When God Speaks, Does Anyone Listen? Evidence from Egypt: A Discussion with Dr. Tarek Masoud

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University hosted a talk by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tarek Masoud on Monday, November 9. The lecture, entitled “When God Speaks, Does Anyone Listen?” was based on a study Dr. Masoud conducted on one of his recent trips to Egypt.

Dr. Masoud began the presentation by displaying images of Egyptian political cartoons drawn in the early 20th Century. The first cartoon panel featured a politician speaking to a disinterested crowd, proclaiming campaign promises. The politician’s audience is portrayed as skeptical of these so-called guarantees, proclaiming: “We have had our fill of such promises!”

The second panel displayed an image of the same crowd, albeit much more attentive to the speaker and visibly moved upon hearing the words of a different candidate who employed religious rhetoric and donned traditional Muslim dress. This audience had a much different response to their speaker’s promises, stating:

“God is our destiny, the Prophet [Muhammad] is our leader, the Quran is our constitution… What is more beautiful than discourse such as this?”

The bi-panel cartoon contrasts the relative inefficacy of secular vs. religiously infused political discourse, a fact that has held constant even today, Dr. Masoud said.

“Rulers, such as Sadat of Egypt and Hassan II of Morocco, have legitimized their political hierarchy by wrapping their rule in religious legitimacy.”

This, Dr. Masoud claimed, was the same reason that the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt designed their outreach as proselytizing, consequently endowing it with a cultural legitimacy that it otherwise would have lacked.

This trend inspired Dr. Masoud to conduct a study examining the influence of Islamic rhetoric on Muslim attitudes and behaviors in Egypt. Dr. Masoud research sought primarily to answer the question: To what extent is Islamic rhetoric more influential than claims based on scientific “expertise” or authority?

Dr. Masoud randomly assigned his subjects to hear arguments for or against certain policies relevant to the Egyptian context, from either a religious or non-religious perspective and observing to what extent exposure to these arguments influenced subsequent attitudes.

First, a survey was distributed to determine people’s attitudes towards two key policies prior to Dr. Masoud’s treatment process. The first of these focused on whether or not women should be allowed to assume top executive positions in the government.

“Between the following two opinions, which one is closer to your personal opinion?

–       It is not good if a woman assumes a position of power, such as the presidency of the republic or the premiership.

–       There is no problem if a women assumes a position of power, such as the presidency of the republic or the premiership.”

The other question posed pertained to economic policy and asked whether it was “better if” or “not good for” the government to impose an upper limit on wages, specific to a commonly-held view in Egypt that the state should actively intervene to reduce differences in standards of living amongst Egyptians.

The response from these initial questions demonstrated that over 60 percent of respondents felt that a woman assuming a position of power was “not good,” while approximately 70 percent of participants felt it was “better if” the government imposed upper limits on wages.

Dr. Masoud then assigned participants in each policy domain to receive one of four treatments: exposure to two scriptural justifications (one supporting the policy, one rejecting the policy) or two scientific justifications. Scriptural justifications were taken directly from the Quran, while scientific justifications were taken from existing studies.

The results, Dr. Masoud explained, were surprising. The only positive treatment effect arose from the religious justification used in explaining that women should be leaders, according to Quranic scripture. Conversely, the least effect was derived from scientific arguments in justifying women’s leadership.

Of even more interest was that none of the treatments—religious or scientific—had any effect on what people felt about wage policy.

These results showed that there is not necessarily support for the notion that Islamic legitimacy extends to all domains. Instead, religious influence was domain-specific—in this case, only relevant for dictating women’s proper role in society.

This latter point suggests that political entrepreneurs seeking to change attitudes on cultural issues can, indeed, benefit from using religious discourse. Dr. Masoud’s findings similarly put to rest the belief that the Muslim world’s only unique motivating force is religion.

In the future, Dr. Masoud and his team intend to expand upon the experiment, both locally in Egypt as well as internationally. Future iterations of the experiment will accommodate a wider variety of policy domains and discourses, appealing to various ideals of fairness, anti-corruption, human rights, and democracy, among other pertinent issues.

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