Religion in steep decline in Iran, Turkey

In contrast to Western beliefs that Iran and Turkey are the main pillars of two main denominations of Islam, namely Shia and Sunni churches, observance of religious rituals and faith in the main tenets of Moslem is declining in both. Much has been written about the youthful vibrancy and evangelical zeal of Moslem, but this view may reflect states’ efforts to create an image of devoutness and discrimination against individuals who openly profess their secularism.  If the two studies we share below represent a general trend in the Moslem world, there is actually fewer grounds to fear a Clash of Civilizations.

A massive digital survey by Pooyan Tamimi Arab, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Utrecht University and Ammar Maleki, Assistant Professor, Public Law and Governance, Tilburg University found dramatic changes in Iranian religiosity, with an increase in secularisation and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. Compared with Iran’s 99.5% census figure, the study found that only 40% identified as Muslim.


In Turkey, Generations Y and Z are increasingly turning away from institutionalized Sunni Islam, reported the Guardian.


Iran:  New survey reveals huge changes in religious beliefs


“For our survey on religious belief in Iran, we targeted diverse digital channels after analysing which groups showed lower participation rates in our previous large-scale surveys. The link to the survey was shared by Kurdish, Arab, Sufi and other networks. And our research assistant successfully convinced Shia pro-regime channels to spread it among their followers, too. We reached mass audiences by sharing the survey on Instagram pages and Telegram channels, some of which had a few million followers.


After cleaning our data, we were left with a sample of almost 40,000 Iranians living in Iran. The sample was weighted and balanced to the target population of literate Iranians aged above 19, using five demographic variables and voting behaviour in the 2017 presidential elections.


A secular and diverse Iran

Our results reveal dramatic changes in Iranian religiosity, with an increase in secularisation and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. Compared with Iran’s 99.5% census figure, we found that only 40% identified as Muslim.


In contrast with state propaganda that portrays Iran as a Shia nation, only 32% explicitly identified as such, while 5% said they were Sunni Muslim and 3% Sufi Muslim. Another 9% said they were atheists, along with 7% who prefer the label of spirituality. Among the other selected religions, 8% said they were Zoroastrians – which we interpret as a reflection of Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith – while 1.5% said they were Christian.


Most Iranians, 78%, believe in God, but only 37% believe in life after death and only 30% believe in heaven and hell. In line with other anthropological research, a quarter of our respondents said they believed in jinns or genies. Around 20% said they did not believe in any of the options, including God.

These numbers demonstrate that a general process of secularisation, known to encourage religious diversity, is taking place in Iran. An overwhelming majority, 90%, described themselves as hailing from believing or practicing religious families. Yet 47% reported losing their religion in their lifetime, and 6% said they changed from one religious orientation to another. Younger people reported higher levels of irreligiosity and conversion to Christianity than older respondents”, wrote professors  Pooyan Tamimi Arab and Ammar Maleki.


Turkey:  Despite efforts by Erdogan to mould a generation of pious Turks, the youth appears to be turning away from religion


Turkey’s president Erdogan has trebled the number of religious İmam Hatip high schools in the country, steadily increased funding for Turkey’s religious affairs directorate and increased the powers of local muktars, or community leaders, who are usually pious men.

Yet a study by Sakarya university and the ministry of education from earlier this year looking at religious curricula in Turkey’s school system found that students are “resisting compulsory religion lessons, the government’s ‘religious generation’ project and the concept of religion altogether”.


Almost half of the teachers interviewed said their students were increasingly likely to describe themselves as atheists, deists or feminists, and challenge the interpretation of Islam being taught at school.


Polling by the agency Konda in 2019 also found that people aged 15-29 described themselves as less “religiously conservative” than older generations, and less religious than the same age group a decade earlier – respondents said they did not necessarily cover their hair, pray regularly or fast during Ramadan.


The overall drop in people who described themselves as religiously conservative was 7%, down from 32% in 2008, and those who said they fast during Ramadan declined from 77% to 65%.


The shift away from religion among Turkey’s younger generation follows a trend seen in many industralised countries. But some wonder if it is also a backlash to almost two decades of the AKP’s pushy brand of political Islam.


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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.