Transparency International publishes a Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking of 179 countries for corruption. In their most recent report (2007), there are no Muslim countries in the top 10 (least corrupt) countries. There are none in the top 20. There are none in the top 30. The least corrupt Muslim country on the list is Qatar, number 32, which means that 31 non-Muslim countries are less corrupt than the least corrupt Muslim country.
Looking at the most corrupt countries, 16 of the bottom 34 are Muslim: Somalia (the very worst), Iraq, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Chad, Afganistan, Guinea, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Cote d’Ivoire, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, and Guinea-Bissau. To give you an idea of just how corrupt these countries are, they are ranked worse than Russia!
Where’s the utopia? The reason this is important is that Islamists often justify Sharia by arguing it creates a utopian society. Why, then, are Muslim countries generally more corrupt than non-Muslim countries, despite having the “benefit” of Sharia and Islam? Muslim countries all have different ways of implementing Sharia, and a very few don’t use much of it if any, but they all share a common belief that Sharia is a valid source of law. If Sharia really were a benefit, you’d think one of them would produce a stunningly honest government.
What is the relationship between Islam and the corruption in Muslim countries?
Islam does not mandate corruption, but there are provisions in Sharia that provide the conditions in which corruption thrives.
Checks on power: According to Transparency International, one factor allowing corrupt practices to flourish is the lack of institutional checks on power. This follows the maxim, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sharia is very authoritarian in nature, concentrating power in the rulers with no orderly process for holding them in check. A Quran verse often quoted to support this authoritarianism is 4:59: “O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you….” Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law also quotes a Hadith to emphasize the importance of obediance to the Caliph: “Hear and obey, even if the ruler placed over you is an Ethiopian slave with amputated extremities.” (pg. 645) Another Hadith quoted is “Leaders shall rule you after me, the godfearing of them ruling you with godfearingness and the profligate ruling you with wickedness. So listen to them and obey them in everything that is right; for if they do well, it will count for you and for them, and if they do badly, it will count for you and against them.” (pg. 639) A Caliph is supposed to have a list of qualifications which include being an upright person, but “it is valid, if forced to, to resort to the leadership of a corrupt person….” (pg. 642) Although there is currently no Caliphate, this authoritarian framework is in the Quran and seems to be hard for Muslim countries to shake off.
Democracy: In addition, democratic systems are better able to fight corruption. Transparency International states: “In a modern democracy, the power of governing bodies is inherent in the political mandate given by the people. Power is entrusted and it is supposed to be used for the benefit of society at large, and not for the personal benefit of the individual that holds it. Thus corruption – misusing publicly entrusted power for private gain – is inherently contradictory and irreconcilable with democracy. That does not mean, unfortunately, that corruption cannot be found in democratic systems. Temptation remains a challenge anywhere. That is why it is all the more important to put in place control mechanisms and establish systemic hurdles to prevent people from abusing their power, as TI is seeking to do. Such mechanisms are more easily drawn up and introduced in established democratic systems, however, than in newly democratic or non-democratic ones.”
Freedom House lists electoral democracies in the world. Of the 32 least corrupt countries, only 3 are not electoral democracies, and 29 are. Of the 34 most corrupt countries, 24 are not electoral democracies, and 10 are.
Many Muslims believe that Islam is incompatible with democracy. If their views prevail, it is likely that the corruption currently entrenched in their societies will never get a whole lot better. Other Muslims are trying to redefine Islam as a personal religion only, with no political side. If they succeed, political reform in Muslim countries becomes more possible; however, they have a long way to go.
Freedom: There is a very clear inverse relationship between freedom and corruption: the more the freedom, the less the likelihood of corruption, and vice versa. Looking at the Freedom House report, which gives countries a rating for freedom, in combination with the TI corruption report, we find that of the 32 least corrupt countries, only one is Not Free (which is Qatar, number 32 on the list); two are Partly Free (Singapore and probably Hong Kong); and the other 29 are Free, of which 26 have the very best score. (Hong Kong was not in the Freedom House report, so I’m arbitrarily calling it “Partly Free”.) In contrast, of the 34 most corrupt countries, 21 are Not Free, 13 are Partly Free, and not a single one is Free. Freedom and honest government go together, and Muslim countries are decidedly freedom challenged.
Honesty: Another factor I would expect to make a difference is the society’s attitudes toward honesty: a more honest society would, logically, tend to be less corrupt. As we have examined extensively in other contexts, Islam and Sharia do not have an absolute commitment to honesty. Deceit is allowed if it’s for a permissible goal. Oaths can be broken if something better comes along. Truth-telling can be punished if the truth embarasses someone. This is not a winning combination for rooting out corruption. There is no such thing as a completely honest or dishonest society, but there are certainly differences nonetheless.
To be clear, my sole interest in this information is to remove a common argument used to defend Sharia. Many people believe it’s “insensitive” to criticize another culture or religion. That would be fine, unless that culture and/or religion wishes to make us more like them. When that’s the case, as it is with Sharia, scrutiny is in order.