Before the Arab Spring, government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion were higher in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region of the world. Data from the Pew Research Center show that during Arab Spring hopes for greater religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa did not materialize, at least in the short term. On the contrary, in 2011, when most of the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred, government restrictions on religion remained exceptionally high in the Middle East and North Africa, while increases in social hostilities involving religion escalated.
Two types of restrictions stand out in Arab Spring
Such favoritism was much more prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa than in other parts of the world. For instance, as shown in the chart, the share of countries that have government policies that clearly favor one religion over another was nearly eight times greater in the Middle East and North Africa than in the rest of the world.
In comparison with the rest of the world, a considerably higher share of countries in the Middle East and North Africa experienced social hostilities involving religion. For instance, the percentage of countries experiencing communal or sectarian violence was more than four times greater in this region than elsewhere, as shown in the chart.
Arab Spring pattern is a global pattern
Some government restrictions have a stronger association with social hostilities than others. The Pew Research Center’s 2012 study found that of the 20 types of restrictions comprising the GRI, government policies or actions that clearly favor one religion over another have the strongest association with social hostilities involving religion.
As noted above, the share of countries in the Middle East and North Africa that clearly favor one religion over others was nearly eight times greater than the share in the rest of the world during the latest year studied. Therefore, based on the data, it is not surprising that social hostilities involving religion are high in the region.
The chart above shows other government actions that are strongly associated with social hostilities involving religion are (in descending order): the use of force against religious groups; failing to intervene to stop religious discrimination; and limiting conversion from one religion to another.
As the chart above also shows, social hostilities involving religion were lowest among countries where governments do not harass or intimidate religious groups; national laws and policies protect religious freedom; governments do not interfere with religious worship or practices; and governments do not use force against religious groups.
As mentioned above, the share of countries in the Middle East and North Africa that experienced sectarian violence was more than four times greater than the share of countries elsewhere. Therefore, based on the data, it is not surprising that government restrictions on religion are high in the region.
As shown in the chart, other social hostilities that are strongly associated with government restrictions are (in descending order): hostilities over conversion from one religion to another; violence or the threat of violence to enforce religious norms; religion-related terrorist violence; and groups coercively dominating public life with their perspective on religion.
And as shown in the chart above, government restrictions are, on average, lowest in countries where there are no violent acts resulting from tensions between religious groups; there are no crimes or malicious acts motivated by religious hatred; there are no groups dominating public life with their perspective on religion; and there are no incidents of violence stemming from hostility over conversions.
While there may not be a direct causal connection between government regulations and social hostilities involving religious attire, Pew Research data show that harassment of women over religious dress occurs more often in countries where the wearing of religious symbols and attire are regulated by any level of government.
For more on global patterns of religious hostilities and restrictions, see my TEDx Talk.
For an empirical test of and case studies on the association between government restrictions and social hostilities, see my book with Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied.