KONGSept. 11 has spawned much theorizing about Islam and modernity. The
theorizing may add to Muslim paranoia.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Tehran again has an active stock market,
and privatization is being held back by the political impasse rather than by
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In East Asia since postwar independence
there is no very evident connection between dominant religion and economic and
social progress. Ditto in South Asia.
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.
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.
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.