If you had a choice, which city would you like to live in?

There are a host of options. A web search will rapidly provide a list of the World’s ‘Greatest’ and ‘Best’ Cities, the most ‘Liveable’, the most ‘Loveable’, the ‘Smartest’, the ‘Best for Arts and Culture’, the ‘Greenest’, the ‘Deadliest’, the ‘Most Populous’, the ‘Noisiest’, the ‘Most Polluted’, and, let us not forget, the ‘Most Expensive’. More focused searches come up with such things as the World’s ‘Top 10 Halal-friendly Holiday Spots’, the ‘Best Cities for Muslims’, the ‘Largest Cities in OIC Member States’, the ‘Highest Muslim Population’ in Cities in the EU, and so on.

We might start with Muslim population. There are an estimated 1.7 million Muslims in Paris and its surrounding area, by far the largest population of any city in the EU. Some demographic forecasts predict that Marseille will be the first Muslim-majority city in Western Europe, and alarm at this projection is often sounded by far right Islamophobes, with one website claiming that the ‘French City with 40 per cent Muslim Population is the Most Dangerous City in Europe’ and that ‘Muslims have now set up unofficial checkpoints in various parts of Marseille’. Even this, however, did not sound the false alarm as loudly as the risible pronouncement of a self-proclaimed American terrorism expert in January 2015 on Fox News that the city of Birmingham in the UK (with an estimated Muslim population of around 25 per cent) was a ‘no-go area’, where non-Muslims dare not enter for fear of the religious police who beat people who do not dress according to Muslim dress codes, and where even the police keep away. Other European cities with around a quarter of the population estimated as Muslim include Brussels, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam, and in the UK, Luton, Bradford and Blackburn. Stockholm, Malmö and Leicester weigh in at around 20 per cent, with Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, Cologne, London and Paris between 9 per cent and 15 per cent.

The category of ‘Most Liveable Cities’ is one example of how problematic rankings can be. Different ranking systems with different concepts of ‘Liveability’, and different factors or criteria for measuring it, inevitably come up with different rankings, and such variability will always be found in rankings which are not simply based on raw statistics such as population, number of homicides, or other relatively objective measures. International Making Cities Liveable (IMCL), discussing ‘the Value of Rankings and the Meaning of Liveability’, points out that every city wants to be rated highly on the ‘Liveability’ Index because such status can ‘attract new business and investments, boost local economies and real estate markets, and foster community involvement and pride.’ The rankings are ‘a powerful tool for economic development’, and there is ‘cut-throat competition and lobbying by world cities’ to achieve a high position in the most prestigious rankings such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ‘Global Liveability Ranking’, the Mercer ‘Quality of Living Survey’, or Monocle magazine’s ‘Most Liveable Cities Index’.

In 2015, as in the previous year, cities in Australia and Canada occupied seven of the top ten positions out of 140 cities in the EIU’s ‘Global Liveability Ranking’. Given the dominance of English-speaking cities, this ranking has been criticised for being overly anglocentric. The EIU notes that the most liveable places tend to be ‘mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density’, which explains why megacities like London and New York do not make it to the top rank. Unsurprisingly, cities with major conflicts are ranked lowest, including Damascus (140), Karachi (136) and Tripoli (132). Dhaka and Algiers are also ranked in the bottom 10, although major hotspots, such as Kabul and Baghdad, are excluded. The EIU also flags up those cities experiencing the biggest decline in standards of living over the past five years, and concomitant problems with unemployment, violence and civil unrest. These include (in addition to Damascus and Tripoli) Athens (69), Moscow (73), Muscat (88), Tunis (103), Cairo (120), Caracas (126), and Kiev (124).

