Are Islam's Values Really Different?

In the year since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 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 20th century's major conflicts - with fascism, communism, and other "isms" - were primarily ideological, the terrorism of last September 11th 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.

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?

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