Friendships Might Explain Why Muslim Countries Have Low Tolerance

This post is based on my publication in the Politics and Religion journal. A version of this is also published on the Religion in Public blog.

Among some of the most consistent findings in the study of Islam and politics is that people in Muslim countries generally have lower tolerance than those in non-Muslim countries.

For example, a religious freedom report by the Pew Research Center shows that Muslim countries on average have higher social hostilities than non-Muslim countries. In other words, social groups in Muslim countries are more restrictive of (minority) religious groups than are groups in non-Muslim countries.

Figure 1. Social Hostilities Index from 2007 to 2016

Another example would be from the World Values Survey that shows high percentages of respondents in Muslim countries who object to having a neighbor from a different religion or say that they do not trust people from a different religion.

Figure 2. Levels of Tolerance from the World Values Survey

What, then, explains this phenomenon?

There is no scarcity of theories. Some would say that it is about Islam itself. Something about Islam’s theology or history tilts the religion and its followers toward intolerance and exclusivism. A major reform would be needed to break the trend.

Others would say that the low tolerance is not because of Islam per se, but because of the undemocratic regimes that rule most Muslim countries. The problem, therefore, is about the absence of democratic institutions.

Still, others point to lack of economic modernization and divergent histories between the Muslim world and the West.

My argument, presented in this article published in the journal Politics and Religion, is different. Instead of looking at history, culture, or political structures, I look at the very foundation of political life itself: social ties and interactions between individuals themselves.

I argue that one of the key reasons why Muslim countries have lower tolerance is because Muslims in Muslim countries have higher religious bonding (more religiously homogeneous friendship networks) compared to non-Muslims in non-Muslim countries.

Religious Bonding and Intolerance

To support the argument, we first need to establish that religiously homogeneous friendships (higher religious bonding) are indeed related to lower tolerance. I analyzed a dataset by the Pew Research Center that surveyed more than 30,000 Muslim respondents from 23 Muslim-majority countries.

As the dependent variable, I created a composite score that combines information about respondents’ opposition to interfaith marriage between a Muslim and a Christian and perceptions that Islam and Christianity are very different. A higher score on the dependent variable reflects higher intolerance.

For religious bonding as the independent variable, I used a question in the survey that asked respondents (who are all Muslim) “How many of your friends are Muslim?” The response options ranged from “none” to “all”.

The results of the multilevel regression model are presented as Figure 3. We can see from the figure that the more religiously homogeneous a respondent’s friendship network is, the lower their level of tolerance (the higher the level of intolerance).

We can also see the effects of some of the other variables. For example, believing that one’s religion is the only true faith also predicts higher intolerance. Respondents who live in countries whose governments are more restrictive of religions also exhibited higher intolerance.

Figure 3. Effect of Religious Bonding on Intolerance

Religious Bonding in Muslim and Non-Muslim Countries

The previous analysis shows that religious bonding is indeed related to lower tolerance or higher intolerance. But, is religious bonding more prevalent in Muslim than non-Muslim countries?

To answer the question, I incorporated into the analysis another survey by the Pew Center on Religion in Latin America. Specifically, I compared the levels of religious bonding of Muslims in Muslim countries to levels of religious bonding of Catholics in Catholic-majority, Latin American countries. I picked Catholics because Catholics are relatively well-defined compared to “Protestants” or “Evangelicals” that can encompass different denominations.

The result of this comparison is presented as Figure 4. The figure plots each country’s level of religious bonding (calculated by averaging the levels of bonding of respondents in that country) against the country’s level of religious diversity. Arguably, the more religiously diverse a country is, the lower the level of bonding should be because more diversity means more opportunities to build friendships with religiously different others.

We can see from the figure that the Muslim countries indeed have higher levels of religious bonding compared to the Catholic-majority countries, even after accounting for the countries’ levels of religious diversity. This gap in religious bonding persists even after we control for individual- and country-level variables in Figure 3.

More importantly, the gap persists even after we exclude Muslim countries that are less religiously diverse than the least religiously diverse Catholic country. This suggests that the gap is not driven by extremely religiously homogeneous Muslim countries.

Figure 4. Religious Bonding in Muslim- and Catholic-Majority Countries


Lower religious tolerance and poorer interfaith relations in Muslim countries are driven by homogeneous friendship networks of Muslims in those countries. There are at least two possible explanations of why Muslim countries have higher bonding.

The first explanation concerns the idea of a global ummah – the notion that all Muslims are one big family is unique in that it goes beyond the traditional concepts of nations, countries, and borders.

It is different from Catholics’ relationship with the Pope in that a global ummah concerns both cultural and political matters whereas the papacy is largely a cultural symbol with no jurisdiction over political matters in Catholic countries. A perception that all Muslims are family is arguably more conducive to bonding or intragroup ties than to bridging or intergroup ties.

The second potential explanation points to the education system. There have been concerns that religious education in Muslim countries promotes exclusive more than inclusive views. Children learn more about their religion than about others’, and the fact that this religious education is offered since early age might keep salient the distinction between “us” (fellow Muslims) and “them” (the non-Muslims).

Obviously more research is needed to better understand how religious bonding is shaped and how it impacts political behavior in the Muslim world. One exciting possibility would be for World Values Survey, Arab Barometer, and other comparative surveys to include more questions on social networks in their questionnaires. Increased data availability would enable us to understand the topic better and in greater detail.