Obviously, there has to be some preconception or operational definition to start with about what ‘Liveability’ is. The term is probably used more often to describe ‘standard of living’ than ‘quality of life’. Standard of living is relatively easier to rank according to measures which are claimed to be ‘objective, neutral and unbiased’. Criteria such as crime rates, health statistics, income growth, cost of living, sanitation standards, expenditures on city services, infrastructure, local transport, and even ‘artistic and cultural opportunities’ (as factored in by Forbes in their ranking of American cities) are generally more accessible than more elusive and subjective perceptions of quality which are not always bound up with functional considerations. It is also difficult to measure ‘quality of life’ issues centred on personal circumstances and states of mind which might include mental health issues, happiness, loneliness, social exclusion, and discrimination, although some measure of the latter might be provided by statistics on ‘hate crimes’. As IMCL points out, ‘standard of living issues are not directly correlated with happiness, with a sense that life is meaningful, that we are of value to others, and that there is much to be discovered and celebrated in the human and physical world around us.’ Yet, it is also the case that these important aspects of well-being and quality of life are ‘profoundly influenced by the built environment – by a city’s liveability’. This comes more clearly into focus when we consider the most vulnerable and needy members of society, children, the elderly, those who are economically or socially disadvantaged or marginalised, refugees, asylum seekers and other categories of ‘migrant’.

Such considerations figure strongly in the stated mission of IMCL, which includes the need to ‘recognise and combat the negative impact of our built environment on physical, social and mental health’; to ‘adopt planning and urban design decisions that will make our cities and suburbs more liveable for children, elders and the poor’; to ‘emphasise ethical land use patterns to reduce extreme economic disparities’; to ‘strengthen compact urban neighbourhoods to maintain diversity of ethnic and cultural identity’; and to build ‘multifunctional’ spaces that can ‘regenerate civic engagement and democratic participation’. While important benchmark statistics are provided by Mercer to underpin the rankings from EIU and others, IMCL is surely right that ‘a city may have to aim higher than to be placed top in these rankings to be truly “liveable”’.

To appreciate the potential difference between ‘Liveability’ and ‘Lovability’, we have to turn to the global life-style magazine Monocle. It identifies Palermo, Colombo, Tel Aviv, Chiang Mai and San Jose as the five ‘Most Loveable Cities’ (2013) which ‘might not be slick or smart, might be a bit dusty in the corners or a nightmare to navigate, and they won’t be making our top 25 most liveable cities list any time soon, but who cares? One thing they are not, is boring.’

While Palermo is here rated the most ‘Loveable’ city, a different story emerges from the European Commission report ‘Quality of Life in Cities’ (2013) which looked at perceptions of 79 European cities. Here, there is a relatively high level of dissatisfaction only in a few cities, of which Palermo is one. While Athens scores the highest level of dissatisfaction (52 per cent of respondents), Palermo (28 per cent) is amongst the other four badly rated cities, which also include Naples (34 per cent) and Marseilles (25 per cent). By contrast, there is an overall level of satisfaction of at least 80 per cent in all but eight of the cities surveyed. Of the 16 cities with a 95 per cent satisfaction rate or above, 12 are from Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands or Austria.

All of this shows how difficult it is to come up with rankings which can be reliably regarded as definitive in terms of how they factor in all relevant criteria. Anyway, relevant to whom?

The Global Power City Index (GPCI), a ranking of the world’s top 40 cities by the Institute for Urban Strategies at the Mori Memorial Fund in Tokyo, aims to judge the ‘comprehensive power of a city’. Pointing out that since half the world’s population now live in cities, it affirms the need more than ever to create a liveable environment within attractive urban spaces so as to attract people, goods and wealth. The Index is based on six factors: Economy, Research and Development, Cultural Interaction, Liveability, Ecology and Natural Environment, and Accessibility. It also factors in the subjective preferences of five type of people considered to be important in cities: Managers, Researchers, Artists, Visitors, and Residents. In the 2014 rankings, London retains its place at the top of the comprehensive ranking from the previous year and further increased its score to widen the gap with New York at No. 2. Four Asian cities (Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong) figure in the top ten, as well as four other European cities: Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna. However, only two of the top ten cities in this ranking system are placed in the top ten ‘Best Cities’ in the Condé Nast World Readers’ Choice Awards for 2015. They are London, at No. 10 (compared with the top spot in the GPCI Index) and Vienna at No.3. Florence and Budapest are ranked the best. Kyoto is the only Asian city in the top ten, although Tokyo figures in the top 20, and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in the top 30.

