Guest Post: Is Islam the solution?

Guest post by Isabel Esterman, a Cairo-based journalist. She blogs here

“If religion makes you more honest, why is it that the most corrupt countries are also the most religious?” asks a writer at Epiphenom, a blog about the science of religion and non-belief.

A few weeks ago, Rebel Economy posted a map illustrating how countries around the world fared in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

[caption id="attachment_1008" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Corruption Perceptions Index 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index 2012[/caption]

The graphic becomes even more interesting when paired with a world map that shows how religious different countries are:

Gallup, 2006

What is clear is that when looking at the two maps side by side, countries with the most pious citizens are not the least corrupt; in fact, when you remove communist or formerly communist countries, which have their own complex histories of corruption and state intervention in religion, it’s very nearly the opposite.

More religious countries appear to be more corrupt. (More rigorous examinations also bear out this conclusion, as do studies that look at legislation of religion as well as just personal practice –Heather Marquette at the University of Birmingham gives a good summary of the field.)

This does not mean that religiosity causes corruption – many studies have tried to establish a causal link, with frustratingly ambiguous and contradictory conclusions.

However, it does mean that religious movements or political parties that claim the evils of corruption can be eradicated by making society more religious are engaging in wishful thinking or outright deception.

To put it more bluntly, Islam is not the solution.

(Nor, for that matter, is any other religion. Check out the corruption scores of devoutly Catholic nations.)

Claims that a government ruled by people who fear god and pray every day will automatically be more honest than one run by secularists or atheists fly in the face of empirical evidence.

Australia, whose prime minister is an atheist, is consistently among Transparency International’s highest scorers, as are profoundly non-religious Scandinavian countries; highly religious societies, like Afghanistan and Somalia are at the bottom.

It’s not random chance that societies like Australia or the Scandinavian countries, which combine with low religiosity and low levels of corruption, also have some of the world’s highest standards of living.

Both corruption and religiosity are strongly related to low scores on measures of wellbeing like per capita income and the Human Development Index. Again, proving causation is nearly impossible. But it’s safe to say that countries that are wealthy, have little public corruption, and provide their citizens with high-quality social services like healthcare and education are unlikely to be highly religious.

This presents an interesting conundrum for politicians like the Freedom and Justice Party, who promise voters both good governance and more religion in public and private life. There’s scant evidence that the two goals are compatible.

Realistically speaking, the most likely explanation for the Muslim Brotherhood’s dismal economic record lies in a combination of inexperience and incompetence on the part of the new regime, the deeply entrenched corrupt and corporatist legacy of the old regime, and global economic malaise.  Secular governments can of course be corrupt, as those who lived under Mubarak or Putin are well aware.

Nonetheless, the relationship between religiosity and corruption does suggest a fun conspiracy theory to explain why the government seems to consistently make the worst possible choices for the economy: Perhaps the Ikhwan and their Salafist fellow travelers are well aware that a society that is poor, corrupt, uneducated, and unhealthy is also more likely to embrace religious fundamentalism, and this is all part of a phenomenally complex and masterfully subtle master plan.


  • James
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    A country doesn’t follow a religion, its people do. When you loo at these reported corrupt countries it is clear that is it is not the ‘people’ who lead the country, it the majority of cases it is a ruling elite of some form. Many of these ‘elite’ are far from being religious by any measure.

  • Schmorty
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Islam is the solution to the following question. The elimination of which religion would result in the greatest benefit to man, and the most dramatic shift towards world peace?

  • Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    To regard religion as the problematic factor in a country’s demise is a common mistake. It would be more accurate to view people with suspicion, and not faith.

