Are Islam's Values Really Different?

In the year since the terrorist attacks of September 11 th , questions about Islam - its nature, its distinctive identity, its potential threat to the West - have seized center stage in intellectual and political debates. While the 20 th century's major conflicts - with fascism, communism, and other "isms" - were primarily ideological, the terrorism of last September 11 th posed anew the specter of "culture wars" and "clashes of civilizations."

It is often claimed in the Islamic world that, because one of the five fundamental duties of a Muslim is Zakat (charity to the poor), Islamic society is less atomistic, which limits inequality and social exclusion. At the same time, Western observers often see in Islam a faith that disdains personal freedom, especially for women. Oriana Fallaci published a long rant along this line shortly after the attacks.

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Facts on the ground do seem to support these perceptions. Muslim countries do tend to be characterized by lower levels of inequality and crime (a good proxy for social exclusion) than other countries at similar stages of economic development, such as those in Catholic Latin America. But do cold statistics about average income really tell us anything significant?

Not according to the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who suggests that particular social outcomes (including income levels) result from the fact that countries are at different stages in a modernization process within which everyone and every society is converging towards a set of universal values. Harvard University's Samuel Huntington also thinks such comparisons wrong-headed, but disagrees with Fukuyama on the diagnosis.

Huntington sees something sinister at work within Islam - that Islam's social outcomes reflect, not its level of modernity, but the tenets of its faith. Because of Islam's messianic fusion of the political, religious and cultural dimensions, says Huntington, the West and Islam are destined to "clash" because the two systems are fundamentally irreconcilable.

But if we want to discover the role that a religion like Islam plays in determining a society's fundamental shape, we can indeed be led astray by making comparisons between different countries or global regions. We need to look at individuals within an individual country to understand the true power of "Islamic values" in shaping a society. To do so, we need a country with deep religious cleavages between Islam and Christianity and, unlike America's "melting pot," limited mixing among social groups.

Two studies that I conducted with colleagues at the University of Beirut use Lebanon to examine the relationship between religion and such social and cultural characteristics as inequality, preference for sons, and the degree of female labor market participation. Lebanon is an ideal social laboratory because it has a large number of geographically segregated religious groups and strongly enforced communal boundaries.

Indeed, more than religion divides the population. Some Lebanese see themselves as Phoenicians rather than as Arabs, and claim closer cultural affinity to France than to the Arab world.

We examined Christian Maronites (who hold beliefs akin to those of Roman Catholicism), Muslim Sunnis (the official religion of most Arab countries), and Muslim Shiites (the official religion of Iran and of Lebanon's Hizbullah movement), and found no evidence of lower inequality among Muslims or less discrimination against women among Christians. Were Islamic values as fateful as Huntington suggests, there should have been sharp differences in inequality and the treatment of women between these communities. There were not.

Our study of religion and social inequality in Lebanon examined social mobility rather than overall inequality. This is because societies in which opportunities and inequality are inherited are considered to be less fair than societies in which family background is less important. Social mobility in Lebanon, it seems, is extremely low and family background is a key factor in determining social outcomes.

This may explain why Lebanese college graduates of all faiths often include the name and profession of their parents in their resumes, or why one of the first Arabic words that a foreigner learns after settling in Lebanon is wasta (connections). Moreover, the Christian Maronite and the Muslim Shiite upper and middle classes tend to have similar levels of social mobility. In both groups social mobility is higher than among Sunni Muslims. Another mark against the notion of Islam's overwhelming power to determine a society's prevailing conditions.

The position of women also does not seem to be primarily determined by adherence to Islam. Indeed, we found that all Lebanese families strongly prefer sons over daughters. Families that have two daughters are 9% more likely to have a third child than families that have two sons. Statistically, this is a huge difference - nine times larger than in the US.

Indeed, just as our initial research uncovered no evidence of relative Muslim egalitarianism, we discovered no major difference between preference for sons among Christians and Muslims. If anything, bias toward males is stronger in Christian families.

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The same holds true for female labor market participation, which in Lebanon is low but uniform across religious groups. While this does not guarantee that no relationship exists between religion and discrimination against women, it suggests that if such a tie does exist, it is unrelated to female labor market participation or preference for sons.

Of course, disproving the idea that different countries have different values is impossible. After all, Lebanon does have low social mobility, low female labor market participation, and a strong preference for sons, while other countries do not. Our work, however, strongly supports Fukuyama's theory that cultures and values take a back seat to the level of a country's modernity in determining its social conditions. So if the Islamic world is different from the West, it is so because it is backward, not because it is Muslim.