Three cities with Muslim-majority populations are ranked in the top 40 in the GPCI Index: Istanbul (No. 21, between Los Angeles and Vancouver); Kuala Lumpur (No.34, between Taipei and Moscow); and Cairo (No. 40, below Mumbai). Of interest is the inclusion of a GPCI+ ranking, which emphasises the ‘intangible values’, the elements that appeal to ‘human senses’. While Tokyo is ranked 4th overall, it comes in at No. 3 in GPCI+ because of its high scores in Sense of Safety in Public Places, Kindness of Residents, On-Time Performance of International Airport and Ease of Transportation, among others. Increased numbers of tourists also helped Tokyo climb from No. 8 to No. 6 in Cultural Interaction, previously not a strong feature of the city. Although the GPCI is widely respected as fair, one might still expect some lobbying for Tokyo to be involved in an Index produced by a Japanese institute based in the city, and this again raises the question of ‘objectivity’.

If Istanbul is the top ‘Muslim’ city at No. 21 in the GPCI rankings for 2015, it is noteworthy that it comes in at No.3 in the ‘Top 25 Destinations’ for 2015 according to the ratings of travellers on TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website. But what is even more striking is that the No. 1 spot is taken by Marrakech in Morocco. Other cities which appear nowhere in most city rankings also make it to the top ten: Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor region in Cambodia, comes in at No. 2, Hanoi in Vietnam at No. 4, and Goreme in Turkey at No. 14. London is still there in the top ten, but at No. 6, and New York City, the runner-up to top-ranked London in the GPCI rankings, is ranked at No. 11. Dubai is in 24th position, quite a few places below Ubud in Indonesia at No. 15. Award winners in the TripAdvisor ratings are determined using an algorithm that takes into account the quantity and quality of reviews and ratings for hotels, restaurants, and attractions in destinations worldwide over a 12-month period. Unsurprisingly, the priorities and preferences of tourists searching out ‘exotic’ or culturally iconic locations do not readily correlate with Indices of ‘Liveability’ based on standards of living or quality of life. This lack of fit is only too evident in the variable standing of Athens. It is rated at No. 20 in TripAdvisor’s Top Destinations, above Budapest, Hong Kong, Dubai and Sydney, but, as we have seen, it also scores the highest level of dissatisfaction (52 per cent of respondents) in the ‘Quality of Life in Cities’ 2013 rankings. The respondents consulted here are not tourists ticking off ‘bucket shop’ destinations, but are actual residents of the cities surveyed.

We might take a quick look at some other city rankings to demonstrate the extent of variability. Celebrating the 21st century as the ‘Century of the City’, the National Geographic’s ‘World’s Best Cities: Celebrating 220 Great Destinations’ (2014) surveyed perceptions of cities according to a range of criteria: Olympic, Festival, Silver Screen, Food, Haunted, Island, Happiest, All-American, Nightlife, Eco-smart, Oceanfront, High-Altitude, Canal, For Song, Walled, and Spa. The inevitable subjectivity of the judgements can be gauged from the introduction to this resource (‘a must-have for all urban adventurers, on-the-go travellers and armchair travellers alike’) which claims the reader will find ‘a playful, informative mix of inspirational personal narratives, photo galleries, and fun facts, plus sidebars on oddities, local food and shopping, novels that offer a sense of the city, local secrets, and more’. In the ‘Top Ten Happiest Cities’, for example, Koh Samui in Thailand ranks the highest, followed by San Sebastian in Spain, and Auckland in New Zealand. Madison comes in at No. 4 because ‘locals stay active all year round in the Wisconsin capital, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and jogging along landscaped lakeshores.’ Kuala Lumpur is rated the 6th Happiest City. The position of Dubai as the 8th Happiest might arouse some variable reactions, including some sceptical or downright incredulous ones from immigrant workers in this much vaunted Gulf glitz-centre. Or as an article in the Daily Telegraph (dated 19 October 2015) asked: ‘Who in their right mind would want to visit Dubai?’ Referring to it as ‘sterile and morally destitute’, the article describes how ‘Dubai’s masters’ treat guest like ‘disposable slaves’ and ‘appear not to care if these people live or die’.

