Saturday, January 3, 2015

Good Governance: Something We Can All Believe In!

The social scientist Talha Oz alerted me to a new study by Scheherazade Rehman and Hossein Askari called "How Islamic Are Islamic Countries?" (the gated study; a column about it by Kadir Civan; a cool map Talha Oz created based on their data in Turkish).

The authors of this study have combed through Islamic religious texts (the Koran and the Hadith) to find specific principles of governance, economics, and foreign policy. Using these, they have created four indices of 'Islamic' performance in governing and economics , and in turn attempted to measure the performance of different countries around the world on those criteria. The result is a ranking of the world's countries according to their performance on Islamic criteria (the IslamicityIndex).

The result: the world's most 'Islamic' country is New Zealand, followed by countries such as Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, Luxembourg, and Ireland. What about the actual Muslim majority countries? Only Malaysia and Kuwait were in the top 50 of the world's countries. Turkey was ranked 103. Iran, the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic, ranked 163. Ironically, Israel ranked ahead of all Muslim countries except Malaysia and Kuwait.

"Getting to Denmark"

How can Christian and Jewish countries be more Islamic than Muslim countries? The answer is that these indices (drawn from Islamic religious texts, remember) basically boil down to principles of justice, fairness, equality, good governance, and human dignity. What Islam apparently teaches is that societies should be governed in such a manner to eliminate corruption, treat all citizens equally under the law, ensure the welfare of all, and behave in a just manner towards other societies. (I say 'apparently' because of my own ignorance of Islam, not to suggest that any of what the authors claim about Islam isn't true).

In other words, Islam basically promotes good governance and human development. Not surprisingly, the same countries that score highly on measures of governance and human development score highly on the IslamicityIndex: the Scandinavian and North European states, New Zealand, etc. The Muslim countries score poorly because most are poorly governed and have low standards of living and few economic opportunities for their citizens.

The public intellectual Francis Fukuyama described the problem of political and economic development as "getting to Denmark," as Denmark is a good example of a prosperous, well-governed society in which its citizens have generous welfare protection and economic freedoms. Ironically, what Islam actually dictates is that its societies should try to be more like Denmark and less like Iran. Go figure.

We're Not So Different After All!

Despite the frequent attempts to project huge differences between the different religions and cultures of the world (such as this map), most civilizations share the same basic core values. There are a lot of reasons why the Muslim states are generally more corrupt, authoritarian, and backwards compared to the West, but Islam is not one of those reasons. (Otherwise, how to explain dysfunctional and corrupt Christian societies in the Balkans, Latin America, or former Soviet Union?). This is an important lesson we should all remember...and seek to promote!

There is another lesson here for Turkey. A very interesting cross-national study by 3 social scientists shows that there is no consistent link between socio-cultural conservatism and economic conservatism (i.e., support for right-wing economic policies). In fact, it is the opposite in many societies: social conservatives support economic redistribution. In Turkey, and other countries, right-wing parties have managed to link the two, gaining the support of many poor but religious voters while implementing right-wing economic policies (see my study on the backwards relationship between economic and party support in Turkey). But the results of the IslamicityIndex study suggest that there is plenty of room for a 'social democratic Muslim' party to draw on religious doctrine to justify redistributive policies.