Politics & Policy

How Islamic Are Muslims?

Reading the Koran at a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
When Muslims fail to follow Islamic precepts, the problem might be Islam, not that they are bad Muslims.

Islamic law demands much of Muslims. How successfully do they fulfill its precepts?

Scheherazade S. Rehman and Hossein Askari of George Washington University provide an answer in a 2010 article, “How Islamic Are Islamic Countries?” In it, they establish the Islamic teachings and then calculate how well these are applied in 208 countries and territories. They posit four separate indices (economics, the law and governance, human and political rights, international relations); then they combine these into a single overall index, which they call the Islamicity Index.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ten countries that top the list of Islamicity turn out to be, starting at the top, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Ireland, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mayotte, the West Bank and Gaza, Somalia, the Isle of Man, Eritrea, Sudan, the Channel Islands, Iraq, the Comoros, and Angola. Put differently, none of the top ten “Islamic” countries has a Muslim majority; but in seven of the bottom ten, one-half or more of the population is Muslim.

Of the Muslim-majority countries in the list, Malaysia (where Muslims are only barely a majority) has the highest ranking, coming in at No. 38. Of the countries that have a thoroughly Muslim majority, Kuwait, a fabulously rich oil exporter, has the highest ranking, at No. 48. Jordan has the highest ranking for a thoroughly Muslim-majority country without oil wealth, at No. 77.

Taking the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as a sample (and ignoring population sizes, so that the Maldives with 300,000 has the same weight as Indonesia with 237 million), their aggregate score is No. 139, or distinctly below the halfway mark of No. 104 (i.e., midway through the 208 countries surveyed). In other words, according to this study, the world as a whole willy-nilly abides by Islamic precepts better than do Muslim-majority countries.

The real aggregate Muslim number is probably well below No. 139, in part for technical and statistical reasons, in part because the survey was published in 2010, before the Turkish prime minister went rogue and before the Arab upheavals began. Turkey ranks a relatively high No. 103, Mali No. 130, and Syria No. 186; their current scores would certainly be much farther down the Islamicity scale. Combining these factors, I estimate the real aggregate score for Muslims today to be No. 175.

EI2 stands for Economic Islamicity Index; LGI2 for Legal and Governance Islamicity Index; HPI2 for Human and Political Rights Islamicity Index; and IRI2 for International Relations Islamicity Index. Together, they make up the Islamicity Index (I2).

The Islamicity Index helpfully quantifies my two-part theory (as presented in books published more than 30 years ago on slave soldiers and Islam in public life) about Islam and politics:

1) Islam’s demands are inherently too difficult for Muslim rulers to achieve, alienating Muslim populations from their governments, leading to a wide gulf between rulers and ruled, and to greedy autocrats who disdain their subjects’ interests.

2) Compounding this problem, since about 1800 Muslims have realized that they lag behind non-Muslims in nearly every sphere of human activity, causing such symptoms as despair, irrationality, conspiracism, and Islamism.

Asked about my thesis, Askari disagrees. In a letter to me, he blames “opportunistic religious leaders” who “have distorted Islamic teachings and have hijacked the religion for their own personal gains.” Their greed has enabled “oppressive and corrupt rulers to thwart the development of effective institutions,” he argues. Finally, colonial and imperial powers have “exploited these conditions for their own gains.” In other words, he sees an evil triad of religious, political, and Western forces creating a vicious circle that blocks progress.

My answer: When presented with the failure of a seemingly noble ideal (Communism, Islamic law), adherents instinctively blame human failure rather than ideals; we must try harder, do better. At a certain point, however, when the goal is never realized, it becomes logical and necessary to blame those ideals themselves. Fourteen centuries of failure should be a sufficiently thorough experiment.

Take the specific case of Saudi Arabia: If application of the Wahhabi doctrine for two and half centuries, a stable government and control of Mecca and Medina for nearly a century, and unearned riches beyond the dreams of avarice still leave the country ranking a miserable No. 131 in the Islamicity Index, how can any society hope to attain Islamic ideals?

Askari blames Muslims; I blame Islam. This difference has enormous implications. If Muslims are the culprit, believers have no choice but to continue trying to fulfill Islamic teachings, as they have tried for more than a thousand years. If Islam is the problem, the solution lies in reconsidering the traditional interpretations of the faith and reinterpreting it in ways conducive to successful living. That effort might begin with an exploratory trip to New Zealand.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2014 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

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