The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Understanding Corruption

What is corruption? The answer depends on who you’re asking, and where you’re asking it.

Published on March 1, 2010

Gathered in the guest room of a Berber friend’s house in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco after the Friday prayers, Hussein turned from the assembled village men and asked me: “Is there corruption in America?”

“Yes”, I answered.

“Give us an example”, he gently inquired.

So, as the room quieted, I gave an example of a kickback arrangement. “Ah, no”, said Hussein, as the others’ heads shook in unison, “that is just buying and selling.” So I mentioned the Watergate scandal. “No, no”, Hussein replied to common assent, “that is just politics.” So I gave an example of nepotism. “No, no, no”, all voices cried out, “that is just family solidarity.” So, as I struggled to think of an example that would maintain the honor of my country for being every bit as corrupt as anyone else’s, Hussein turned to the others and said, with genuine admiration: “You see why America is so strong—the Americans have no corruption!”

A few years later I attended a meeting with workers from “buildings and grounds” to explain the anti-nepotism rules our university committee had proposed. One after another, the workers expressed concern. “What do you mean I can’t hire a fishing buddy’s kid or my nephew?” said one. “Often guys don’t show up on time or at all, but if the kid is my nephew and he doesn’t get here or pull his weight, I’ll go to my brother who will see to it the kid shapes up. If I don’t have that kind of hook in a guy, how am I ever going to be sure he will do his work?” To the bafflement of my colleagues on the university committee, none of whom had any experience with how many large city governments in the United States actually work—let alone any familiarity with Moroccans—all of the workers present heartily agreed.

English-language dictionaries define corruption as “morally degraded”, “debased in character”, or “the perversion of an original state of purity.” But you do not have to be an unrepentant relativist, or even to have experienced an undergraduate course in anthropology, to suspect that this definition begs many questions. When, for example, I asked the men in Hussein’s village, as I have so many in the Arab world, what passes for corruption in their view, I always receive the same answer: Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence. Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty. It is a world in which the separation of impersonal institutions from personal attachments is very scarce. Failure to service such attachments is thus regarded as not only stupid but corrupt.

This is, of course, rather different than the American view of corruption. We mean by the term the influencing of the performance of a public duty—meant to be carried out in accordance with objective, impersonal protocols—for personal ends. The position trumps the individual who holds it. More generally, we mean by corruption disrupting “the level playing field” owed to all as citizens equal under the law. And bathed in the glow of our Enlightenment universalism, we take it as second nature that it is everywhere the same.

It is not. Whether in the United States or the Middle East there may be, of course, subtle commonalities affecting corruption. Debt may entail fear, as one may have to accept less than was bargained for, or one may become obliged in ways that cannot be fulfilled—both of which may lead to cutting some corners. So, too, the cost of favoritism may simply be passed along, “a supplementary tax in disguise”—whether it is in the mafia control of the waste removal and construction businesses, or the more genteel pricing of pharmaceuticals and aircraft. But it is invariably the local pattern of corruption—its connections among a wide range of distinctive social, religious, economic and political factors—that shapes its meaning and public policy implications. As these patterns differ, so these shapes and meanings differ.

Nowhere are the cultural features of corruption more important to understand than in our current political aims in the Middle East and the wider Muslim-majority world. And that is why it has been simply breathtaking that in recent months U.S. officials (at least one of whom knows very well how major U.S. cities are run) have somehow been able to use the word “corruption” in sentences also including such words as “Afghanistan” and “Karzai”, remaining all the while oblivious to what one would have thought was an obvious truth.

There is an Arab saying: “God loves those who hide their sins.” It sounds hypocritical to most Western ears, but for the Arabs it implies that it is only when a private act adversely affects others’ nested sets of relationships that it becomes a matter of public concern. Traditionally, therefore, unlawful sex was regarded as socially disruptive only if it could be verified by four eyewitnesses—the juridical standard of proof required under sharia for punishment. A man carrying a bottle of liquor under his cloak could not be faulted since no relationships are affected so long as the forbidden substance remains unseen. The very terms for corruption in Arabic convey its capacity to disrupt: fasad, which means to dirty or prostitute, may originally have implied something so rotted from within that it can no longer be used as a support, while a common term for a bribe, reshwa, originally meant water drawn from a well with a bucket, in contrast to the more natural flow of a stream.

