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Cultural Muslims are non-practicing individuals who still identify with Islam due to family backgrounds, personal experiences, or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up.
According to Kia Abdullah,
Unfortunately, unlike “secular Jew” or “cultural Jew”, the term “cultural Muslim” is not widely understood. Even proponents use it unsurely. Take Mohsin Zaidi, author of A Dutiful Boy, an upcoming memoir of a gay Muslim's journey to acceptance. In a recent interview, he says, “I describe myself as culturally Muslim, which is something that doesn’t really have a particular meaning, I guess.” He's keen to avoid theological debate, but does add, “What I can say is that I was born and raised Muslim, I still identify as Muslim, and I was also born gay.”
Abdullah says that, unlike former Muslims, cultural Muslims may not wish to have complete disassociation with Islam and may still believe in it. Even though cultural Muslims are non-practicing or liberal in practice, they may want to remain emotionally connected with the community, religion and cultural heritage. Abdullah quotes the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's example as someone who may be a cultural Muslim, who does not fast, but still identifies with Islam and keeps an attachment to Islamic values, and the term 'cultural Muslim' provides space and identity to them. Abdullah says that actually many non-practising are effectively cultural Muslim but do not identify as such for a lack of theological literacy needed to establish their right to identify as such and for fear of reprisal.
In Central Asia and in former communist countries, the term "cultural Muslim" came into use to describe those who wished their "Muslim" identity to be associated with certain national and ethnic rituals, rather than merely religious faith.
There is, however, a secondary meaning to Muslim which may shade into the first. A Muslim is one born to a Muslim father who takes on his or her parents' confessional identity without necessarily subscribing to the beliefs and practices associated with the faith, just as a Jew may describe him- or herself as Jewish without observing the Tanakh or Halacha. In non-Muslim societies, such Muslims may subscribe to, and be vested with, secular identities. The Muslims of Bosnia, descendants of Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, are not always noted for attendance at prayer, abstention from alcohol, seclusion of women and other social practices associated with believing Muslims in other parts of the world. They were officially designated as Muslims by nationality to distinguish them from Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats under the former Yugoslav communist regime. The label Muslim indicates their ethnicity and group allegiance, but not necessarily their religious beliefs. In this limited context (which may apply to other Muslim minorities in Europe and Asia), there may be no contradiction between being Muslim and being atheist or agnostic, just as there are Jewish atheists and Jewish agnostics. This secular definition of Muslim (sometimes the terms cultural Muslim or nominal Muslim are used) is very far from being uncontested.
A cultural Muslim internalizes the Islamic cultural tradition, or way of thinking, as a frame of reference. Cultural Muslims are diverse in terms of norms, values, political opinions, and religious views. They retain a shared "discourse or structure of feeling" related to shared history and memories.
The concept of a cultural Muslim– someone who identifies as a Muslim yet is not religious– is not always met with acceptance in conservative Islamic communities.
In non-Muslim majority countries, Muslims may identify themselves by distinguishing themselves as practicing vs. not-practicing and believer vs. non-believer. Usually, ritual practicing ones are presumed to be believers, while non-practicing ones may be believers or non-believers.
In several countries, self-reported Muslims practice the religion at low levels. According to a 2012 survey by Pew Research Center, about 1% of the Muslims in Azerbaijan, 5% in Albania, 9% in Uzbekistan, 10% in Kazakhstan, 19% in Russia, and 22% in Kosovo said that they attend mosque once a week or more. According to the same study, only 15% of the Muslims in Albania and 18% of the Muslims in Kazakhstan said that religion was very important in their lives, and only 2% of Muslims in Kazakhstan, 4% in Albania, 10% in Kosovo, 14% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 14% in Kyrgyzstan, 16% in Uzbekistan, and 21% in Azerbaijan reported that they perform all five prayers a day.
