Why is FIFA so corrupt? A 14th-century Islamic thinker knew the answer

A man walks next to the FIFA logo at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)

To everyone’s great shock and surprise, a number of FIFA officials have been arrested on corruption charges at the behest of US law enforcement agencies.

Whatever the outcome of these investigations, it is no secret that FIFA is beset by corruption, which most blatantly manifested itself in the decision to hand the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. (I think that the decision-making process and the poor safety conditions for workers building the stadiums are enough justification for boycotting the tournament, let alone the country’s appalling apostasy laws.)

But the interesting wider question is why international organisations inevitably become corrupt. Paul Collier’s book Exodus looks at how game theory applies in different societies and suggests that international institutions tend to become corrupt because of the influence of a corrupt political culture.

Nigeria, for example, is so riddled with corruption because enough people are corrupt (and it doesn’t have to be that many) that it makes no sense to be an honest person. For societies to avert this situation, free-riders need to be punished by other individuals acting with the support of the rest of society. Almost as importantly, those punishers must not be punished in turn, as happens in clannish cultures where people care more about their own family than the well-being of the wider society.

Collier used a study of diplomats in New York to show that, when a group of people from a more honest society and a group from a corrupt one join together, the honest begin behaving like the corrupt. After a while the Danish and Swedish diplomats, who had assiduously paid all their parking tickets, as one would back home, began ignoring them. After all, everyone else does.

This could be called Steyn’s Axiom, after Mark Steyn’s comments about ice cream, dog faeces and the UN. It fits perfectly into evolutionary game theory: why would you be honest if everyone around you is on the fiddle?

Another explanation for FIFA’s woes comes from the 14th-century Arab political thinker Ibn Khaldun, whose birthday it is today. Ibn Khaldun popularised the idea of asabiyyah, a pre-Islamic word that translates as group feeling, solidarity or social cohesion, to explain why some societies are so divided and lacking in what we might call civic virtue.

Asabiyyah also translates as “clannishness”, and in some parts of the world it is strongest within extended families, tribes or religious communities. In other areas of the globe the nation as a whole has a strong sense of group feeling, or asabiyyah.

The former societies tend towards corruption, because within the nation-state and its institutions there is little incentive to not steal, cheat or place one’s family members in positions of power, because there is no real group feeling towards the wider nation.

The latter societies have stronger civic institutions, although the downside is that they often feel less friendly and more atomised (northern European countries, which dominate the top places in Transparency International’s Corruption Index, are the most extreme examples).

International bodies such as FIFA, the UN and EU have little sense of asabiyyah because there is nothing that really bonds the delegates from various nations together. In fact, Ibn Khaldun pointed out, the only way to maintain asabiyyah in larger societies is through what is usually translated as “religious propaganda”. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, it was religious feeling in America that created its great civil virtue.

Perhaps this explains why, at least compared to other international organisations, the Vatican is fairly honest. (We hope.)