One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

Looking at Muslim culture in the Mideast apart from ongoing terrorism problems, The Economist’s fat “The World in 2018” special includes two articles that anticipate secularization and decline for religious hardliners in Sunni lands. You can click here to read, "Roll Over Religion."

The key factor is a “disenchanted” younger generation that no longer accepts claims that “Islam is the solution” to socio-economic woe.  Such unrest is obvious, but The Religion Guy is hesitant about claims of sweeping decline. Nonetheless, U.S.-based reporters should pay heed, since correspondents Roger McShane and Nicolas Pelham are on the ground and we’re not.

“Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates will seek to capitalize on popular sentiment to pursue their Islamist foes,” the venerable Brit newsmagazine predicts. Regimes will talk about “reform and modernization” but in actuality will maneuver “to clip the powers of religious institutions and increase their own sway.” As part of it they’ll “roll back the presence of religion in public spaces.”

Already, with the ISIS collapse, women in Mosul, Iraq, are removing their full-face coverings and returning to school and college classrooms. Tunisia is letting Muslim women marry Christians. In Egypt, symbolic beards and veils are starting to disappear as weekly mosque attendance slides. “In some cities sex before marriage is becoming a norm,” and we should “expect more videos of Saudi women in risqué dress.”

Much of the intrigue centers on straitlaced Saudi Arabia and its busy young Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS, lately in the news for paying a record $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Jesus Christ). All but taking command from his father King Salman, the prince has begun circumscribing powers of the dreaded mutaween (religious police).

As the regime “chips away at restrictions imposed under the kingdom’s strict Islamic social code,” the “conservative clerics are perturbed,” the magazine says. A permanent shift in religion policy would have major impact because the Saudis have funded Salafi and Wahhabi zealotry worldwide.

The capital of Riyadh recently hosted the first public (as opposed to clandestine) musical  concert in nearly three decades, and the magazine says we’ll soon see public cinemas, outlawed since the 1970s. This year the Saudi General Entertainment Authority offered thousands of events, compared with several hundred in 2016. Its Chairman Ahmed al-Khatib says “we’re moving to a more open society.” 

The kingdom no longer denies public services for women who didn’t first obtain a male guardian’s consent, though they still need male approval to marry or to travel abroad. Women are promised the right to drive as of next June.  

Echoing The Economist’s scenario, Joseph Braude, a fellow of a Dubai think tank, writes in his new book, “Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism,” and a Wall Street Journal piece, about Mideast media that are “challenging Islamists” through news, comedy, talk shows and dramas.

A second developing story theme will be significant far beyond 2018 -- the rise of Europe’s Muslim immigrants alongside a shrinking native-born population. Note the data in Pew Research’s latest report, a text analyzed by GetReligion’s own Ira Rifkin.

A pungent piece by Christopher Caldwell of the conservative Weekly Standard focuses on the implications for Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Lutheran preacher’s kid, welcomed in more than a million Mideast refugees and now cannot form a stable government due to the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative For Germany party.

“Germany’s native population is in a state of demographic collapse,” Caldwell reports. With a median age of 47, Germany now vies Italy and Japan for the title of “oldest society in the history of the planet.”

“Germany is going to be altered at its core, no matter what happens,” and by high-end estimates Muslims could become one-fifth of the population. Europe as a whole is projected to lose a tenth of its non-Muslim population by 2050. Many nations, “even if no one dares to say it, are fighting for their demographic lives,” he writes.

What those population projections leave out is how Europe could ever reverse the steady shrinkage of Christianity -- and whether it wants to.

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