Moving from people excluded from the happiness provided by a decent meal, we might turn to the ‘Top Ten Food Cities’ in the National Geographic’s ‘World’s Best Cities’. Louisville, Kentucky is rated as the top food destination, followed by Chennai in India, then Buffalo, NY and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In the more traditional Michelin rankings for the same year (2014), however, Tokyo kept its crown in surpassing Paris as the gourmet capital of the world with a record number of Michelin starred restaurants. Clearly there is a world of difference between fugu (the potentially deadly poisonous puffer fish, one of the delicacies which might be served up in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo) and the kind of fare which might contribute to the high standing of Louisville and Buffalo in the rankings of ‘Foodie’ cities. In the former case, the HotBrown, a midnight snack invented for revellers consisting of an open-faced Turkey sandwich on Texas toast with bacon, tomatoes and a cream sauce; and in Buffalo, what else but ‘buffalo wings’, the tangy chicken wings which are a favourite of bar-crawlers the world over? To muddy the waters further, neither Louisville nor Buffalo appear in the ‘Top 10 Food Cities’ on the ‘ucityguides’ website (the ‘ultimate urban travel guide’); instead, it showcases the more orthodox and predictable destinations: New York City and Tokyo in top spots, followed by 6 European cities.

Such widely disparate rankings only serve to confirm the general point that ranking systems in many areas need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

If you are confused about which city is the ‘Most Liveable’ (or ‘Loveable’), the ‘Happiest’ or the ‘Best for Food’, we might not find any greater consistency in rankings of the best cities for ‘Arts and Culture’. The Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards for ‘Best Cities for Arts and Culture’ (2014) rated Krakow in Poland as No. 1, followed by Luxor. The rest of the top ten were mainly Imperial capitals of Europe, including St Petersburg, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Rome, but did not include London, Paris or Berlin. These three cities, however, followed top-ranked New York City in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in the ‘Arts and Culture’ category of Time Out’s ranking of the ‘World’s Greatest Cities’ (2009). In 8th place was Istanbul, between Chicago and Rome. ‘Arts and Culture’ is one of six criteria that make up the overall ranking by Time Out of the ‘World’s Greatest Cities’, the others being Architecture, Buzz, Food and Drink, Quality of Life, and World Status.

As for the ‘World’s Smartest Cities’, one ranking is provided by the IESE ‘Cities in Motion’ Index (ICIM). This is, according to the ‘fastcoexist’ website, ‘one of the most comprehensive index of cities to date. While others look at “liveability”, it attempts to include more or less everything.’ We may all have our favourite cities, and our subjective reasons for loving them. They may make us happy, have a feel-good factor, give us a buzz, keep us entertained, look gorgeous at night, but the ICIM Index is not wedded to impressions. It is based on 50 indicators covering every facet of urban life, its 10 different dimensions encompassing governance, public management, urban planning, technology, environment, international outreach, social cohesion, mobility and transportation, human capital, and economy.  It assesses technology by measures like broadband penetration; environmental performance by particle emissions; and international outreach by the numbers of visitors by aeroplane. In 2014, the top three positions were occupied by Tokyo, London and New York, respectively. Three Swiss cities (Zurich, Geneva, and Basel) ranked 4th, 6th and 7th. ICIM also identifies cities as ‘high potential’ (like Shanghai and Guangzhou), ‘challengers’ (rapidly improving cities like Toronto), ‘vulnerable’ (deteriorating cities like Athens), and ‘consolidated’ (maintaining an existing high ranking). The comprehensive nature of its metrics has the result of relegating some perpetually favourite places to uncharacteristically lowly positions. Rome, for instance, comes in at 54th and Istanbul at 75th out of 135 in this ranking of ‘smartness’, which, as ‘fastcoexist’ emphasises, is ‘a catch-all phrase for a well-operated city that is pleasant to live in’. But of course, ‘no city is perfect. Even the top cities have major drawbacks. Half the top-10 score poorly for “social cohesion”, for example, with Tokyo coming in at 125th, London at 96th, and New York at 110th.’ That said, one might want to question what is meant by social cohesion in this context, and how it is measured. New York also drops down to 37th for the environment, and Paris, which is fifth overall, has a ranking of 87th for public administration. ICIM reaches the inevitable conclusion that ‘there is no single model of success’. City improvement depends on defining the model to be followed and identifying the specific areas in which the city needs to improve. Yet ‘it is not enough for a city to stand out in a single area or dimension: cities should strive to achieve acceptable minimum rates overall, as areas tend to be interrelated.’

