By Javad Heirannia

Islamicity Indices is instrument for achieving fundamental Islamic teachings: Askari

March 17, 2018 - 10:31

TEHRAN – Professor Hossein Askari, an expert on Saudi Arabia who also teaches international business at the George Washington University, strongly believes that “The purpose of the Islamicity Indices is to provide Muslims with a benchmark and a compass for the practice of their religion.”

Hossein Askari, who teaches at George Washington University, tells the Tehran Times that “Our mission is to stimulate peaceful reform in Muslim countries by encouraging effective institutions, in the context of Islam and its recommended rules.”

“We believe that the Islamicity Indices reflect fundamental Islamic teachings and offer the instrument for achieving this goal,” Askari says.  
Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Thank you for joining us, could you please begin by giving us a background to this project that you have been working on for over ten years and beginning in 2018 devoting all your time and energy?

A: Many thanks for having me and giving me this opportunity to introduce this project to your audience.

This project began in my head about 15 years ago with the dire state of many Muslim societies and the attribution of their condition to Islam. But when we looked at Muslim countries we found countries that did not reflect the Islam that we knew. There was no little justice—something that is at the heart of Islam. Instead of modest living and equality, there was opulence alongside poverty, with poverty an indisputable sign of an un-Islamic society. Instead of thriving economies as recommended in Islam, there was economic and development failure. Instead of freedom and leaders answerable to their communities, there was oppression under dictatorships. Rulers used religion as a weapon to divide Muslims. The Unity of God’s Creation that is central to Islam was a mirage.

With this disconnect between Islam and Muslims and the dismal state of Muslim countries, radicals and terrorists had seen an opportunistic vacuum they could fill. They promised a better life. They concocted a false Islam of hate, division, terror, oppression and murder to attain power.  

Wrongly, much of the non-Muslim world has attributed the dire state of Muslim countries and the action of Muslim terrorists to Islam.

Islam was hijacked by corrupt rulers and clerics soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. A false message of Islam has been propagated as the instrument for corrupt rulers. This false message of Islam has drenched the fabric of most Muslim societies, adversely affecting progress in Muslim countries over the centuries. And today if Muslims in some countries question and discuss some practices of their religion, they could be imprisoned, tortured and even put to death with the blessing of clerics or rulers.

Q: What is the purpose of Islamicity Indices?

A: The purpose of the Islamicity Indices is to provide Muslims with a benchmark and a compass for the practice of their religion. Our mission is to stimulate peaceful reform in Muslim countries by encouraging effective institutions, in the context of Islam and its recommended rules. We believe that the Islamicity Indices reflect fundamental Islamic teachings and offer the instrument for achieving this goal. At the same time, these Islamicity Indices serve as an approach to explain Islam to the non-Muslim world. Peaceful reform and effective institutions will be more readily achieved with a better understanding of Islam in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Q: How were these indices developed?

A: Islam is a rules-based religion. Institutions, in turn, are a collection of rules. Institutions provide the foundation for a society. Islam’s rules and institutions can be deduced from a comprehensive reading of the Qur’an and its interpretation by the Prophet Mohammad during his lifetime in the first Muslim community he established in Medina.

We thus began by dividing Islamic teachings or rules into FOUR major headings or indices: Economy, Legal and Governance, Human and Political Rights and International Relations.

We then combined the results of the four indices into an Overall Index.

We synthesized teachings from the Qur’an and placing them under one of the four headings. We then found data and indices that best represented each of these teachings.

Q: What were some of the technical questions that you faced?

A: There are clearly many issues in what we have done. Some teachings could go under more than one of the four indices. What importance to afford each teaching (or weight to give each teaching in the index).

But one thing that we did not do in constructing the indices was to ask what percentage of a country professed Islam, or how many times a person prayed, or if people went to a mosque, or if they fasted in the month of Ramadan or if they went for pilgrimage to Mecca. To have included any of these would have defeated the purpose of our endeavor. We were trying to assess the extent a community or a country reflects fundamental Islamic teachings. So if we gave importance to the percentage of people in a country who were associated with Islam, then this would bias our index. These practices are private between a Muslim and his or her God.
We have calculated these indices since 2000 in five year intervals and we have estimated annual indices beginning in 2015. Our index for 2017 will be uploaded before May 1, 2018. We have estimated these from the year 2000 to get an idea of changes over time and to provide countries with a better roadmap to learn from the experience of other countries.

Q: What do your results broadly show?

A: The countries that are the best performers are not Muslim countries. Indeed we recall the famous statement of Mohammad Abduh over a hundred years ago. “I went to the West, I saw Islam but no Muslims. I came back to the East and saw Muslims but no Islam.”

In the 2016 index, the top ten countries in the overall index were: New Zealand, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Ireland, Iceland, Germany, Luxembourg and Finland. The best performing Muslim countries were: Malaysia (41), UAE (43) and Qatar (45).

While the composition of the top ten in the world have changed somewhat from year to year, a number of lessons stand out.

In the case of the best performing countries, they do well across the board that is in at least 3 of the four indices and in most of the elements in these indices. While their ranking may change a little from year to year, their performance or score (the more important indicator) on any given dimension does not vary very much from year to year. The score of the top performing countries are quite close, they range from 8.7 to 9.0. They are countries where the citizenry enjoy freedom, have access to high quality education and healthcare and where poverty is low. They are countries with little recent aggressive actions other countries and who have not been engaged in recent debilitating armed conflicts.

