KUALA LUMPUR, June 19 — Malaysia was ranked 43rd out of 149 in the recently-released index that measures how “Islamic” a country is, but its founder Hossein Askari said the country was the best-performing among all Muslim-majority countries.
Speaking to Malay Mail about the 2022 edition of the Islamicity Index, the academic said Malaysia performed the best in the economic sector but still has a long way to go to become more “Islamic” with regard to human rights.
“The surveys on Malaysia, among other factors, cite a number of deficiencies: arbitrary arrests, freedom of the press, persecution of journalists, freedom of human rights organisations, harsh prison conditions, internet restrictions, freedom of religious affiliation, corrupt government officials and most importantly that the judiciary is not independent from the government,” he said in a recent interview.
In 2022’s index, European country Denmark topped the list with a score of 8.87, followed by Ireland (8.83), the Netherlands (8.78), Sweden (8.74) and Iceland (8.72).
The worst-performing countries were: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.59), Chad (1.59), Sudan (1.21), Afghanistan (1.07) and Syria (0.89).
In comparison, Malaysia scored 6.29.
Out of the 149 countries, Malaysia had its highest rank of 24th when it comes to international relations with a score of 7.23, followed by 30th in economic (7.08) and 48th in legal and governance (6.24). It was placed a measly 68th in political rights with a score of 5.08.
Regarding Malaysia’s deficiencies, Askari, the president of the Islamicity Foundation, said the country could do more to stamp out corruption.
“While Malaysia is again among the best Muslim countries when it comes to the rule of law, it still can do much more to keep the legal system fair and just and outside the corrupt meddling of politicians,” he noted.
Another measure it could take to increase its score in the human and political rights category is to “improve its system of governance to be more responsive to the aspirations of all citizens and giving them a voice in the government, no matter their race, ethnicity or religion,” he added.
He explained that justice is at the heart of Islam and there was no place in the religion for discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity or religion.
“Everyone must be treated the same and given an equal chance to succeed in life,” he said.
Differentiating Islamic rituals and teaching
Malaysia has remained stable over the years when it comes to its position in the index, Askari said.
Checks have shown that Malaysia generally hovers around the 43rd position, with a record high of 39th place in 2021 and a low of 47th in 2018.
“Malaysia’s performance has been quite stable over time, except for a few bumps in the road, most notably in its legal and governance standing around 2015. Otherwise, there have been no major disruptions,” he said.
In 2015, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal involving former prime minister Najib Razak and Low Taek Jho came to light.
In his report accompanying the 2022 index, Askari noted that performing Islamic rituals should not be confused with carrying out the teachings of Islam — which his index measure.
“Unfortunately, Muslims have been duped by clerics and rulers to focus on rituals, refrain from questions and discussions to better comprehend the inner message of their religion and leave everything in the hands of those in power,” the economist wrote.
He added due to this political situation, Muslim countries today are not seen as upholding justice and freedom that are demanded by the religion demands.
Commenting on this, he told Malay Mail that the implementation of Islamic authorities such as the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) may be good in theory but counterproductive in practice.
“When I look back on history of Islam, I cannot help but conclude that religious authorities and scholars have been coopted by rulers/those in power/governments to use religion as a weapon of control — to indoctrinate the people to follow the dictates of the those in power and not ask questions about the inner meaning of their faith,” he said in the interview.
Such a practice leads to the stifling of debates and discussions and the prioritising of rituals over institutions that Islam recommends, he said.
“This is unhealthy and how many Muslim countries have been labelled as despotic,” he said.
Instead, he proposed that Muslims be encouraged to seek the counsel of religious scholars who have no links to rulers or authorities so that discussions and debates can happen freely “to reach a consensus on the application of Islamic teachings in an evolving world”.
Where do other Muslim nations place?
Askari said the index by the Islamicity Foundation is meant to illustrate what a country that followed Islamic teachings would look like, and to gain a sense of the landscape and characteristics of such a country.
“Also, we wanted to be in a position to compare Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Namely, which countries had developed the landscape, that is the institutions, recommended in and compatible with Islam,” he said.
According to 2022’s index, the next Muslim countries — which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — after Malaysia were Albania (46th place), the United Arab Emirates (48th place) and Qatar (56th place).
On average, the median rank for Muslim countries was 110.5th place with a median score of 3.4. The worst-performing four countries were all Muslim-majority.
“Muslim majority countries perform badly — they do not follow and practice the important teachings of Islam to build flourishing institutions in support of justice, freedom, equality, sound economic management and rulers answerable to the people,” Askari wrote in his note.
In the Islamicity Index, countries are scored according to their performance in four categories: economic, legal and governance, human and political rights, and international relations.
Each of these elements was broken down into sub-elements that describe the characteristics of a rule-abiding Muslim community.
For example, sub-elements under the economic category were: economic opportunity and freedom, equal access to education and healthcare, job creation and equal access to employment, property rights and the sanctity of contracts, prevention of corruption, and provision of property and aid and basic human needs.
The sub-elements could be broken down further such as with economic opportunity and freedom, under which sub-sub-elements such as gender equality, economic regulation, ease of doing business, economic freedom, and business and market freedom were included.
Born in Iran, Askari is an academic who has taught in the fields of economics, international business and Middle Eastern studies at various universities in the United States. He had previously served on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund and as a special adviser to the Minister of Finance of Saudi Arabia.
Founded in 2018, the Islamicity Foundation has Malaysian banker Liza Mydin as one of its member and Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram on its advisory board.