Has Islam Failed? Not by Western Standards

We hear over and over again that Islam has failed, that it is in crisis. The claims always involve comparing Islam to something else, though to what is often unclear. If ‘failed’ just means ‘hasn’t kept up with the West’, Islam has indeed failed. So has every other culture, except to the extent it has Westernized. And if a culture fails whenever it falls behind the economic or technological front runners, Italian culture has failed in relation to Japanese or American culture.

But if ‘failed’ means something else, what is that? Bernard Lewis says: “In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear that things had gone badly wrong in the Middle East–and, indeed, in all the lands of Islam. Compared with Christendom, its rival for more than a millennium, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant.” He also tells us that “Arab” nations rank poorly on a scale of “economic freedom”.

Even if we knew whether we were comparing the West or Christendom with The Middle East or the Arab World or the Muslim World, the terms of the comparison would be uncertain.

It is almost as if any parameter will do, as long as Islam comes out on the bottom: should my heart really swell with pride if I hear that my country has lots of ‘economic freedom’? Sometimes Islam seems to have failed primarily in areas where there is no consensus that it is good to succeed.

Should Egyptians envy the Americans their fine electoral system and the impressive leaders it produces?

Ought Tunisians to learn criminal justice from US courts and prisons?

Should impoverished Iranians yearn for the medical care they would get in America?

We needn’t be relativists when we compare civilizations. But it is one thing to insist on applying ‘Western values’ to practices such as slavery or female genital mutilation. It is quite another to suppose that Western values are whatever today’s ideologues declare them to be– economic freedom, for instance, as opposed to equally Western values like asceticism, environ-mentalism, socialism and communism. And it is something else again to compare Islamic realities, not with Western ones, but with America as it looks to patriotic bar-stool warmers after six beers.

Suppose, then, that we retain ‘Western values’, but spare ourselves the ideological claptrap about democracy and economic freedom. One Western value, I think, is that one should attempt some degree of objectivity when comparing cultures: if one cannot entirely avoid applying one’s own values, one can at least rely only on their most nearly uncontroversial, universal elements. This means avoiding even such apparently undoctrinaire measures as ‘average annual income’ (also a Lewis yardstick). What’s more important, after all, the average or the minimum? What if the average rises only because the rich get richer, despite immense suffering at the bottom of the scale? Western values oblige us to measure the success of society in genuinely moral rather than ideological terms.

If we insist on judging a whole civilization, three constraints might curb our arrogance. First, we should be looking at the basics–poverty, health, exposure to violence. For all the critics of Islam praise freedom and democracy, they offer as proof of their ideological pudding the allegedly superior capacity of non-Islamic societies to deliver these basics. Second, we should measure the success of society by how things are at the bottom of the social scale. Delivering the basics doesn’t mean much if you don’t deliver them to everyone, and even a dazzling civilization can’t be counted successful if it’s built on misery. Third, any judgements delivered must be strictly comparative. The issue isn’t whether Islam has failed to meet certain standards, but whether its failures are worse than those of Christianity.

The comparison, in this form, defines two civilizations by their adherence to two religions. Islam is being compared, not with the West–not with a region–but with Bernard Lewis’ ‘Christendom’. We could, it is true, compare the Islamic Middle East with Western Europe and the US. That would lead only to the unsurprising truth that the West, which actively colonized or occupied the Middle East for many years, did better. We would draw exactly the same conclusions if we compared the West with Latin America, or sub-Saharan Africa, or the Indian subcontinent. To compare regions is not to compare civilizations, and to single out a lagging Islamic region when there are many lagging non-Islamic regions is just plain dishonest. So a comparison of Lewis’ “all the lands of Islam” with ‘all the lands of Christendom’, which focuses on civilizations rather than regions, seems more likely to transcend particular regional problems and advantages. We will say something about the Middle East versus the West later.

To make the comparison, let’s look at some numerical indicators of well-being, as well as some recent history: you can’t very well assess well-being within a culture or society without looking at the wars they have experienced. The idea is to see whether Islam is worse than Christianity at protecting people from the worst things in life. I’ll base the initial comparison on UN statistics. These seem to be the best available, though they have one drawback: for each parameter, the UN figures offer information on a slightly different batch of countries.