Most important, however, is the concept of fitna, a term that properly translates as “chaos.” Through its added meanings of “temptation”, “fascination” and “disbelief”, it implies not only risky allure and political disaffection but the dissolution of all those ties that hold society together. Society is thus conceived as being somewhat like an electrical system in which it is the relation of pluses and minuses perpetually darting about that holds the system together. To render everything static, and therefore equal, is like pulling the plug. Even the Quran refers to this life as a sport, or a game, in which it is the running imbalance of ties, regularized by keeping to one’s contracts and sustained by sharing with one’s momentary allies, that alone preserves “the community of believers” from destruction (Sura 6:82 and 57:19).

This premonitory fear of social chaos, underscored in sacred texts and common perception over many centuries, is reflected in various usages. Ask Americans what the opposite of tyranny is and most will undoubtedly say “freedom” or “liberty.” Ask the same question of Arabs and they will reply “chaos.” Many sayings support this contrast: “Tyranny is preferable to chaos”; “an unjust government is better even than corruption”; “to make a person live in chaos is worse than killing him.” This is the context in which corruption, understood as the failure to share with one’s dependents, becomes the fearful solvent that renders social ties vulnerable to dissociation and death.

Seen from this perspective, forms of interdependence that Westerners would regard as corrupt are commonly regarded in the Arab and much of the wider Muslim worlds as constitutive of a workable preservation of social order. It was Hussein who, in his characteristically sardonic but utterly serious view of politics, once surprised me by saying: “You know, bribery is our form of democracy.”

“Really?”, I said, “Explain to me please how that works.”

“Well”, he replied, “if the big man says do such-and-such but someone below him is bribed to do otherwise, isn’t that a check on the power of the big man, and isn’t the point of democracy that it be a system of limited powers?” Indeed, to some, bribery and favoritism are essential to the working of the state. In the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Corruption a bureaucrat tries to convince a reluctant colleague to accept gratuities:

Everyone knows that most salaries are symbolic. The state knows it. It closes its eyes. It has to; otherwise there would be a revolution. Citizens participate in whatever ways are available to them to fill the gaps. It’s normal. It’s a national consensus, a balancing mechanism. The whole trick is to do it discreetly, even elegantly if possible. What you are placing in the realm of morality and what you call corruption I choose to call a parallel economy—it isn’t even underground, it’s a necessity.

As an aspect of the political, then, corruption highlights the inherent weakness and immorality of the state amid far stronger and, in the Middle East, often tribal societies.1 For it is only in relations of negotiated reciprocity—relations that partake of the face-to-face contact by which men assess one another’s reliability and obligational bonds—that a relationship of trust can be forged. But the state is non-reciprocity incarnate: You cannot have a personalized relationship with so faceless an entity. “Injustice can be committed only by persons who have power and authority”, said Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, because only such figures can bar one from access to the multiple bases on which mutual indebtedness can be constructed. Figures of authority, then, must build up their constellations of indebtedness in order for people to begin to attribute to them the qualities of someone who will share benefits with his dependents and not (in the local idiom) “eat” everything himself. It is the formation and maintenance of such a network that renders the exercise of power legitimate.

The result is not a system of “amoral familism”, where one justifies acts outside some bounded domain that would be immoral within. On the contrary: The need to form beneficial ties of reciprocity wherever possible undercuts such discrete boundaries of moral behavior. Indeed, as one seeks favorable connections or raises money to grease the system, those bonds of indebtedness that grant predictability to others’ behavior are further reinforced. Corruption, as bribery or favoritism, may just be incidental to the formation of these embedded associations and actually contribute to that sense of equal opportunity through which, as one saying has it, you could be a beggar in the morning, a vizier of the king in the afternoon and hanged in the marketplace the next day.

Ironically, too, such favoritism contributes to transparency, since discerning or displaying connections are vital to one’s own reliability. Similarly, the whole process brings new players into the game, constrains players whose questionable conduct is known or rumored, and fits with those other mechanisms—from gossip and scandal to the deep-seated ambivalence toward power—that inform so much of Arab social organization and ritual.

But there has arisen in recent decades a strong countercurrent to this ethos. This is a countercurrent of massive movements from countryside to city, and of greater anonymity within the urban environment. The whole basis of mutual dependence that renders many practices permissible has now been so overwhelmed by the disruption of “the game” that one has no way to preserve the constraints that had accompanied its organization. Now, in the overgrown urban environments ever more typical of the Arab world, you may have to give a “gift” to a clerk you never before laid eyes on to produce a document, to a policeman who arbitrarily stops you at a roadblock, to a utility employee to get any service—and all without having a chance to form a relationship in which you may later expect some return. What bites deeply for many Arabs and other Muslims is not just that money has become the overriding medium of human relationships, but the gnawing sense of incivility that accompanies it.

