By one measure, just 3% of Muslims live in countries that are freer than the world average
In his writings Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish-born author and columnist has argued there is no logical reason why Islam should not thrive in conditions of personal liberty. After all, in a much-debated verse, the Koran insists that “there is no compulsion in religion”. But the reality of the Islamic world is drearily repressive, and has in some ways been getting worse, according to a report he has just published for the Cato Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. It looks mainly at 51 countries where Muslims form at least a plurality of the population.
Only 60m of the world’s 1.9bn Muslims live in countries where the general level of personal freedom is greater than the global mean, while more than 1.8bn live in places where liberty levels are clearly below average, he finds. To reach this conclusion he uses the Human Freedom Index, which his think-tank has developed in collaboration with two others. It measures a range of entitlements, including freedom of movement, expression, identity, recourse to law and of course, religion.
The 60m total is based on aggregating, to 30m, the smallish populations of the handful of Muslim countries which score fairly well on freedom—Albania, Bosnia, Burkina Faso and Kyrgyzstan—and then adding the 30m or so Muslims who live in Western democracies. Far down the other end of the scale are authoritarian states, like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and countries which have been convulsed by internal conflict: Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In between are the populous Asian giants with more Muslims than any other countries (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) which are all nominal democracies, but all of which fall below the index average. It is striking that women’s rights seem best observed in formerly communist countries which, although they may not be free in all respects, have at least retained secular law codes. These include Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Mr Akyol laments the “dramatic deterioration” in all kinds of liberty over the past decade in Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. He finds a more nuanced, and less depressing, picture when it comes to economic freedom: the right to offer goods and services without excessive state interference. On this measure, monarchies (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates) do better than the global mean, whereas republics established in a burst of republican zeal, such as Algeria and Egypt, score dismally.
Whether their regimes are traditional or secular, Muslim countries in the Middle East and north Africa are generally less free than those in say, central Asia or parts of west Africa. All this adds poignancy to the last article written by the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, entitled “What the Arab world needs most is free expression.” It was published posthumously in the Washington Post in October 2018, shortly after his murder in Istanbul, in his own country’s consulate.
This essay was first published in The Economist, London.