Look Again: Islam and Economic Development Go Together
 
Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, October 2, 2001
HONG KONG Sept. 11 has spawned much theorizing about Islam and modernity. The theorizing may add to Muslim paranoia.
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One notion now doing the rounds is that there is a clear connection between Islam and lack of economic development. This is then "proved" by references to the likes of Algeria and Syria, or by comparing Egypt with South Korea. It is time to look at the actual records and policies of the major Muslim countries - only one of the top six of which is Arab - and compare them with their non-Muslim peers.
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The record of mostly Buddhist Korea has been remarkable by any standard. It underlines the fact that the only countries (city-states excepted) anywhere which have proved the equal of North America and Western Europe in economic development and technological change have been Japan and two places it colonized, Korea and Taiwan.
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Egypt's record has been on a par with poor Asian performers like Catholic Philippines but way ahead of Buddhist failures such as Burma and Cambodia. Egypt's mediocre record owes much not to Islam but to two decades of the socialist, secular nationalism of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, like Ne Win in Burma nationalizing industries and pushing out dynamic ethnic minorities. Western commentators have been eager to contrast Muslim Pakistan's poor economic record compared with India. In fact, for the first 30 years of independence Pakistan did better. Its subsequent failings were owed partly to the nationalizations, carried out for domestic political as well as ideological reasons, by that most secular of its leaders, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
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Other failings can be attributed to the negative impact of 22 years of war in Afghanistan. Pakistan's abysmal record in educating women may owe something to Islam but more to its feudal social structure.
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Here Pakistan contrasts with the progress made in women's education in Iran, as much under the mullahs as under the shah. More women than men now enter Iran's universities.
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At the political level, clerical oppression and international isolation remain problems, but the slowness of economic progress has been more due to state socialism. That was mostly the left's contribution to the anti-shah revolution and was further embedded by the war against Saddam Hussein.
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Tehran again has an active stock market, and privatization is being held back by the political impasse rather than by Islamic ideology.
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Post-separation Pakistan has also fared poorly compared with Bangladesh what was East Pakistan. Despite overcrowding and lack of resources, Bangladesh, the third most populous mainly Muslim state, has pulled itself up from its basket-case status to achieve food self-sufficiency. It has outdone India in terms of progress on education and family planning and maintains a rough and ready form of democracy.
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Bangladesh has a secular system without being aggressively secularist along Turkish lines. Muslim Turkey has failed to reach West European levels of economic and social development, but it has a better track record than most of its Christian neighbors in Southern and Eastern Europe. Its current economic failings and restraints on democracy owe little to Islam but a lot to the statism still practiced by the heirs of Ataturk.
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The largest Muslim country, Indonesia, had until four years ago the best economic and social development track record of any large (100 million or more) developing nation. Even under President Suharto there was pluralism and a larger measure of personal freedom than now exists in China.
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Its current economic problems have the same causes excessive capital flows and cronyism that afflicted much of East Asia. Previous failings, notably the state capitalism practiced by both Presidents Sukarno and President Suharto, were copied from the likes of Brazil, where for a while it was very successful.
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Indonesia's Muslim neighbor Malaysia has had one of the world's most persistently impressive records of progress, at least equal to its Buddhist neighbor Thailand. Attribute this if you wish to natural resources, or to the 45 percent non-Muslim population, or to foreign capital. But it has taken place under the aegis of a modernizing Malay/Muslim polity.
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In East Asia since postwar independence there is no very evident connection between dominant religion and economic and social progress. Ditto in South Asia.
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As for the major Muslim countries as a group, and excluding oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sultanates, their economic performance has been ahead of Russia's and Eastern Europe's and at least the equal of Latin America's, despite Latin America's cultural links with Europe and North America and abundance of natural resources.
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There are plenty of horror stories, especially in an Arab world beset by feudalism and humiliations at Western and Israeli hands. But Asia has its non-Muslim horrors, too.
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Political and economic arrangements in the major Muslim countries have been the products of specific histories, of which religion is only one component. These countries are no more run by loudmouthed and megalomaniac mullahs than the United States is run by ranting Christian radio evangelists. But they just might be one day, if the West insists on demonizing Islamic states in general without looking at the facts.

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