If ranking of cities as the ‘best’, the ‘smartest’, the most ‘liveable’ or the most ‘powerful’ attempt to factor in a large number of indicators, other rankings may be derived from more focused metrics. The ranking of how dangerous a city is may be based on homicide rates per 100,000 people compiled from criminal justice and public health systems, as in the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) data for 65 of the most populous cities. The 2009 data from this source revealed the highest murder rates in cities in Venezuela and Central America. Mexico City, notorious for its drug violence, had a murder rate of 8.4 per year, but this might seem like a safe haven compared to Caracas, with a rate of 122 or Guatemala City at 118.3. New York City, where one might expect the rate to be high, came in at 5.6, one more per year than Amsterdam at 4.4, the highest rate in Western Europe. If Amsterdam seems relatively safe compared to those cities in the Americas where one is 25 times more likely to be murdered, its murder rate is, according to this index, still ten times higher than Tokyo’s (0.4), and seven times higher than Cairo’s (0.6). Glasgow’s rate of 3.3 is just ahead of Brussels (3). London’s rate of 1.6 indicates a 1 in 62,500 chance of being murdered, compared to 1 in 820 in Caracas, or 1 in half a million in safe Lisbon with its very low rate of 0.2. Men are far more likely to be homicide victims in almost every country. In Venezuela, Mali and Libya for example, over 90 per cent of victims are men. Women face a significantly higher risk of murder in just two of the world’s countries: Nauru (where 80 per cent of all victims are female) and Malta (75 per cent).

As for the ‘Noisiest Cities’, a Citiquiet survey undertaken in 2014 judged three of the top four to be in India (Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi), with Cairo in 3rd place and New York City in 7th. The noise level in Mumbai , the noisiest city, can reach over 100 decibels, caused by severe traffic congestion and overpopulation. Construction, loudspeakers, firecrackers, festivals, honking, rickshaws and taxis all contribute to the bedlam. Cairo is not only the largest city in both the Middle East and Africa, but also, according to Citiquiet, ‘known for being alive 24 hours a day’.  The average noise level at 7:30 am is 90 decibels, where the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) proposes an acceptable level to be between 35 and 55 decibels. Perhaps surprisingly, Madrid is ranked noisier than New York, a ranking which can be partly attributed to a population which rarely turns in before midnight and a lively nightlife centred on roaring bars and clubs which usually do not close until 2 a.m.

The high ranking of Indian cities in noise pollution is matched by their prominence on the winner’s podium in air pollution. Statistics compiled by the WHO on particulate matter for more than 1,600 cities for the years 2008-2013 rank four Indian cities as the most polluted on earth (Delhi, Gwalior, Patna, and Raipur), followed by three from Pakistan (Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi). The WHO advises that fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3), but the top ten most polluted cities have 10 to 15 times this level, with top-ranked Delhi at 153 ug/m3 and tenth-placed Lucknow at 96 ug/m3. The International Business Times, reporting these findings in an article leading up to World Environment Day in 2015, points out that ‘more than 200 million people worldwide are affected by air pollution. The problem is deadly – outdoor air pollution was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.’ And it would be mistaken for cities in the ‘West’ to be too smug in the face of high pollution levels in the Indian Subcontinent and in other cities like Beijing which are synonymous with smog. A study carried out by researchers at King’s College London, and reported in the Guardian in 2015, revealed that there are 9,500 premature deaths each year in London due to long-term exposure to two key air pollutants (fine particulates and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide), more than twice as many as previously thought.

