Muslim world sharply divided on Koran's influence on government law, poll finds

As the Middle East seethes in turmoil and violence, a new study shows that the Muslim world is sharply divided over the fundamental relationship between the laws of government and the religious teachings of the Koran.

In places such as Pakistan, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, more than half of the people believe that their government laws should strictly follow the tenets of Islam, according to a Pew Research Center study published Wednesday.

By contrast, people in Burkina Faso, Lebanon and Indonesia feel that the law of the land should not be influenced at all by the Koran or should be shaped only by the value of its teachings, the study found.

“Most people see the world and say that there’s this particular number of Muslims in this country and that country and that they all must think alike,” said Jacob Poushter, a senior researcher on the study.

“But what we found is that when we ask this one clear question about how the Islamic holy book should influence national laws, we see this huge divide.”

The survey focuses generally on whether the Koran should influence national laws and is not restricted to any aspect of Koranic principles, such as the religious legal system of sharia, Poushter said.

The survey also revealed that education plays a role in the divide over the relationship between the tenets of Islam and national laws in the Muslim world.

In 6 of the 10 places surveyed, people with a higher education were far more likely to oppose having national laws influenced by the Koran, according to the study. In Burkina Faso, for instance, 72% of the people with a secondary education or more believed that the country’s laws should not be influenced by the Koran.

Asli Bali, a law professor and director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA’s International Institute, said the desire of people to have their government’s laws strictly adhere to the teachings of the Koran probably speaks to a level of discontent.

“It’s a measure of the dissatisfaction people have with the moral rectitude of their government and the moral tenor of their laws,” Bali said. In countries with populations that are highly religious and where the government does not rule in a just fashion, the likelihood is greater that people would want to see the government influenced by the teachings of the Koran, she added.

“The text is the ideal of moral authority, social justice, uncorrupt values and adherence to social norms,” Bali said. And people may feel that following its teachings “would produce a society that is more equal.”

Kevan Harris, an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA, said the variations highlighted

in the Pew study are interesting but do not necessarily reflect a more “Islamicized” society in the nations that favor strict adherence to the Koran.

It could correlate with the long-term presence of political movements, which has prompted calls for the state to be more publicly religious, or it could simply mean that “people want laws to be created in an ethical fashion,” and the Koran stands as “an ethical set of doctrines and moral teachings,” Harris said in an email.

The Pew survey polled 10,194 respondents in face-to-face interviews across 10 countries and territories that have significant Muslim populations: Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, Jordan, Malaysia, Senegal, Lebanon, Burkina Faso and the Palestinian territories. The margin of error, depending on the country or territory, ranged from 3.7 percentage points to 4.3 percentage points, Pew officials said.

In Pakistan, 78% of respondents said the laws in their country should “strictly follow” the teachings of the Koran, putting it in first place among nations where residents hold this view. The Palestinian territories came in second with 65% of the population supporting strict adherence to the Koran for the government's laws, a 29% increase over responses in a similar survey in 2011, according to the Pew study.

Poushter noted that a lot more people answered the survey questions in the Palestinian territories in 2015, compared with 2011, which could account for the increase in the tally.

Others elsewhere also registered trends. Most Jordanians, for instance, favored strictly following the Koran in writing national laws. But Jordan, which is a constitutional monarchy, registered an 18% decline in this view from 2012, indicating a change in attitude to the question, the survey found.

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The religious divide played a role in influencing the respondents’ feedback, Poushter said.

In Malaysia, the strongest sentiment in favor of strict adherence to the Koran when it comes to national laws is predominantly held by Muslim Malays. And around half of Nigerian Muslims say they prefer the strict interpretation of the Koran for their country’s laws, while 64% of Nigerian Christians don’t want the Koran to have any influence at all, the study found.

In Indonesia, Lebanon, Turkey and Burkina Faso, where, according to the Pew, "people are more secular in their orientation," two-thirds or more of the populations in each of these countries said they preferred that laws either be only “influenced” by the Koran, and not strictly follow its teachings, or that the Islamic holy book be left out of lawmaking altogether, according to the study.

Burkina Faso, in West Africa, polled as the country where people were least in favor of national laws strictly following the Koran, with just 9% showing support for this view.

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