The UN offers some ‘millennium indicators’ of material well-being, including health. (There are 48 indicators in all, including HIV incidence, condom use, malaria incidence, educational indicators, market access, internet use, and so on. I have selected some of the ones most directly related to material well-being. The reader can readily verify that my selection is not slanted to favor Islam.) The figures will be integrated with information about the religions of the countries listed, compiled from the Information Please Almanac and the CIA World Factbook. To start, take infant mortality rates for the latest year available, 2000. Do these figures make Islam look worse than Christendom?

Here are figures for the 27 countries whose infant mortality rate is a horrific 10% or more, i.e., at least 100. (This cutoff doesn’t skew anything; the next three countries are not Islamic.)

Infant mortality rate (0-1 year) per 1,000 live births (UNICEF estimates), 2000

Sierra Leone
Islam 40%, Christian 35%,
Other 20%

Roman Catholic 47%,
Protestant 38%, Other 15%

Islam (167 in 1990
under secular ruler Najibullah)

Islam 80%, Animist
and Christian 20%

other 40%, Christian 40%,
Islam 20%



other 65%, Islam 30%, Christian 5%

Roman Catholic 50%, Protestant 20%,
Kimbanguist 10%, Islam 10%

other 60%, Christian 30%, Islam 10%


Islam 44%, Christian 33%, other 23%

Ethiopia [from

Christian 75%, Islam 20%

Central African
Christian (other influence) 50%,
Islam 15%, other 35%

Roman Catholic 62%, Protestant 5%,
other 32%

Islam 85%, other 7%, Christian 8%

Christian 50%-75%, Islam and
Hindu 24%-49%, other 1%

Islam 50%, Christian 40%,
other 10%

Burkina Faso
Islam 50%, Christian (mainly Roman
Catholic) 10%, other 40%


Christian 40%, Islam 33%

Equatorial Guinea
predominantly Christian
with pagan practices

Cote d’Ivoire
other 60%, Islam 23%,
Christian 17%


Christian 60%, other 40%

Roman Catholic 56%, Protestant 18%,
Islam 1%, Other 25%

Certainly the Islamic religion figures prominently among those states with high infant mortality, but Islamic civilization does not. Sierra Leone, for instance, was not only a British colony from 1808 to 1961, but also a seat of British administrative and education institutions for the region. Its current misery is due largely to the “reign of terror” (Infoplease) of Catholic-educated Johnny Paul Koroma, now a born-again Christian. Afghanistan’s infant morality rate was even worse under the secular, Western rule of Russian-backed Najibullah; Iraq’s is a result of Western sanctions policies and Saddam Hussein’s secular, Westernized rule. Otherwise, every single state on the list with a substantial Islamic population has been a Christian colony or protectorate for much of its history. More purely Islamic states, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Lybia, are nowhere to be found. Nothing here suggests that the worst infant mortality rates are found in the Islamic rather than in the Christian world.

Suppose then we look at something perhaps even more basic: nutrition, specifically those undernourished as percentage of total population. For simplicity’s sake we’ll consider only the worst ten cases. Again, readers can easily consult the original source to verify that this abbreviated view doesn’t distort the comparison.

Nutrition, undernourished as percentage of total population (FAO estimates 1998-2000 average)





80% Islamic population: anti-Islamic government

not predominantly Islamic; long Christian rule

not predominantly Islamic; long Christian rule



mainly Christian

Nothing here suggests that Islam is particularly bad at nourishing its people.

What of poverty? There are UN figures on the percentage of population who consume less than $1 a day.

‘Poverty, percentage of population below $1 (PPP) per day consumption (WB)’ (1998 figures when available, otherwise 1999, indicated with *)

Mainly Christian


Christian 41%,
Islam 7%, other 52%

Islam 30%, Christian 24%,
other 38%



El Salvador




Again the figures give no support whatever to the ‘failure of Islam’ hypothesis. (Admittedly the list is very incomplete–where are the poverty-stricken Christian states of Haiti and Ethiopia?–but not, I believe, unrepresentative.)

Sanitation is another relatively uncontroversial indicator of how well a society is doing. This time I’ll list the twelve worst, because the last three on the list are tied.

Sanitation, percentage of population with access to improved sanitation, total (WHO-UNICEF 2000)



[from 1993]

not predominantly Islamic;
long Christian rule




Christian 15%, Islam 15%,
other 70%

Central African
Christian (animist influence) 50%,
Islam 15%, other 35%


predominantly Hindu

predominantly Hindu

Islam is certainly no standout in this hall of shame.