From pollution of all kinds, we might take a more inspiring look at cities judged to be the ‘Greenest’. Ranking here can, of course, depend on a host of different criteria ranging from reduced carbon emissions to large open spaces, ample bicycling trails, and citywide recycling programmes. In the ranking of the ‘Top 12 Greenest Cities in the World’ by Cities Journal in 2014, the top two (Malmö and Melbourne) have made great strides in reducing carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol called for an international reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent, but Malmö adopted the much more ambitious goal of 25 percent. One neighbourhood in Malmö, Western Harbour, gets all of its power from renewable sources. As for Melbourne, a persistent drought since the 1990s has necessitated a strong focus on sustainability, with the even more ambitious goal of becoming a city with net zero carbon emissions by 2020. The 3rd and 4th most highly ranked ‘Green-friendly’ cities, Bogota and Minneapolis have both created miles of cycling paths within the city. In Minneapolis, these amount to a magnificent 84 miles of trails that wind amongst the city’s many green spaces and parks. Chicago, in 5th place, has reduced greenhouse gases through its acres and acres of energy-efficient ‘green’ roofs. The Windy City is reported to have ‘at least 359 vegetated roofs in the city proper which cover 5,469,463 square feet of the city’s buildings. The rooftop gardens plant food for human consumption, house hives for fresh honey, and help stamp out pollution by dealing with excess carbon dioxide. There are no cities outside North America (the USA and Canada), Europe or Australia in the top 12 in this ranking.

While Malmö (at No.1) and Copenhagen (at No.10) both figure in the top ten of the Cities Journal ‘Greenest’ rankings, four Nordic cities (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo) figure in the top 10 positions in the Global Green Economy Index for 2014, an in-depth survey of how 60 countries and 70 cities are doing in developing more environmentally friendly economies. In top place is Copenhagen, with a goal to be carbon-neutral by 2025 and with a city infrastructure designed to be conducive to bicycling and walking rather than cars. Amsterdam, another bicycle-friendly city, is 2nd, and Stockholm, the EU’s first city to win the European Green Capital Award, is 3rd. Paradoxically, perhaps, New York, rated the 7th noisiest city in the world, is also rated the 7th greenest in this Index. The only other non-European city in the top 10 is Singapore at No. 9. This city, Asia’s greenest, aims to have zero waste in landfills by 2050.

This cursory look at just a few categories for ranking cities can only scratch the surface of this highly complex field. We could go on to take a look at the ‘Most Expensive Cities in the World’. In one measure in 2008, the top spot was occupied by the ‘super-premium area of prime Central London’, or at least according to some statistics on apartment prices per square metre in city centres. Even at that time, this area of London was leaps ahead of 2nd-placed Upper Manhattan in New York, though mere ‘luxury property’ in other swanky areas of London came in at No. 4. In 2015, another index of real estate prices, the Knight Frank Wealth Report, ranked Monaco in first place, followed by Hong Kong, London and New York. We might also look at the ‘Cost of Living Index’ published by Numbeo, the world’s largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries. The database for 2015, based on 2,054,546 prices in 5,465 cities, generates comparative indices for consumer price, rent, groceries, restaurants, and local purchasing power in 516 cities. Swiss cities are prominent in the higher echelons of this Index.