Q: Why do countries do well in your Islamicity Indices?

A: They have established effective institutions that support many of the objectives that are important in Islam for a healthy society that include freedom, respect for political and human rights, the rule of law, strong property rights, and equal opportunities to develop and grow.  

Adam Smith, the recognized father of modern economics established the importance of institutions in his two famous books—The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments—that he meant to be read together. Effective Institutions provide the efficient setting where communities can develop, grow and thrive.  

The world embraced his proposed market system, whereby individuals pursuing their self-interest supported the most efficient system for all but they set aside the message of morality and social justice advocated in what he considered as his more important book. Smith suggested that most humans, no matter their country, had about the same potential but some had better opportunities to develop and grow than others. To Smith the way to make a better world was a world where all people had good opportunities to develop. Additionally, Smith recognized and warned against a market system that did not have good regulations, supervision and enforcement. Left alone businesses would corrupt the system. If Smith were alive and saw the economic system we attribute to him he would be horrified.

Douglass North, a Nobel Laureate in economics, took up Smith’s emphasis on institutions. Institutions are essentially the rules of the game in a society. North defines institutions as formal and informal rules along with their enforcement characteristics. The institutional structure of a society is composed of constitutions, laws, and rules that govern the society, its government, its finances, economy, and politics; written rules, codes, and agreements that govern contractual relations and exchange and trade relationships; and commonly shared beliefs, social norms, and codes governing human behavior. Once rules are in place, they then allow coordination among individuals because they now share a belief in the rule and its outcome. It is the ability of rules to reduce ambiguity about the behavior of others that allows coordination in human interaction and collective action.  The clarity of rules, social norms, and enforcement characteristics are important to the degree of compliance exhibited by the members of a society. The higher the degree of rule-compliance, the more stable the social order and the lower the transaction costs in the society.

Q: How can these Indices help Muslim countries to develop and flourish?

A: To us, the reason for Western success is traceable and attributable more effective institutions (rules and regulations, their supervision and enforcement), these include political and economic freedom, respect for human rights and especially the rule of law and strong property rights. Under these conditions and more equal opportunities to develop, men and women are more likely to realize their dreams and thrive. These are the conditions that encourage self-investment, hard work, and hope of a better future.

Islam is a rules-based religion with the rules clearly delineated. These teachings and rules are broadly the foundation of these indices. A high score and ranking on these indices indicates a rule-compliant and successful Muslim country. In the realm of economics and development, the rules and institutions prescribed in the Qu’ran and practiced by the Prophet are somewhat similar to those supported by Western thinkers such as Adam Smith, Amartya Sen and Douglass North, but with a much heavier dose of justice and morality and concern for the human collectivity.

Armed with these indices and their results, Muslims who question and discuss their religion cannot be as easily dismissed by rulers and clerics. Islamicity indices give Muslims a metric. If rulers and clerics disagree with these results, that is the teachings and rules that support them and the data used, they could be forced to show why. Communities, societies and countries can measure their successes and failures. Where have they succeeded and where have they failed.

One country, Malaysia, adopted its own Islamicity index in 2015. President Rouhani of Iran referred to these indices in a speech about two years ago at the opening of the Qur’an competition in Tehran. Other Muslim countries could benefit from their example.

Q: What is the mission of the Islamicity Foundation?

A: The Islamicity Foundation is a U.S. tax-exempt foundation organized with the mission to develop and manage the structure of Islamicity Indices across all Muslim countries to disseminate the ongoing results of Islamicity Indices—policy successes and failures of each Muslim country and their institutional shortcomings—with the goal of stimulating reforms.

The Islamicity Foundation will collaborate with established local NGOs. We are beginning to look for such partners in every Muslim country and we would welcome NGOs to contact us. Where we cannot find a partner NGO, we will support the creation of new NGOs initially in a few Muslim countries. We plan to work with partners in every Muslim country to monitor developments and progress along each dimension of the indices and to issue papers that include policies and their implementation in order to establish effective institutions. The Islamicity Foundation will issue white papers delineating areas of progress and areas of shortfall and recommending helpful policies, and summary papers on country experiences, and convene a conference every two years to discuss lessons learned. It is hoped that the Islamicity Foundation will, in time, partner with a world class university to deliver seminars and establish a Fellows Program, with fellows invited from a handful of Muslim countries and a Faculty Exchange Program between the partner university and  affiliated universities in Muslim countries to engage in promoting indices and institution building in Muslim countries.

In the process, IF will connect and build a vast global community of Muslims who internalize the teachings of the Qur’an, take charge of their religion and support peaceful reforms and more effective institutions. Such an informed global community of Muslims, with the moral support of millions of Muslims and non-Muslims in countries around the world will be a strong force for change who could not be easily dismissed and marginalized. For the first time, knowledgeable and peaceful Muslims would be in a strong position to peacefully encourage rulers to build effective institutions and to initiate much-needed reforms to enhance human and economic development across Muslim countries. It will take decades to change mindsets and customs will take time, patience and resolve.

It is hoped that the Islamicity Foundation will raise a significant endowment that would generate sufficient income for the foundation to be free from political pressures while promoting reform in Muslim countries. I, as the founding President, will not accept any remuneration from the foundation, only re-imbursement for travel and out-of-pocket expenses. The endowment and income will support this initiative with a dedicated management and staff.

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