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Iranians Are Ready For A Different Approach to Religion and Government

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.


Protests in Iran have been raging on for nearly two weeks because 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the “morality police” after she allegedly failed to comply with the nation’s veiling laws. The protests that began on the streets of Saqqez, her hometown, have now spread to roughly 80 cities across the nation, as Iranian women lead demonstrations in defiance of a law that mandates they cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothes while in public. At least 76 people have died, although the toll is likely higher as internet restrictions have made information harder to confirm.

Amini’s death may have sparked this recent uprising, but data shows Iranian opposition toward required veiling isn’t new. The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based research foundation, conducted a comprehensive study in 2020 on Iranians’ opinions about religion and found that a whopping 72 percent of literate Iranians over age 191 disagreed with the government mandating that women wear the hijab in public, compared with only 15 percent who agreed with it. Over the years, those who have subverted the law have faced violent beatings and, in the case of Amini, fatal consequences at the hands of the government. 

These events have brought a simmering question to a boil: In a world increasingly secular and interconnected, what role do people think theology should play in determining law? 

While Iran is now associated with mandatory veiling, that was not always the case. In 1936, the penultimate shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, decreed a ban on hijab in an attempt to promote European attire. Women who failed to comply with this prior law similarly faced punishments, such as imprisonment. The newer mandate, which Iranians are protesting now, was implemented when the pro-Western, secular monarchy was replaced with an Islamic theocracy after the 1979 revolution.

First, the veil was banned, and now it’s mandatory. But once again, most Iranians are proponents of change — not just for hijab law but also for the role of religion in government more broadly. Only 22 percent of literate Iranians over age 192 believe an Islamic republic is the most suitable governing structure for their country, according to a survey by GAMAAN conducted in February. Meanwhile, in a separate question, 88 percent agreed that having a democratic system would be a good idea. 

Also in that study, two-thirds said they did not want a government run according to religious law, which challenges the inherent premise of the country’s current governing structure. In contrast, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, half of all Americans thought the Bible should have at least some bearing on the law, despite this nation’s principles separating church and state

In the decades since its 1979 revolution, Iran has faced its fair share of political uprisings — due to claims of rigged elections and soaring gas prices, for example. But this current political moment has uniquely united Iranian women across socioeconomic, ethnic and regional lines. Furthermore, the recent demonstrations are not simply a protest of the current ruling politicians but also one that challenges how religion underpins the law overall.

Outside of Iran, however, the global trend has been toward repression of religion in the public sphere. Pew has tracked government limitations on religion since 2007. According to data published in 2021, Pew found that the global level of politically affiliated religious restriction was higher than it had been for most of the prior decade. Meanwhile, the history of Iran shows that both forced and forbidden faith can lead to dangerous consequences for citizens.

The ongoing internet shutdowns will likely keep international eyes from seeing everything happening in Iran, including the government’s violence toward those speaking up. But quashing protests will not necessarily mean quashing dissent. Although Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current supreme leader, has long posited outside influences, especially the U.S., as the greatest threat to his rule, this moment suggests that Iran’s own citizens — and its women in particular — could present a huge challenge to the power of theocracy.

Other polling bites

  • The share of Democrats who believe President Biden should run for office again has ticked up slightly over the past two months, per recent polling from Morning Consult/Politico. Fifty-nine percent of Democratic voters said they’d support his reelection campaign in a Sept. 23-25 survey, up from 51 percent in early July and 53 percent in early August. In the case that he does not run, however, a plurality of Democratic voters (28 percent) said they would support Vice President Kamala Harris instead, followed by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (13 percent). 
  • In light of Hurricane Ian, the Jan. 6 House Select Committee postponed its ninth hearing, which was scheduled for Sept. 28 and would have been the first since July. Though a new date has yet to be announced, 58 percent of Americans support resuming the hearings following those in the summer, according to a poll from Monmouth University conducted Sept. 21-25. Unsurprisingly, that number reveals a highly partisan divide: 83 percent of Democrats reported wanting the hearings to continue, but only 31 percent of Republicans agreed. And while 62 percent of Democrats said the hearings should carry on as long as necessary, 75 percent of Republicans said the investigation should conclude as soon as possible. 
  • On the heels of President Vladimir Putin granting Russian citizenship to former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, a Sept. 28 YouGov survey asked Americans about his notorious 2013 leak of top-secret information on government surveillance. Thirty-nine percent said Snowden’s actions constituted “the right thing to do.” Additional polling found that almost 6 in 10 Americans think it is “somewhat” (29 percent) or “very” (29 percent) common that the U.S. government surveils ordinary citizens who aren’t suspected of committing a crime. Nonetheless, a third question showed that only around a quarter of Americans (27 percent) take any precautions to avoid surveillance of their personal devices, although that number varies by age: While only 19 percent of adults 65 or over say they take such precautions, that share increases to 35 percent among those under 30. 
  • Overall, just 26 percent of Americans are at least somewhat interested in learning more about the metaverse, but according to polling from Morning Consult conducted Aug. 24-25, that share rises to 63 percent among moviegoers who frequent theaters at least three times a month. That’s even more than gamers (55 percent), sports betters (50 percent) or those with five or more streaming subscriptions (40 percent). Those moviegoers were also much more likely than Americans in general to report having read, heard or seen mentions of the metaverse.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,3 42.0 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 52.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.2 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 53.0 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -10.5 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 42.4 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.4 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.0 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,4 Democrats currently lead Republicans by 1.3 points (45.3 percent to 44.1 percent). A week ago, Democrats led by 1.9 points (45.2 percent to 43.3 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 0.5 points (44.3 percent to 43.8 percent).

Footnotes

  1. According to the study, “The target population consisted of literate Iranian residents above 19 years old (who were capable of using the Internet and reading the survey questions). … This accounts for 85% of the adult population of Iran.”

  2. According to the study, “The target population consisted of literate Iranian residents above 19 years old (who were capable of using the Internet and reading the survey questions). … This accounts for 85% of the adult population of Iran.”

  3. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  4. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Zoha Qamar is an ABC News fellow.

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