But rather than plough on in this way, always gawping at the ‘top ten’, we might turn our attention to Muslim communities, whether in Muslim-majority countries and cities, or in minority communities in predominantly non-Muslim cities. Looking back at the rankings we have already assembled, what do they tell us about any of this? Well, the dominance of non-Muslim-majority societies in Western Europe, Scandinavia, the USA, Canada, Australia and Asia is only too evident in so many rankings focused on the ‘best’, the ‘most powerful’ , the ‘most liveable’, the ‘happiest’, the ‘best for arts and culture’, the ‘smartest’, and the ‘greenest’. There are some exceptions (not without their idiosyncrasies) with Kuala Lumpur and Dubai amongst the top 10 ‘happiest’ in the National Geographic rankings, and most notably Marrakech as the top destination for TripAdvisor travellers. Istanbul hits the top ten for Arts and Culture in one ranking of the ‘World’s Greatest Cities’, and three cities with Muslim-majority populations are ranked in the top 40 in the Global Power City Index: Istanbul (21), Kuala Lumpur (34) and Cairo (40). It is also worth noting that of 156 countries (rather than cities) ranked for Happiness by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network in 2012, the UAE was in 14th place and Oman in 16th. The UK was ranked 17th, just ahead of Qatar. Nevertheless, eight of the top 10 places were occupied by European countries, of which 5 were Scandinavian, with Denmark and Norway taking the top two places. Malaysia was ranked 56th and Turkey 77th. The Index was compiled using three main types of variables to measure subjective well-being: measures of positive and negative emotions, and evaluation of life as a whole. In the WHO Index of 191 countries in Health Care in 2000 (the year the report was last produced), Oman is ranked 8th, Saudi Arabia 26th and the UAE 27th, all ahead of the USA (37). Nevertheless, European countries occupied 17 of the top 20 places, with France and Italy in 1st and 2nd place, and the UK in 17th.

Despite the positive ranking of some Muslim-majority cities and countries, the downside, though, is hard to avoid. As we have seen, in the EIU’s ‘Global Liveability Ranking’ (admittedly suspected of being ‘anglocentric’) out of 140 cities we can find Damascus (140), Karachi (136), and Tripoli (132), with Dhaka and Algiers also ranked in the bottom 10, and then Cairo (120), and Tunis (103). In the field of Gender Equality, out of 130 countries listed in the Global Gender Gap Report 2008, 8 of the top 10 places were taken by European countries, 4 of which are Scandinavian. The USA ranked 27th, and Muslim-majority countries occupied 15 of the bottom 20 places. The variables selected were economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health and survival. Although these gender equality rankings relate to countries, they are clearly highly applicable to cities.

Of course, one can have reservations about all these rankings. The WHO rankings on Health Care, for example, have been criticised as depending crucially on ‘a number of underlying assumptions – some of them logically incoherent, some characterised by substantial uncertainty, and some rooted in ideological beliefs and values that not everyone shares’. The existence of logical fallacies, uncertainties, and ideological biases exposed by complaints of this kind need to be taken very seriously and could be applied to any number of ranking systems. However, for all their flaws, rankings are unlikely to fade in importance as long as countries are concerned about how they stack up against each other and cities jostling for kudos and prestige. As always, we need to search for balance in how we draw useful implications and conclusions from the plethora of research available. To do so, we must guard against polemics driven either by one-sided advocacy or by intemperate criticism.

In an article posted on MuslimMatters.org, Youssef Chouhoud describes how, during a flight to Egypt, he came across an opinion piece discussing Monocle Magazine’s annual index of the world’s most liveable cities. ‘After weighing about a dozen different factors ranging from school performance to the prevalence of independent retail stores and restaurants (what the magazine dubs the “Zara/Starbucks” quotient), Monocle’s top ten sites with the “best quality of life” were decisively mid-sized and European.’ What struck Choudoud was that ‘the article noticeably lacked any meaningful critique of the list’s methodology or ultimate results.’ Later, he came across another Financial Times article that ‘took to task Monocle’s preconceptions and conclusions – and offered an alternate, equally valid perspective on what makes a city worth living in’. This prompted him to ask the question: ‘What would a Muslim Liveability Index look like?’ Recognising the complexity and scale of the research needed to undertake such a project, including how to decide on which metrics to use, he suspects that we won’t be seeing such an index for some time. A ranking of the top cities for Muslims to live in would surely be fraught with contentious issues on several fronts, including ‘controversial secular criteria’ and ‘religious sensibilities’. Nevertheless, he contends that if done right, ‘this undertaking would likely be a watershed moment in global Muslim culture.  It could, for instance, help clear up many misconceptions about living Islamically in the West.  Conversely, the data could shine an optimistic light on Muslim-majority societies that are largely written off in this discourse.’

