi 1:08:22
We'd also like to give a special thanks to our guest today and outgoing Faculty Director, Tarek Masoud, who has led our program for the past three years and without whose leadership, encouragement, and support this podcast would not exist.
Harry Bastermajian 1:08:36
I'm Harry Bastermajian.
Meryum Kazmi 1:08:38
I'm Meryum Kazmi and this is the Harvard Islamica Podcast. Thanks for listening.