hassan II casablanca

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation has published a fascinating poll on attitudes to religion and politics in five North African countries (Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco). It reveals wide differences between the countries in political and religious attitudes – Tunisia being by far the least religious and most liberal, and Libya the most religious and conservative. There are also some depressingly familiar commonalities – particularly conspiracy theories about the creation Daech/IS.

Tunisia is, of course, the only democracy among these states, and the one in which the insurrections of the ‘Arab Spring’ best achieved its political aims. Whether its liberalism and lower levels of religiosity is the product or the driver of democratic change is open to debate. What the data does reveal is the variegated character of the region, and the need for more nuance in talking of ‘Muslim attitudes’. A few of the results from the poll:


National and religious identity

With the singular exception of Tunisia, in all the countries Islamic identity matters more than national identity. Almost no-one identifies as Arab. Respondents were asked whether whether they saw themselves more as Muslim (or Jew or Christian), citizen of the nation, Arab, or another identity:

Tunisia Algeria Morocco Libya Egypt
Muslim 37.6 58.5 52.8 63.2 55.3
National 53.2 30.1 35.0 21.6 34.3
Arab 6.8 6.6 7.4 12.0 6.1
Other 2.2 4.8 4.7 2.9 3.8

Separation of religion and politics

In all the countries, even the most deeply religious ones, majorities agreed with the idea of the separation religion and politics:

Fully agree Somewhat agree Total for separation of religion & politics Somewhat disagree Fullly disagree Total against separation of religion & politics
Tunisia 57.2 15.6 72.8 9.1 12.7 21.8
Egypt 59.4 11.8 71.2 7.2 16.3 23.5
Libya 47.6 15.5 63.1 9.2 25.3 34.5
Algeria 40.5 16.8 57.4 10.8 27.0 37.8
Morocco 39.4 15.4 54.8 12.0 24.4 36.4

It is worth observing that there appears to be a higher majority in all these countries for the separation of religion and politics than there is in the USA (according to some polls, at least) for the separation of church and state.

And with the exception of Morocco, majorities in all countries disapproved of the intervention of imams into politics. Respondents were asked whether they supported imams intervening in politics:

Totally support Somewhat support Total for imams engaging in politics Somewhat oppose Totally oppose Total against imams engaging in politics
Morocco 36.6 17.0 53.6 21.7 15.5 37.2
Algeria 19.2 25.5 44.7 16.7 34.3 51.0
Libya 14.9 17.4 32.3 17.3 47.6 64.9
Egypt 10.5 16.8 27.3 14.8 52.3 67.1
Tunisia 9.1 11.3 20.4 12.7 62.9 75.6

The role of sharia

But we should be careful how we interpret the above results. For a while a majority want a separation of religion and politics, the majority in all the countries, again with the singular exception of Tunisia, want sharia to be the sole inspiration for the law:

Fully agree Somewhat agree Total for sharia as the sole source for the law Somewhat disagree Totally disagree Total opposed to sharia as the sole source for the law
Libya 57.3 21.4 78.7 8.8 9.7 18.5
Algeria 39.9 23.0 62.9 16.8 14.7 31.5
Egypt 39.8 19.9 59.7 13.6 19.4 33.0
Morocco 32.6 22.3 54.9 17.6 18.2 35.8
Tunisia 10.7 12.7 23.4 23.5 46.0 69.5

Religious extremism

Again with the exception of Tunisia, there is widespread denial of religious extremism. Respondents were asked to what degree religious extremism was an issue in their country:

Great extent Some extent Little extent Non-existent
Tunisia 44.0 35.6 14.7 1.9
Libya 24.3 40.5 28.5 1.0
Egypt 10.7 29.4 45.2 11.2
Algeria 7.1 29.0 46.1 13.8
Morocco 5.2 20.7 46.8 20.5

Respondents were asked how much danger their country faced from religious extremism. Again, Tunisians stood out, being the most worried:

Great danger Some danger Little danger No danger
Tunisia 78.3 11.9 3.9 3.4
Libya 65.4 16.5 8.0 8.3
Algeria 40.2 21.2 16.3 20.0
Egypt 34.0 20.9 17.9 25.0
Morocco 27.5 18.9 18.6 30.4


There was universal hostility to Daech/IS (the greatest degree of support, in Algeria, was just 2.8%), but there was widespread support (including in Tunisia) for the idea that the USA was responsible for creating the group. Large numbers in Tunisia and Libya blamed Israel, but virtually no one in Algeria, Morocco or Egypt did. Respondents were asked ‘which country was behind the creation of the Islamic State (Daech)?’

USA Israel Qatar Turkey Saudi Arabia Syria
Tunisia 52.8 33.5 14.8 11.9 11.0 9.0
Algeria 48.1 1.8 5.2 3.0 5.7 4.4
Libya 49.4 26.9 12.2 16.1 2.1 4.7
Morocco 37.5 1.8 3.0 2.2 5.1 7.9
Egypt 59.1 0 10.7 19.5 0 1.7

The photo is of the Hassan II mosque, Casablanca.


