After the Charlie Hebdo murders the rift between "Islam" and "the West" has deepened. A US-Iranian academic tells DW why the society prescribed in the Koran is closer to Western democracy than the Saudi dictatorship.
It was one of the more eye-catching headlines of last year - "Ireland is more faithful to the Koran than Saudi Arabia," the Irish Journal reported in June. As one commentator pointed out, this would come as a surprise to Peter Robinson, the first minister of Northern Ireland just across the border, who had to apologize last year after calling Islam "evil."
The article was on a new academic study by two Iranian-born academics at George Washington University in the US, which suggested that the socio-economic systems in most Western European countries were closer to the system prescribed in the Koran than almost any country with Muslim majorities.
Drawing up a complicated set of socio-economic indices based on their reading of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammad's life, the two academics produced a league table that put Ireland, Denmark, and Luxembourg in the top three places, and Saudi Arabia, which is run according to a particularly conservative strain of Islamic doctrine, in 93rd place. The highest Muslim-majority country on the table was Malaysia, in 33rd.
The study took pains to leave out the "core personal Islamic beliefs," (the fundamental axioms about the unity of God and his personal agency of Mohammad) as this would "bias the results against non-Muslim countries." Instead, the study's authors Scheherazade Rehman and Hossein Askari focused on the parts of the Koran that dealt with governance, the legal structure, human rights, international relations, and the economy.
An Islamic economy
The way Askari describes it, the Koran is as much a practical guide as an ideological tract. "Islam is a rules-based system - for almost everything there is a rule [in the Koran]," he told DW. Those rules don't just prescribe personal behavior, they also lay out a system of government and economy that is, according to Askari's complex set of indices, closer to the capitalist, democratic West than the oppressive dictatorships that rule many nominally "Muslim" countries.
"Muslim is undoubtedly a market-based system," Askari said. "The Prophet Mohammad actually set up markets in Medina. He set up rules for markets. He advocated that for its efficiency." But while he might have supported a regulated market, Mohammad also wanted a fair society. "In Islam if there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, then you have got to share," he said. "This is in addition to all the taxes that are mandated within Islam."
Not that Mohammad was a socialist - the Islamic economy Askari reads in the Bible does not require a system to force rich people to give to the poor, but a degree of personal responsibility. In short, the result of the study was that the society the Koran offered was essentially a social economy with a rule of law, not unlike the Christian, social democracies across Western Europe.
Mistrust never deeper
The study could not be further from what most Western Europeans think of Islam - particularly in Germany, where weekly demonstrations in Dresden and elsewhere have been protesting what they consider the "Islamization of the West." A new survey published a day after the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in France found that Germans have rarely been more distrustful of Islam. According to the Bertelsmann foundation's study, 57 percent of Germans see Islam as a threat, while 24 percent would like to see Muslims prevented from migrating into the country altogether. Not only that, the sentiment is growing: in 2012, 52 percent of Germans said that Islam does not fit into the West - but in 2014 that number has grown to 61 percent.
To Askari, there is a deep misperception of Islam in the West. "The Western world is under the impression that Islam is what they want to believe, but the Islam they see in these countries - that's not Islam!" he says.
The problem lies as much with the Muslim-majority world as with the West - Muslim countries themselves have lost sight of what Islam is. "It's crazy," said Askari. "You go there, and there are competitions and a six-year-old can recite the Koran. He doesn't know what it means. The reason why I got into this whole thing, is that if you look at all the Muslim countries in the world, they do not do what is practiced. Islam is not about just going to pray five times a day, going to Mecca - the important things are the outcomes, and that is social and economic justice."
Egyptian scholar Mohammad Abduh, traveling to Europe in the late 19th century, summed it up with a neat adage: "I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam."
"The religion was basically hijacked after the death of the prophet, because if you look at the things that he talked about, they are not practiced in these countries. They need to change and create better economic systems. The Prophet said that if you have poverty in a society, that by definition is not an Islamic society."