HOW “Islamic” are Islamic countries? This was a question asked by two George Washington University researchers, Scheherazade Rahman and Hossain Askari, in the Global Economy Journal of 2010.
And whilst the paper is already two-years old, its pioneering approach and its Islam-West paradigm do make it compulsory reading for anybody interested in world affairs.
This is because the Arab Spring, calling for political rights in the Muslim world, and the Occupy Movements directed against bankism in the West, have thrown into sharp focus the questions asked by the paper.
In their abstract, the authors discuss the post 9/11 era. They observe a developing global curiosity in relations between faith, finance, politics and human rights. Where exactly does faith fit in the picture?
The researchers point out the deficiencies of academics such as Bernard Lewis (who first coined the term “clash of civilisations”) in trying to understand this relationship between religion, economics and society.
The biggest problem, they say, is that Islam tends to be judged by what those labelled as Muslims do, and not by the actual message of Islam.
The central question, then, was whether self-declared Islamic countries – as determined by membership of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) – embraced policies founded on true Islamic teachings.
To measure “Islamicity” the authors had to create their own paradigm. This was done by examining the necessary scaffolding required for an Islamic state, and by developing an index to measure the standards.
Over 208 countries were measured under four categories: economics, legal and government capacities, human and political rights and international relations.
The central assumption was that daily decisions made by individuals in society were governed to some degree by their belief systems, which fed into other values.
However, measuring Islamicity – as the authors soon discovered – was not so easy. Of the 57 member states in the OIC only seven (Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Oman and Yemen) declared that they were Islamic states, with a mere 12 saying that Islam was their state religion.
In the study the 208 countries (Muslim and non-Muslim) were compared to a subset of Islamic ones. Western indices, such as the UN Human Development Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, were related to Islamic principles.
The authors outlined four Islamic constructs that had to underpin the notion of a successful Islamic state: Walayyah (compassion through wisdom and justice), karamah (the acknowledgement of human dignity), meethaq (the recognition of the sovereignty of the Creator) and khilafah (responsible viceregency and trustee-ship).
Although they did not mention it, the above fundamentals would have been further bolstered by Imam al-Ghazali’s six famous social principles: the right of religion, the right to wealth and property, the right of one’s progeny, the right to personal dignity and the right to receive justice.
Implicit in this blueprint are the values of a caring society marked by legislative justice, the fair distribution of wealth and genuine leadership.
Economically, said the authors, Islam’s legal systems called for free markets, but not according to the current Western capitalist model. For example, fiqh demanded risk-sharing and disapproved of taxation of imports and exports. It also prohibited monopolies, hoarding, speculation and price manipulation.
The authors concluded that institutions proposed by Islam relating to governance, social solidarity, cooperation and justice were inherently designed to achieve economic development and growth.
The results of their research, which they do emphasise is “preliminary”, does make for interesting reading, though.
This is because the Islamic states fared badly. New Zealand, said to have more sheep than humans, came out as number one, with the US – slated as the world’s top democracy– rated only 25th.
China, usually seen as a rapacious economic powerhouse, was a surprising 27 and India, with its ramshackle democracy, came in at 89. Israel, the bête noire of the Islamic world at 61, was rated higher than the Islamic states, but the occupied West Bank and Gaza (giant blots in the Israeli copybook) were 207.
The top rated Islamic state was Bahrain at 64, though recent events there would probably have seen its rating plummet. Iran was a lowly 163 (only three slots away from Afghanistan). Of the countries declaring Islam as their state religion, Malaysia was highest at 38.
Of the Arab Spring countries, Tunisia was 83. Egypt was 153 and Libya 196. Perhaps what the ranking here predicts is that Tunisia could make the critical transition from dictatorship to democracy quicker than the others.
Of course, one has to bear in mind that these rankings are pre-Arab Spring, but Syria at 186 and Yemen at 198 are somewhat predictive of crisis as Iraq, Sudan and Somalia languish in this region of the graph.
Africa, the Cinderella of all continents, came out poorly – though there were some exceptions. The highest ranking African country was Mauritius at 42. Mauritius has a significant Muslim minority, and as a small Indian Ocean island punches far above her weight.
Namibia was next at 45, South Africa at 50 and Ghana at 53. Significantly, South Africa ranked higher than the self-declared Islamic states. What is interesting for us is that, apart from China, we are the highest rated of the BRIC countries.
The authors conclude that their “very preliminary” results show that Islamic states are not as Islamic in their practice as one would expect. However, the prominence of developed countries tending to place higher on the Islamicity Index has to be taken into proper context.
The relationship between faith, finance and polity is a complex one. The lack of development in Islamic countries cannot be attributed to religion alone.
The age-old problems of developing countries, such as unskilled government, bad economic policies, aid dependency, systemic corruption, lack of social equity and broken-down health care systems have little to do with Holy Law.
It is, in fact, as the authors say, the shortcomings of the governments and their respective policies – and not religion – that accounts for the litany of dismal failures that bedevil the Middle East and Africa, even those countries blessed with oil and natural resources.