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Iranians move into front line of the Middle East’s quest for religious change

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  By James M. Dorsey A recent online survey by scholars at two Dutch universities of Iranian attitudes towards religion has revealed a stunning rejection of state-imposed adherence to conservative religious mores as well as the role of religion in public life. Although compatible with a trend across the Middle East , the survey’s results based on 50,000 respondents, who overwhelmingly said they resided in the Islamic republic, suggested that Iranians were in the frontlines of the region’s quest for religious change. The trend puts a dent in the efforts of Iran as well as its rivals, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, that are competing for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. Among the rivals, the UAE, populated in majority by non-nationals, is the only one to start acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities . Authorities in November lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples. Nonethe

When is usury usury? Turkish fatwa casts doubt on Erdogan’s religious soft power drive

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  By James M. Dorsey Turkey’s state-controlled top religious authority has conditionally endorsed usury in a ruling that is likely to fuel debate about concepts of Islamic finance and could weaken President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to garner religious soft power by projecting Turkey as a leader defending Muslim causes. The ruling, issued by the Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet that is part of Mr. Erdogan’s office, stated that interest-based home loans were exempted from the 1,400-year-old ban on interest as a form of usury, provided they were extended by a Turkish state bank for the purchase of real estate in a government housing project. The ruling is widely being seen as serving the interests of Mr. Erdogan’s government rather than a reform of Islam. “The fatwa is likely to be a hot discussion for a number of weeks or months… We’ll have to see if the fatwa will really increase Islamic mortgage markets. I assume that is the main reason why they made such a co

Middle East futures: Decade(s) of defiance and dissent

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By James M. Dorsey An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient . If the 2010s were a decade of defiance and dissent, the 2020s promise to make mass anti-government protests a fixture of the greater Middle East’s political landscape. Protests in the coming decade are likely to be fuelled by the challenges Middle Eastern states face in enacting economic and social reforms as well as reducing their dependence on energy exports against the backdrop of a global economic crisis and depressed oil prices and energy markets. Complicating the challenges is the fact that youth that often constitutes a majority of the population have lost or are losing confidence in government and religious establishments at a time that social contracts are being unilaterally rewritten by political elites. Pressure on the Middle East’s autocratic rulers is likely to increase with the departure of US President Donald J. Trump, a staunch supporter of strong man rule and the coming to office of Presid