  • Posted January 16, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Cute article, somewhat stating the obvious but still cute. Catchy title, too.
    A few issues were rubbing me the wrong way here.
    To start with, I really wonder what the Wikimedia map on the “Importance of religion” among the world’s population is telling us? What exactly do the allegedly measured categories of “most religious” or “less religious” are trying to reveal? Apparently the question of the poll was “Is religion important in your daily life?”. How and why? Does that for example exclusively imply an exceptionally active private religious life? Or would it imply to long for religious morals as a social and political framework which should shape the performance of the all-pervasive nation state and its administrative apparatus? Both obviously have an impact on the subject. Why does religion matter for the individual? Is it a way to re-establish him-or herself as the subject of the action or is it a restricitve social norm? Think-tank for dummies!
    (On a related note I am not sure that piety in the strict sense is a characteristic of all religions.)
    You move on with linking both graphs and state: “More religious countries appear to be more corrupt.” If I understand the procedure right you use the result of the graph which measures the “perceived corruption level of the public sector” (please note: the performance of the state is measured here) and related it to the private importance of religion for the individual (I already pointed to the fact that I think that graph is pretty much telling us nothing) and then draw your conclusion.
    All rules of logic are overridden here.
    Are you intending to demonstrate that although people value religion they participate and reproduce corruption? Wow, an insight indeed. Those damn hypocrites, didn’t we know it all along. Anyhow, history has show that already, no need to revert to dodgy graphs.
    Or do you wish to reason that countries in which the population is more attached to traditional religious values is also expose to a higher level of corruption? If so, we should ask why by applying sociological and historic concepts and we should place them in the context of the global economic order.
    Anyhow, I lost you here..
    It continues “… religious movements or political parties that claim the evils of corruption can be eradicated by making society more religious are engaging in wishful thinking or outright deception. To put it more bluntly, Islam is not the solution.”
    Well, as I tried to point out earlier, your reasoning is based on a flawy logic. More interesting would be to ask why do they claim that and what is the political logic behind those claims.
    The horror goes on when you state: “Claims that a government ruled by people who fear god and pray every day will automatically be more honest than one run by secularists or atheists fly in the face of empirical evidence.”
    Well, do we have a psychological expertise elaborating on the extend of Muhammed Morsy’s fear of god? As mentioned before, a political and sociological analyse would be of greater value. Why are those claims fruitful, is the issue instead of dubious normative statements.
    To make thing worse, we are now told corruption and religiosity are related to low scores on measures of the HDI, that rich countries are less corrupt and unlikely highly religious (whatever that means) and that the Ikhwan are basically screwed because good governance and religion in public and private life are not compatible.
    Basically what we knew all along – those backward populations will never be exposed to good governance because religiosity is not compatible with it. Could we clarify if we mean the indivduals religiosity or the fact that political mobilisation is religiously shaped?
    As the article is obviously concerned with Egypt and the Ikhwan it is worth to point out that their current political mobilization takes place in a region that has been struggling and in fact still struggles with oppression and corruption. Organizations like the Ikhwan can maybe convince politically and morally by exploiting “virtue” due to those decades of repression and corruption. Maybe they can also peddle the idea because of the “demoralizing experience( for an individual) of being forced to become a part of the corrupt system of relationships in order to survive its pressure”. ( We need to understand Egyp’t complex political and religious reality, unfortunately the article has not contributed to that. In fact I claim that it helped to conceal more than it revealed. It offers great simplistic arguments for all those conservative, neo-liberal pundits out there.
    The actually relevant part of the articles which comes is at this point not relevnt any more.

    And while I am the first to deconstruct religion or faith-based groups and political parties, I would rather see this happen by applying more fruitful theories and concepts instead of dubious polls and strange linking of arguments.
    But yes I agree, people who “fear god” are not automatically having more integrity and atheists don’t necessarily steal other people’s newspapers.

    • Isabel Esterman
      Posted January 17, 2013 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      Natalie — it looks like you put time and thought into your comments,which I appreciate, so I wanted to try to respond. It’s pretty late at night and I’m just seeing this now, so forgive me if I’m not totally lucid.

      In case it wasn’t made clear enough, the maps above are intended to be an easily digestible illustration of a phenomenon observed in research and statistical modeling (like the literature outlined in the paper linked to above), not statistically valid proof in and of themselves.

      You rightly point out that the relationship between religiosity (personal faith and/or state legislation) and corruption (individual and/or institutional) is way too complex to adequately explore in a short, light-hearted blog post. I think each of the points you mention is worthy of an article of its own, and I’d love to see what you come up with to advance the debate in the directions you suggest.

      Here, my primary goal is to poke a bit of fun at an even more normative and over-broad proposition we are confronted with on a daily basis: that “Islam is the solution,” that increasing both state and personal religiosity will by itself solve the economic and social problems Egypt is facing, and that we should put our faith in leaders who fail to present credible economic or social programs because we know they are god-fearing men and therefore have our well-being at heart.

      Also, for what it’s worth, in my (purely anecdotal and not statistically significant) experience, conservative neo-liberals are pretty prone to promoting religious fundamentalism, whether we’re talking about the Freedom and Justice Party here, or the Republican Party in the United States. To draw attention to some of the flaws in this reasoning hardly advances a conservative agenda.

  • Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    When your nation’s religion is to follow ‘the rule of law’ and allow for personal freedom, property rights, gender rights and rights protecting the minority, you are following the true God. When you simply brand yourself as ‘Catholic’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Jewish’ your probably already lost if that brand becomes a cover for disregarding the rule of law and other rights and freedoms mentioned above. This article seems to be provoking a reaction against Islamic fundamentalism, but what about the molestation that plagues the Catholic church or the war mongering of the Israeli settlers? God does not want dogmatists. He wants rationed individuals. Separation of church and state IS godly and in line with his principles. As such, the western nations have done a pretty good job, but are losing ground quickly and their previous actions especially since the Iraq war have created a high level of enmity amongst the Arabs and Persians. America is essentially secular, but seems to have a very high degree of militarism. Iran is hardline Islamic and has not attacked anyone in over 250 years. Irrationality abounds in the world, but essentially, when a nation pursues peace and tolerance, it will thrive; religious or not.

    • Loudguitr
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Wise words.

  • Posted February 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Very funny ,look where you live .America that had comitted the biggest terrorist act every recorded in history

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