Whatever we might think about such an idea, it does raise the profoundly important question of how we give space to diverse and alternative perspectives in the manifold ways in which we are continually drawn into evaluating, grading, measuring and ranking so many dimensions of human life. By the way, according to Arabian Business’s ‘Top Ten Halal-friendly Holiday Spots’, the winner is Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by Singapore. Three European cities make it to this list: London (7th), Munich (9th) and Vienna (10th). And, of course, one can always go further in questioning alternative criteria themselves on the basis of other alternative principles, including ethical ones. Some Muslims may legitimately seek out not what is traditionally ‘halal’ but what is tayyib – in other words, food which has been reared under strict standards of animal welfare, usually ‘free range’ or ‘organic’. How would that be factored into a ‘Muslim Liveability Index’? How also would one factor in cultural preferences which some Muslims might have, but which might be forbidden, frowned on, or at least avoided, in some, or even many, Muslim communities? Would a Muslim’s love of Western classical music, for example, be recognised in rankings of top cities for a Muslim to live in? Which Muslim, in any case? And what of a Muslim who practises yoga? He or she would be forbidden to do so in Malaysia, but a Muslim seeking a rich and varied vein of cultural activity might be happy to know that city liveability rankings had factored in some measure of intercultural richness and variety. And the same goes for any open-minded and inquiring citizen, whether Muslim or not, seeking to explore and engage with other cultures in a vibrant city.

That brings me to my closing personal perspective. I will not attempt to rank my top ten cities. Rather, I ask myself if there is one city which I rank particularly highly, one that has impacted me in a special way. Many cities I have visited, and in which I have studied, worked and lived, come to mind for all sorts of reasons, spiritual, cultural, architectural, academic, gastronomic, ‘green’, and, of course, romantic. In a sense I am returning to the ‘Loveable’ category, the one we briefly explored through the Monocle rankings, in which Palermo came first. Well, Palermo is not on my list, as I have never been there, and neither are Colombo, Tel Aviv, Chiang Mai or San Jose, the next most loveable in that list. High on my own list are some spiritually meaningful destinations and iconic sacred sites of pilgrimage and palpable baraka: Istanbul, where my wife and I committed to Islam; Mecca, where the awesome singularity of the Ka’bah enabled me to turn away from the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel and the brutalism of other mammoth developments catering for the superrich; and Chartres in France, where a sense of great mercy caused of mine and my wife’s eyes to fill with tears as we crossed the threshold of the sublime Gothic Cathedral. We were touched also in Sarajevo, where we heard a multi-faith choir of young people singing samo da rata ne bude (‘just let there be no war’). Important to me too are three places where I sought (and still seek) knowledge: London, Cambridge and Edinburgh, and two places which have fed my abiding love of music in the German tradition: Vienna and Berlin. I also rate Birmingham (not far to drive to from where I live), not because of its ‘Muslimness’, but because of the world-class acoustics in Symphony Hall and the salt and pepper squid I can find in its Chinatown. It is likely that this list is unique, as it surely should be if we are being true to ourselves and being always open to the unexpected rather than chasing after conventional ‘bucket list’ experiences or those judged to be compatible with a tribal affiliation, whether national, cultural or religious.

As a British Muslim with Welsh ancestors, the city that has a special place in my heart is one that is ranked first in one unlikely index: ‘The Smallest Cities in the UK’. If the Vatican City is often ranked as the smallest ‘city’ in the world (though actually a country) with a population of 770, none of whom are permanent residents, St. David’s in Wales is officially the smallest city in the UK with a population of 1,797. Like Wells in Somerset, its cathedral gives it that ‘city’ status, irrespective of its size. I discovered St. David’s a few years ago as I walked the 180 miles of the majestic and beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast Path over twelve days. It is named after St. David, the fifth century patron saint of Wales, whose emblem is a white dove. Later, I learned that he is reputed to have founded Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. I lived in the small town of Glastonbury for many years, and it is there that I first encountered the heart of Islam. These small places perhaps remind us that the winner’s podium need not be stacked with the biggest, the best, the smartest, the glitziest, the most expensive, the tastiest, or even the most liveable or the happiest. Meaningfulness has so many personal facets, and it can surely never be wholly encompassed by any list of rankings.

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