Islam and Political Freedom

by John Walker
22nd November 2015

There have been a number of contentious discussions about admitting refugees from the conflicts in the Muslim world, the immigration of Muslims in general, and admitting Muslim visitors, students, and guest workers on temporary visas. An undercurrent in many of these discussions is whether Islam (whether defined by religion, culture, or the majority religion of country of origin) is in some way incompatible with individual liberty and political freedom as defined in the West.

I decided to crunch some numbers on this.

Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life project published a table of Muslim Population by Country, giving the percent Muslim population as of 2010 for 232 countries and territories. Freedom House publishes an annual report on Freedom in the World, which ranks 210 countries and territories on political rights and civil liberties on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free) and assigns a composite rating of “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” I used the 2015 report, which ranks as of the end of 2014.

(The distinction between a country and territory is not always clear-cut, and may differ between the tabulations. Examples of territories listed by Freedom House are the Gaza Strip, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Western Sahara. Some countries and territories which appear in one list do not appear in the other. The following analysis considers only those that appear in both.)

I combined the data from the two sources and sorted the countries and territories (henceforth called just “countries”) into quintiles based upon the percentage of their Muslim population: the first quintile is those with more than 80 percent Muslim and the fifth quintile those with less than 20 percent. I then compared the Freedom House ranking for these countries by quintile, as shown in the following table.

Quintile % Muslim Countries Free Partly Free Not Free
1 100–80 36 2 (6%) 13 (36%) 20 (56%)
2 80–60 5 0 (0%) 2 (40%) 3 (60%)
3 60–40 8 0 (0%) 5 (63%) 3 (38%)
4 40–20 7 2 (29%) 3 (43%) 2 (29%)
5 20–0 132 82 (62%) 31 (23%) 19 (14%)

Of the 36 countries with 80 percent or more Muslim population, just two (6 percent) are ranked as free and 56 percent are considered not free. Of the 132 countries with 20 percent or less Muslim population, 62 percent are considered free and only 14 percent are deemed not free. If you look at the “Not Free” column, with the exception of quintile 2 with a small sample size of 5, there is a monotonic decrease in the fraction of not-free countries with the fraction of Muslim population. Only four countries ranked “Free” have a Muslim population in excess of 20 percent.

Now, there are lots of ways to do this kind of analysis. I counted countries, while others may prefer weighting by population. In the fifth quintile, not-free China counts equal to free Liechtenstein when counting by country. The mean political rights score for the first quintile was 5.2 and the civil rights score was 5.1 (recall that 1 is most free and 7 is least free). For the fifth quintile both mean scores were 2.6.

One interesting result in this tabulation is how bimodal the distribution of countries is by the percent of their Muslim population. A total of 36 countries are 80% Muslim or more, and 132 countries are 20% Muslim or less, but only 20 countries fall into the middle three quintiles: 20–80% Muslim.