Azerbaijan is a mostly Shia Muslim country, with more than 96% of its population being Muslim. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, Azerbaijan is one of the most irreligious countries in the Muslim world, with about 54% of respondents indicating the importance of religion in their life as little or none. The same poll indicates that only 21% of the respondents has attended on religious services. Gallup International indicated that only 34% of Azerbaijanis adhere to religious practices, and ranked Azerbaijan the 13th least religious country from data compiled in 2005, 2008 and 2015. It is a secular country by its constitution, and according to James Reynolds of BBC News one of the goals of the secular government of Azerbaijan is to "check the spread of political Islam".
Surveys conducted 1994 and 1996 observed a decrease in religiosity based on lowering mosque participation, less frequent prayer, dropping importance attached to a religious education, etc.: 242 This decrease in religiosity was more visible in younger Muslims; however, other more recent studies show that while participation in religious activities among young Muslims is reducing, they are more likely to identify with Islam culturally.: 243
A 2005 Université Libre de Bruxelles study estimated that about 10% of the Muslim population in Belgium are "practicing Muslims". A 2009 survey found that the majority of Muslims in Belgium supported "separation between religion and state." A 2010 study found that while Muslims put great emphasis on religious freedom and the overwhelming majority stated people should be free to leave Islam if they wanted, they were less comfortable with the idea of Muslims marrying non-Muslims.: 244
Evgenia Ivanova of the New Bulgarian University stated in 2011 that "religion is not of primary importance to Bulgaria's Muslims." The New Bulgarian University conducted a survey of 850 Muslims in Bulgaria, which found that 48.6% described themselves as religious, 28.5% of which were very religious. Approximately 41% never went to a mosque and 59.3% did not pray at home. About 0.5% believed that disputes should be resolved using Islamic Sharia law and 79.6% said that wearing a veil in school was "unacceptable." More than half of the respondents said cohabitation without marriage was "acceptable", 39.8% ate pork and 43.3% drank alcohol. On the contrary, 88% of respondents said they circumcised their boys and 96% observed Muslim burial practices for their relatives.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 33% of Bulgarian Muslims responded that religion is "very important" in their lives. The same survey found that 7% of Bulgarian Muslims pray all five salah, 22% attend mosque at least once a week, and 6% read Quran at least once a week.
According to a survey, only 33% of French Muslims who were interviewed said they were practicing believers. That figure is the same as that obtained by the INED/INSEE survey in October 2010. And 20% claimed to go regularly to the mosque for the Friday service, and 31% practice prayer (salat), and 70% said they "observe Ramadan". According to expert Franck Fregosi: "Although fasting during Ramadan is the most popular practice, it ranks more as a sign of Muslim identity than piety, and it is more a sign of belonging to a culture and a community", and he added that not drinking alcohol "seems to be more a cultural behavior".
In 2009, only 24% of Muslims in the Netherlands attended mosque once a week according to a survey. According to the same 2004 survey, they found that the importance of Islam in the lives of Dutch Muslims, particularly of second-generation immigrants was decreasing. This observation was based on the reducing participation of younger Muslims in Islamic rituals, organizations, and prayer. The study also predicted that the trend would continue with increasing education and "individualization". However, the study also found that second-generation immigrants attached more importance to religion that the first generation as an "individual experience." The study concluded "the expression of religiosity by Muslim youth was not much different to that of their Dutch Christian or Jewish peers".: 178
Kia Abdullah says that the term, and cultural Muslims' identity, are at the receiving end of criticism not only from conservative Muslims but also from some progressives, saying that cultural Muslim cherry-pick the best of both worlds without enough proactive contribution and commitment to liberalism.
The majority of Azerbaijanis are Shia Muslims and, as elsewhere in the region, expressions of religion are on the rise following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its atheist ideology.
Although Azerbaijan is secular according to its constitution, Islam is an integral part of its cultural and social identity. Today Azerbaijan is experiencing the formation of a national secular identity in which religion will play a significant role.
Israel and the secular government of Azerbaijan share the same goal: to check the spread of political Islam in general and Iran in particular.