October 30, 2009

Islam by the numbers

Posted in International development at 1:46 pm by Eamon Aghdasi

I have a good grad school friend named Adam (not his real name) who’s from a predominantly Muslim country but is harshly critical of Islam. Like many countries in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, Adam’s country is developing but moving slowly in certain regards, and threatened by the possibility of catastrophic collapse. It is a burgeoning democracy, but (by most measures) suffers from poor governance and widespread corruption. It has millions of moderate, peaceful Muslim believers who care more about their families’ wellbeing than politics, yet violent islamists are growing in strength within the country.

Adam and I have a usual ironic pattern to our arguments. It usually involves him (Muslim, at least by family) arguing how terrible Islam is while I (not Muslim but very respectful of Islam) defend it. Usually the arguments are about some aspect of Islamic history or doctrine (for instance, where Adam will raise the example of some hadith where the Prophet Muhammad said such-and-such ridiculous thing, and she sheer ridiculousness allegedly proves Islam’s falsehood).

To Adam, though, Islam is not just a false religion, but it represents a movement and belief system that is actually harmful to his country’s progress. Recently, we argued over email from 8,000 miles apart about this, when Adam pointed out how poor female labor force participation is in many Muslim countries. This isn’t an opinion, but a fact; in reality, Muslim countries perform very poorly on a wide range of social indicators. Below is a scatter plot, just to provide a visual example, with World Bank Voice & Accountability scores on the y-axis, and the proportion of countries’ populations being Muslim on the x-axis. The downward sloping relationship is pretty visible here.


However, making the jump to the conclusion that Islam somehow causes these poor social outcomes (or anything else) is something that no sensible person, including Adam, would do. Adam’s argument was based both on the data and on anecdotal evidence from his own life. On the contrary, rather, it is possible (likely) that the prevalence of Islam happens to be correlated with some other factor that is driving these outcomes.

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