Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Wed, Jun 26th, 2019

Polls can be Appalling

The BBC has just released results of a BBC poll with the following take-away: “Arabs are increasingly saying they are no longer religious, according to the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa.” Given the poll predictions of a Clinton victory over Trump in the 2016 U.S. election, one should not accept any poll results at face value. The fact that more than 25,000 people were surveyed in some ten countries of the Middle East is a proverbial drop in a bucket for the 300 million people who actually live there. The amount of individuals surveyed in each country is given as only about 2,400 citizens.

Headlines are meant to attract attention, but they often present a distorted picture, especially when the data come from a poll in a region currently undergoing major conflict. Consider what it means to say that Arabs are “increasingly saying they are no longer religious.” In the 2018 poll Iraq and the Palestinian Territories remain basically the same as in a 2013 poll, but this is only about 6-7 % who say they are not religious. For Sudan and Egypt the percentage is still below 10%. The highest amount is for Tunisia at about 33%, up from 15% in 2013 (which suggests that sampling may be an issue here for such an unexplained sweep). It may very well be that more people polled, especially younger individuals, are saying they are not religious, but the vast majority clearly do not say so. The region is hardly on a course for atheism or the assumed decline of religion in society, as the main headline implies.

The fundamental problem with a question asking about “religion” is what that means. A report by the Pew Center in 2018 noted that 90% of Americans say they believe in a higher power, but only a little over 50% say they believe in the God of the Bible. Simply asking about something as abstract as “religion” is not the same as asking if people believe in the literal truth of their scriptures, that their God exists, that their Prophet really existed as described, that they perform the rituals once in awhile, etc. Those who are upset with the way religion is being used may say they are not religious, but they may very well think that they are still spiritual and that they still respect those who are religious. Although the poll was conducted through short face-to-face interviews, it apparently did not occur to anyone that follow-up questions would be important to clarify responses.

The most interesting case in the poll is Yemen, where the new poll suggests that unlike the other countries, less people (5%) say they are not religious in 2018, compared to 10% in 2013, the latter date coming before the current war. In either case, Yemen is the most religious country in the region. Since the website currently provides no details on the numbers and locations of Yemenis interviewed, nor the specific questions, it is difficult to make sense of this change. Given the impact of the war that started in 2015, that clearly has to be a major factor. This suggests that the experience of war often makes people more concerned about their religion.

Then there is a strange set of responses about what country people thought the greatest threat. For Yemen the greatest threat is said to be Iran at 33%, Israel at 24%, the U.S. at 15% and Saudi Arabia last at 14%. Clearly this poll did not adequately survey the Houthi-controlled areas, where the vast majority of Yemen’s population lives. Such a figure defies logic. The problem here is a figure that suggests most Yemenis do not view Saudi Arabia as a threat. Victims of a war perpetrated by the Saudi coalition are hardly going to say that Iran is a greater threat than Saudi Arabia by over 2 to 1. Ironically, virtually no one had a positive view of Trump in Yemen, which is not surprising for anywhere outside Israel and Saudi Arabia. The idea that close to 25% of Sudanese have a positive view of Trump seems strange indeed.

There are a number of findings in the poll that seem off the mark. For example, the support for acceptance of homosexuality at 6% for Lebanon seems rather low for a country that boasts a more cosmopolitan population, despite the influx of so many recent refugees (who probably were not surveyed). The greatest tolerance was in Algeria at 26%, but Algeria also has the highest acceptance of honor killings at 27%. Something seems askew here. But without details on who the people surveyed were and how they were surveyed, it is not possible to make sense of such findings.

Polls can be useful in indicating trends, but the exact numbers and percentages can also be misleading and often are. This current BBC-sponsored poll should be avoided. Presenting a set of final data without a detailed report (there is none currently on their site for Yemen, except for one from 2007) is bad journalism.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.