  1. Marie - Yolda Chemin Faisant

    Honestly, I don’t understand the goal of your article. Which link are you searching between ‘being religious’ and ‘being liberal’? These statistics don’t tell much as far as you don’t describe the Muslim religion as general in order to give an introduction to your figures. When was this research carried out? by who (appart from this Christian Democratic political faction Konrad Adenaeur Foundation) ? Is the separation of State and Church a good thing? (for example in France it means any religion but the ‘Moslim’ ). And I would have so many more questions to ask you …. If I may be sarcastic, the tittle of your book ‘The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics.’ seems to be in harmony with the lack of rigor from this article.

    • Scratches head in puzzlement. I was not writing here a proper analysis, simply pointing readers to an interesting poll, and pulling out a few details from it, which I thought might be useful, especially as not everyone reads French. For details of the poll, its methodology etc, just follow the link I provided. I have written much about religion, secularism and the relationship between faith and state (you can start here, if you wish, an article which sets out my views on the meaning of religious freedom, or this, arising out of the burqa ban in France, or my explanation as to why I am an atheist), but I don’t have to discuss such issues every time I link to a poll. Finally, and I am not being sarcastic, I hope your reading of a book is not limited to its title.

      • Marie - Yolda Chemin Faisant

        Thanks for your answer, you just mentioned you opened a debate …. never mind next time I’ll keep my thoughts for my friends and I. I translate texts and articles from various scientific institutes so I’m not so used to sweeping methodology. Whether your atheist or anything else does not interest me that much. Again forgive my intrusion, have a nice day.

        • No need to apologize. And I wasn’t suggesting that you should not have commented. I was just puzzled by the content and tone of your criticism. When I wrote that ‘Whether [Tunisia’s] liberalism and lower levels of religiosity is the product or the driver of democratic change is open to debate’, I was merely suggesting that the causal relationship is not given, but needs to be debated. I am happy to hear your views on the matter.

  2. Pictures

    V interesting. The IS question you use is a bit ambiguous (does ‘responsible’ mean indirectly or directly?) Claiming the US is indirectly responsible is reasonable. However the followup question about financing is more telling and does indeed show that about half think the US / Israel is funding IS.

    I find the relatively strong Tunisian national identity interesting, as if one were going on ‘history of separate identity as a polity’ it would seem Morocco and Egypt have more history here. Why do you think national identity is stronger vs religious idnetity in Tunisia. It doesn’t seem to stand out economically from the other Maghreb countries.

    Also, do you know what ‘L’inconscience’ should be translated to, in the poll on perceived motivations for joining IS? What does ‘unconsciousness’ mean here? It can’t mean ignorance as that’s also in the poll

    • I agree that wording may seem ambiguous, but the follow-up finance question question makes it clear what people mean. I’m not certain, either, what ‘l’inconscience’ means in this context – perhaps ‘unawareness of?’ Though how that differs from ‘l’ignorance’, I don’t know.

      • Pictures

        I asked a French speaker and they said it means “Unawareness, and, in this context, also not having a conscience about it. So ignorance/uncaring.”

        Still seems a bit odd, I guess the concept makes sense in French.

  3. damon

    Having visited three of these countries as a tourist, the ambiguous results of these polls don’t surprise me. As a foreigner from Europe there, you can often feel like you’re travelling in another dimension.

    One thing that quickly came to mind when I saw who people there thought was behind ISIS – was Donald Trump and his supposed ”ban on Muslims” coming to the United States.
    As wrongheaded as what he said might be, you could see the argument that Egyptians wouldn’t make the best new immigrants to America.

  4. eclectic squire

    Thank you for posting this interesting poll and saving us the work of translating Kenan, it’s been a long time since I used my UK learned French! Tunisia is a popular tourist spot for Europeans, perhaps for good, liberal reasons. I heard you speak in Vancouver 2012 and have been following your blog ever since, enjoy your writing and ideas.

  5. “Respondents were asked ‘which country was behind the creation of the Islamic State (Daech)?’”
    If this is what was actually asked, it is a deplorably and incompetently worded presupposes that there is a country behind Daesh, so people answering may have interpreted it as something like “What country’s actions have been most responsible for the creation of Daesh?” Given how the 2003 Gulf War helped create the conditions for Daesh, blaming the US is not completely irrational. Israel is another matter; I think it is many decades since Israel encouraged Islamist groups in order to undermine Arafat’s PLO. But again, given the loading of the question, the answers are not surprising.

    • Pictures

      This is true it is a very badly worded question for the reasons you state. However, the next question in the survey asks for opinions on which countries support IS financially, which is much less ambiguous, and the survey results are similar.

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