The Most Islamic Country Is … New Zealand?

Critics of the Islamicity Index say that with no one interpretation of the Quran accepted widely throughout the world, subjectivity rules.

Source Carl Court/Getty

Why you should care

A Muslim economist is attempting to measure how well the world’s countries live by Quranic values. 

“We are one,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in the wake of the March mass shooting that left 60 worshippers in two Christchurch mosques dead and turned the small Pacific island nation into the center of the Islamic world’s attention.

New Zealanders came together, regardless of color or creed, to mourn and to help the grieving Muslim community recover. Social integration and empathy are sacred in Islam. New Zealand’s population is only 1 percent Muslim, but …

According to a new analysis, New Zealand is the country that most closely follows Quranic principles.

The Islamicity Indices, compiled by the Islamicity Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit, measure world governments by how well they adhere to the Islamic principles set forth in the Quran, including adherence to interest-free finance, equality of education, property rights and animal rights, among others. They don’t include the personal duties required of Muslims, like prayer, fasting and pilgrimages.

In the most recent survey, the highest-ranking country with a Muslim majority is the United Arab Emirates at No. 45. (The U.S. ranks at No. 23.) The lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where Islam is the state religion. New Zealand has no official religion and nearly half of the country’s 5 million people identify as Christian, but it scored high in several areas tracked by the index, including anti-corruption laws and provisions to alleviate poverty.

The index is the brainchild of Hossein Askari. An economist by trade, Askari was born in Iran and educated in the U.K. and the U.S., where he built a career researching Islamic finance. He launched the index with a controversial motivation. “Soon after the death of the prophet, Islam was hijacked by clerics and rulers acting in their own interest,” he says. “Islam contributed a lot in the early days, but if you look around today you have to question something about the interpretation.” 

 

Unlike some major religions, like Catholicism, that have a single global leader to issue binding directives, Islam relies on the interpretation of the Quran by ulema — a group of scholars. That allows for a variety of interpretations, both progressive and conservative. 

The Islamicity Indices measure four key areas — economy, law and governance, human and political rights, and international relations. The first three are weighted 30 percent each; international relations, or how each country interacts with the world, is weighted 10 percent. 

“I looked around at the key Islamic teachings. The Quran says there should be no poverty, so we look at all the poverty indexes,” Askari says. “Muslim countries do terribly. They jump around a lot year to year. Currently, Malaysia does the best overall, but problems still exist with corruption and human rights.” 

“I think it’s a lesson that you can’t really separate East and West, you can’t separate the Muslim from the non-Muslim,” says Emran El-Badawi, director of the Middle Eastern studies program at the University of Houston and founding director of the International Qur’anic Studies Association. “When we think about our Western imagination, we think of Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But there’s a growing body of literature about those same principles coming out of a dialogue with classical Islam. It is a constant dialogue, a cross-pollination.” 

But, critics say, with no one interpretation of the Quran accepted widely throughout the world, subjectivity rules.

“There’s somewhat of a progressive bias … of an index which has New Zealand at the top,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism, which examines the relationship between Islam and politics. “Liberalism, as the West understands it, is not embraced by many of the world’s Muslim-majority countries. It has not won the day in the Middle East or others in South and Southeast Asia.”

Countries like Tunisia, which slid from No. 75 in the 2017 index to 86 last year, are stronger in some of these measurements, Hamid says. “Tunisia, as well as Lebanon and sometimes Iraq, are places that have significant levels of actual pluralism, actual competition and expression of political ideas without the fear of persecution.”

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, historically viewed in the West as an ally and a leader of the Islamic world, both Hamid and the index are in agreement. Saudi Arabia slid three places in the recent index, landing at No. 85. Askari says that while Saudi performs dismally when it comes to human and political rights, scoring just 3.63, it is buoyed by its economic might.

“Saudi Arabia is almost a totalitarian state. It is the closest approximation to one in the Middle East and North Africa, along with Egypt and Syria, with full-fledged monitoring of every thought,” Hamid says.

Not all Islamic countries fell in the rankings. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, moved up 10 spots in 2018, to 64. “There are some concerns in recent years,” Hamid says, including a blasphemy case that saw Jakarta’s former governor, Chinese-Indonesian Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, jailed on blasphemy charges, and recent postelection riots led by hard-line Islamists. But largely, reforms are on the right track. Oil-rich Senegal, currently at No. 83, is another one to watch, according to Hamid.

Malaysia dropped four spots to No. 47, coming in third among Muslim states. A historic change of government last spring has increased sentiment for reform. The result was pleasantly received by local media, with letters to the editor praising New Zealand for its win.

As for the critics, they don’t faze Askari. “Countries have looked at this data and it becomes very clear why they perform badly and it bothers them,” he says. Data compiled by the Islamic Development Bank in response to the first indexes “vindicated” the Islamicity project, he adds. Askari, who calls the index his contribution to the Islamic world, believes it should be viewed as a benchmark rather than an indictment. “The whole idea is for a quantifiable measure so the people can go to a cleric and say, ‘We in this country do not do this and this comes from the Quran,’” he says.

“It gives you a measure of how you should reform where you are deficient,” he continues. It “becomes a vehicle to get peaceful reform and usher in meaningful change.”

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