Note that for individual countries, these indicators work very well. Haiti, Burundi, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Ethiopia would, as expected, score much lower on all of them than Britain, France, Switzerland, and the US. Pretty much anyone, regardless of religion or culture, would agree that the low scorers are doing worse than the high scorers. If we were comparing democracy, or freedom, or ignorance, we couldn’t get anything like the same consensus: Cuba or Saudi Arabia are doubtless less democratic than Mexico or Argentina, but not everyone would be sure which are the failed societies.

So on these non-ideological measures of well-being, Islam is no failure in comparison with ‘Christendom’. Indeed Christendom, with its economic dominance and technological superiority, might well be considered more reprehensible in its failures to provide for its poor. Another relatively unbiased but somewhat less materialistic measure would be the degree of violence in a society. One indicator is the murder rates, and the countries with high ones are overwhelmingly Christian. But since murder statistics are debatable, we might also want to survey the propensity of these two civilizations to generate wars. In recent times, if there any failure, it is Christianity. It is not just(!) that ‘Christendom’ has produced two world wars, and Hitler. The postwar period is hardly more encouraging. There is the Korean war, in which Christians but not Muslims played a central role, the Vietnam War which accounts for the deaths of as many as four million people, and terrible civil or colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola. Nor are the death tolls simply a function of Western technology: the horrendous low-tech killing in Rwanda and now in the Congo are thoroughly Christian. On the Islamic side, not much is in the same league. There is the Iran-Iraq war, instigated by secular, Westernized, Iraq. The Lebanese civil war involved both cultures, as does Algeria’s colonial past and, to a lesser extent, its present. So Islam, compared either to the West or to Christianity, has far less killing on its conscience.

What about internal repression? The great killing of Communists in predominantly Muslim Indonesia took place, not as part of some fundamentalist upsurge, but within the context of ongoing American cold-war interference. As for Syria and Iraq, Bernard Lewis himself says that

If you look, for example, at the regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of the late Hafez el-Asad in Syria, these are not part of the Islamic or Arab tradition; they are the results of European influence and the Europeanization of the Middle East, sometimes also called modernization or Westernization. (Truman News, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Volume V, Issue 1 March 1, 2003)

Iran is certainly Islamic, but it inherited its brutal secret police from its very Westernized and US-sponsored Shah. Though undeniably horrible cruelties are perpetrated throughout the Muslim world, Christianity–even forgetting that Hitler business– easily matches these in the recent past of Haiti, Greece, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa, Peru, Ethiopia, and many only slightly less vicious Christian dictatorships. And though none of these ‘Christian’ régimes deserve to be called Christian, their crimes are entirely the product of Christian civilization. The crimes of ‘Islamic’ régimes, by contrast, have in most cases important links to non-Islamic, indeed to ‘Christian’ influences.

So compared to Christendom, Islam doesn’t seem to have failed. What if it is instead compared to the West? Certainly on most measures of material well-being (but not of violence), the West triumphs. Yet virtually no one claims Christianity enabled the West to come out ahead, because the rise of the West coincides with the often violent fragmentation of Christianity and the spread of secularism.

‘Experts’ and pundits prefer to attribute Western dominance to democracy. But the West did not exactly elect itself into the lead: it triumphed largely because of its progress in science and technology. And it is a bit odd to see Western success as a failure of Islam, as if Muslims had contracted some strange mental disease: every other civilization fell equally far behind. In any case, can the West’s progress be attributed to democracy? Not likely, because its scientific and technological dominance came first.

