Watch out for growing signs of Islamism on the retreat in 2018 in the Middle East. More people across the region will start to rediscover what it is to be cosmopolitan.
A new generation disenchanted with the record of religious movements will challenge their claim that Islam is the solution. In Iraq’s elections, secular parties will gain an increased share of the vote. Confident that Islamic State will not make a comeback, women in Mosul will remove the khimar, the full-facial covering, and head back to universities, just as girls have to schools.
Preachers in Egypt will complain of falling congregations. The twin badges of Islamism—the beard and the veil—will decline. A growing number of cafés in Cairo will obtain alcohol licences.
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Highlighting the diminishing status of sharia law, Tunisian women living in Europe will return home with their Christian husbands to take advantage of a new law allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. Even Saudi Arabia is loosening up, allowing women to cycle and drive. Expect more videos of Saudi women in risqué dress.
Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will seek to capitalise on popular sentiment to pursue their Islamist foes. But the new liberalism will take a distinctly illiberal form. Like the Ottoman sultans of the mid-19th century, today’s Middle Eastern despots will adopt the terminology of reform and modernisation in order to clip the powers of religious institutions and increase their own sway.
In the process of muzzling Islamist movements, the authorities will roll back the presence of religion in public spaces. Egypt’s president will deliver more broadsides against Egypt’s official arbiter of Islam, Al Azhar. For fear of being pulled aside for interrogation at checkpoints, observant men will shave their beards and women doff their niqabs, or facial coverings. The authorities will use the state media and school curricula to promote secular mores. Minorities will welcome the release from Islamist pressure.
Sociologists will report that in some cities sex before marriage is becoming a norm. Divorce rates, particularly among Egypt’s Christians, will rise, despite the censure of Coptic priests.
Older folk will decry the decline in moral standards. But some officials will highlight the benefit for social order in tolerating outlets for sexual frustration. Unemployment and high costs have put marriage out of reach for many young Arabs. Rights groups will continue to bemoan the repression of many forms of organised non-state activity, but might yet cheer the growth of individualism and personal liberties.
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