Majorities of Muslim Arabs in N. Africa want a Separation of Religion and State

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

You know those silly anti-sharia laws passed by evangelicals in US state legislatures? They may as well not bother.

(Sharia is Muslim law; but it is much more diverse and fluid than fundamentalists of both stripes think it is).

It turns out a lot of Muslims want a separation of religion and state, according to a new poll by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Arab Observatory. They polled people in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Although the respondents reported themselves to be, in the main, personally religious and to put a high value on the practice of Islam, majorities in all five states support the separation of religion and state. In Tunisia, the percentage rose to an astonishing 73%.


Some polls have found that only 41 percent of Americans support the absolute separation of religion and state, though others have found a majority for it. In any case, likely at most US statistics look like those for the more religious countries polled by KAS, such as Egypt.

Except for Morocco, majorities also thought the interference of religious leaders in politics had a negative impact on the whole. Again, the Tunisians are off the charts on this issue, with 3/4s of them feeling this way. (People think Islamic ideals and values are a positive, they just don’t want clerics intervening directly in civil politics).

People in all five countries also have extremely negative views of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), associating it with terrorism, barbarism and murders and massacres. It is clearly a tiny, very marginal movement, even in Libya, where it has a small toehold.

In fact, I would put forward the hypothesis that groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh have driven many more people in the Muslim world to support the separation of religion and state than was probably common in, say, the 1980s.

The bad news? Except in Morocco, pluralities or majorities blame US policies in the Middle East for fostering religious extremism there. In other words, perhaps Professor Chomsky is on to something.

7 Responses

  1. Does separation of religion and state mean the same thing to a North African as it does to an American? Does it mean you can have truly equal rights for women and religious minorities, or does it just mean imams should stay out of politicking and leave it to the elites?

    • The new Tunisian constitution, approved by an elected parliament, says women and men have equal rights.

      • In Turkey, the Diyanet appears to be a formal office in the government (link to Of course, in some Western countries (France, Germany), the church is funded by state collected taxes. If the state funds the church or mosque, is it truly separate?

        • I would like to remind these guys that being a moderate Islamist is like being a little pregnant.

          Look at Turkey’s trajectory and you will see. Turkey’s problems was never secularism. It was at worst, exclusion from public life in name of secularism.

          To suggest that the Diyanet is a defense mechanism against Salafism is a dangerous suggestion. Unfortunately the Western liberal intellectuals never listen to the warnings by secular Turks who actually speak the language and see the discourse changing in society.

  2. Sharia is Quran and Sunnah based law .. it is NOT Muslim law .. since a Muslim is one who recognizes God’s uniqueness and Mohammad as messenger of that uniqueness .. there are many believing Muslims who do NOT want this to be canonized into a system of laws

  3. Prof. Cole, have you ever met Prof. Chomsky? I’ve now read and heard both of you talk highly about the other.

    Also, I read an article that suggests Iraq is on the verge of collapse…here is the article:
    link to

    Do you agree? If possible, could you post a comment on the state of Iraq on the main page? I would love to know your thoughts.

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