The first major advances that put the West ahead included the astronomy of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler, the explorations of Columbus and Magellan, and the mathematics of Pascal and Fermat. All these occurred before there was the slightest hint of democracy. The English provided the impetus for a second wave of discovery and invention. It developed when the power of the monarchy had been reduced, but certainly before England could be called democratic: the vote excluded women, a large segment of the lower classes, and was in any case so corrupt and manipulated that no one considered it even remotely representative. This only began to be corrected with the First Reform Bill of 1832. Even by 1867, less than 10% of the adult population could vote, and real democracy came only in the early 20th century. Yet before 1832 we get Napier’s logarithms, Snell’s law of refraction, Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood, the calculus of Newton, the economics of Adam Smith, Herschel’s discovery of Uranus, Hutton’s uniformitarianism, Priestly’s discovery of oxygen, Jenner’s smallpox vaccinations, and Dalton’s laws. In technology, we have Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, James Watt’s steam engine, Cartwright’s power loom, Whitney’s cotton gin, Fulton’s steamboat, Stephenson’s locomotive engine, and the first railroad. This activity is complemented on the not even nominally democratic continent by Bernouilli’s work on probability and fluid mechanics, Michel and Montgolfier’s hot air balloon, Berthollet’s chemical nomenclature, Volta’s battery, Ampère’s work on electricity, Gauss’ and Lobachevsky’s mathematics, Avogadro’s chemistry, and Ampere’s force law.

All the subsequent progress of the 19th century and beyond, up to and including the theory of relativity, occurred before the institution of women’s suffrage (1919) and truly universal suffrage (1928), and therefore before the existence of any ‘democracy’ in the modern sense of the term. (This fact weakens another claim, namely that Islam’s treatment of women was a contributor to its relative underdevelopment.) It is also worth noting that when England eliminated famine in the 1620’s and France around 1709, both countries were securely in the grip of absolutism. (As for literary and cultural achievement, no one claims that the West first flowered in its democratic phase.) So if the comparison is between the Middle East and the West, it is far more plausible to attribute the West’s lead to the formation of cohesive, undemocratic nation states than to the progress of democratic societies. This certainly fits the story of Germany, a scientific and technological giant throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, known otherwise for the conspicuous failure of its democracy.

So if Islam has fallen behind the West, it is not because of either Christianity or democracy, and in this respect Islam is no different from any non-Western culture. Whatever caused the West’s incredible technological surge in the 17th and 18th centuries, the reasons are bound to be big, complex, and, well, un-American. This is not at all the sort of ‘going wrong’ Lewis and others are after. But suppose we make the comparison Lewis may really want us to make: the Islamic Middle East with the West. Suppose too that we look, not at whether democracy accounts for ‘Western success’, but simply at whether Islam has done as well as the West. Can we then say that Islam has failed?

Only, I think, if we resort to a subterfuge in defining “The West”. Certainly if the expression is restricted to Western Europe and the United States, Islam will fare poorly by many standards of well-being, though not, once again, by measures of violence. And Eastern Europe might be excluded because it was so long under ‘non-Western’ Soviet rule. But there is certainly another part of the world that should be counted as belonging to the West, and that is Latin America. It was under Western (mainly Spanish and Portuguese) rule for centuries. It has been a declared sphere of US influence since 1823, a major focus of 19th century British investment, a thoroughly Christian region, and the beneficiary of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Almost all its countries, at some points in their histories, have been democracies. Its cultural outlook is overwhelmingly Western, as are its languages. But once it’s included, things don’t look so good for the West. Minimal levels of well-being in Middle Eastern countries are on the whole higher than in, say, Colombia, Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and now Argentina. In the recent annals of violence and repression, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Paraguay, Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala figure as prominently as Algeria, Iraq, or Iran, and much more prominently than that perennial favorite of liberal head-shakers, Egypt. And, since we’re considering the Islamic Middle East, note that the most repressive Middle Eastern countries have all experienced long and pervasive Western influence: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the former French colony of Algeria, Westernized Turkey, and the erstwhile US client, Iran. The same may be said of Afghanistan, perhaps the worst-off Middle Eastern country in material terms. The much ‘purer’ and often fundamentalist Gulf states come out much better than the West (including Latin America), even if we look at averages rather than minima. So once again, the failure of Islam has slipped away.

Perhaps Islamic civilization, like Christian civilization, has failed according to some more or less objective standards. But in relative terms, it has not. It does no worse than Christendom in providing for its own. In its most degraded impulses, it has no cruelties to teach the civilization responsible for Auschwitz and Hiroshima. And if the comparison is between Western technological success and the relative backwardness of Islam, nothing suggests that democratic or Christian values are involved. More likely, the civilization that almost took Vienna in 1683 simply rested on its wealth and laurels until it was too late. That Islam ‘has failed’ in some morally significant and comparative sense is an illusion induced by looking at the world in the fun-house mirrors of free-market demagogues.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.


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Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com

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