This loss of personalized interaction may, as suggested, be much exacerbated by the massive movement of people from the countryside to anonymizing cities. But it may also owe much to the state’s domination of information or resources. Sadly, too, corruption may also accompany increased levels of education, with poorly paid government jobs and the decline of informal mechanisms of social leveling contributing to one-off relationships rather than long-term alliances. In all of this, one cannot underestimate how uncomfortable people feel in so depersonalized an atmosphere, how hurt they are by its incivility, how lost at sea they feel when a debt incurred, say, in arranging a marriage or a loan, cannot be carried over into a different form of “favor” at a later time. And always, they ask, how can it be changed? How can everything be put right?

In a September 15, 2009 article in the New York Times, a U.S. Army captain who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan writes that to eliminate corruption in those countries one must promulgate clear rules, institute a reporting mechanism for ordinary citizens, and—a genuine pleasure to hear—constantly attend to the forms of action that the local people themselves regard as corrupt. Such reforms sound admirable and, thanks to this third requisite, may even be tailored to different cultures. But they are not self-evident or self-executing. After all, is a lobbyist in this country who puts one in touch with a decision-maker always corrupt? Not always, just sometimes. Is help given a client to gain entry to an exclusive club an act redolent of immorality? That may depend on the club as much as on the kind of help given to access it. Put a bit differently: Can one so readily dissociate arguably corrupt practices from the whole web of religious, social and economic concepts in which they are necessarily, and almost always ambiguously, embedded?

Reducing corruption in a place like Afghanistan is no easy thing to do. It is certainly not just a matter of “teaching the Afghans to elect good men”, as Woodrow Wilson once said about Mexicans. For Afghans to understand corruption as Americans do more or less entails their having to experience the whole web of religious, social and economic concepts that Americans have experienced. That really is asking too much.

The history of anti-corruption efforts may nevertheless be instructive here. If we set aside such mechanisms as hanging corrupt officials or only appointing as overseers one’s closest kin—hardly always effective in any event—the reduction of corruption usually entails a decisive overriding element. The reference here is not to the development of a civil service alone: Increased salaries may allay some rationalizations for accepting gifts, and advancement in the service may hold off illicit entanglements in some cases. Rather, it may be that professional pride is the key to reform.

Just as many of the lawyers and accountants, businessmen and educators in the Arab world would love to be able to practice their craft without having to engage in petty bribery and favoritism, so too they need an independent forum in which those desires can receive expression and reinforcement. The rise of professional associations in the West coincided with the civil service reforms of the early 20th century, and those forums—which were not agencies of the state and were not configured as nongovernmental organizations in order to avoid government control—built on the self-respect and pride their participants craved. When one sees lawyers or teachers taking to the streets of Cairo or Casablanca or Lahore to protest a corrupt legal decision or a dysfunctional and unfair educational policy, one is seeing this yearning to express professional pride at its moment of effervescence.

Nor is pride limited to the technical professions or the craftsmen’s guilds or the nascent labor trade unions: It is the base on which so many in the Arab world would hope to build. Of the many attractions of fundamentalist organizations not the least is that they have a reputation for being uncorrupt. People will even choose to buy from a merchant with a long beard in the belief that he may be more honest than one not dressed as an ardent believer. Purification has always been imagined as an antidote to corruption, even if it, too, may carry its own corrupting forms. Archibald MacLeish was right when he said there are two kinds of people in the world—the pure and the responsible. Pride can go either way in that dichotomy, but being indispensable to both, it cannot be ignored in either.

Hussein was right to think that reducing corruption lies at the heart of a nation’s strength. But there is no simple correlation of political form or cultural construct to its reduction: Edward Gibbon, after all, called corruption “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty”, a truth that the U.S. Congress seems to prove each and every day.

And those who define corruption as the absence of an opportunity to be treated equally would have to say why, in some traditions, not allowing a woman to be a priest or rabbi or imam is necessarily worthy of being called corrupt. To grasp that, for most Arabs, practical equivalence is of greater relevance to justice than abstract equality, that it is only realistic to believe that society is better served by webs of obligation than impersonal roles, and that institutions are always defined by their occupants and not by depersonalized powers, is to enter a world of enormous decency and order, even if it is not our world. Perhaps if we in the West attend to the longing for integrity that accompanies this complex web of relations and crosscutting constraints, we may still have a chance to form with Arabs and other Muslims incorruptible ties of mutual indebtedness and moral worth. Simply complaining about how “corrupt” they are won’t get us very far, that’s for sure.

1I use the word tribal in the descriptive sense of social anthropology simply to mean a society in which primordial ties count for a lot, and in which patrilineal lineages and endogamous marriage tend to define the loci and operation of social authority.

Lawrence Rosen is on leave from Princeton University at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford.