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Is Islam to blame for freedom deficit in Middle East?

By Riaz Hassan - posted Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The age-old debate about Islam's role in the political backwardness of the Middle East has returned to the fore. Dramatic developments of the Arab Spring, followed by re-emergence of authoritarian tendencies, reignite the debate. While debates will continue, a tentative answer can be offered: Flirtation with authoritarianism could be linked more to millennia of Arab history and culture rather than with Islam.

In his seminal work, Muslim Society,eminent British social anthropologist Ernest Gellner boldly asserted that, judged by various criteria, "of the three great Western monotheism, [Islam is] the one closest to modernity." He goes on say that had the Arabs won at Poitiers and gone on to conquer and convert Europe, the modern rational spirit and its expression in business and bureaucracy could only have arisen from Islamic thought. A Muslim Europe would have saved Hegel from indulging in tortuous arguments to explain how an earlier faith, Christianity, is more final and absolute than a chronologically later one, namely Islam. And in 1770, Edward Gibbon had little difficulty imagining Islamic theology being taught in Oxford and across Britain.

But there's an acute deficit in development and freedom in the Muslim world, evident from the United Nations and World Bank Development reports, giving rise to contentious debate about the causes. Culprits include Islamic theology and culture, oil, Arab culture and institutions, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, desert terrain and institutions, weak civil society and the subservient status of women.


Perhaps the most contested debates center on whether Islam is the main cause of these twin deficits of development and freedom. Evidence shows that, before the balance of power shifted after the European expansion in the 17th century, the Middle East was economically just as dynamic as Europe. Muslim merchants were just as successful in carrying their commerce and faith to far corners of the world as their European counterparts if not more.

According to the late economic historian Angus Maddison, in the years 1000 AD the Middle East's share of the world's gross domestic product was larger than Europe's – 10 percent compared with 9 percent. By 1700 the Middle East's share had fallen to just 2 percent and Europe's had risen to 22 percent. Standard explanations for this decline among Western scholars include Islam's hostility to commerce and its ban on usury. But these reasons are unsatisfactory because Islamic scripture is more pro-business than Christian texts, and for usury Torah and Bible do the same. The Prophet Mohammed and his first wife, Khadija, were very successful merchants. Many Muslims blame their economic backwardness on Western imperialism. So why did a once-mighty civilization succumb to the West?

Duke University economist Timur Kuran, in his book The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, persuasively discards these and related explanations. He marshals impressive empirical evidence to show that what slowed economic development in the Middle East was not colonialism or geography or incompatibility between Islam and capitalism, but laws covering business partnerships and inheritance practices. These institutions benefited the Middle Eastern economy in the early centuries of Islam, but starting around the 10th century they began to act as a drag on economic development by slowing or blocking the emergence of central features of modern economic life – private capital accumulation, corporations, large-scale production and impersonal exchange.

An Islamic partnership, the main organizational vehicle for businesses of Muslim merchant classes, could be ended by one party at will, and even successful ventures were terminated on the death of a partner. As a result most businesses remained small and short-lived. The most durable and successful business partnerships in the Muslim world were operated by local non-Muslims. Inheritance customs hindered business consolidation because when a Muslim merchant died, his estate was split among surviving family members which prevented capital accumulation and stymied long-lasting capital-intensive companies. The resulting organizational stagnation thus prevented the Muslim mercantile community from remaining competitive with its western counterparts.

Likewise, research by Harvard economist Eric Chaney debunks theories that the root cause of the democracy deficit in the Middle East is Islam or Arab cultural patterns, oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict or desert ecology. The democratic deficit, as reflected in the prevalence of autocracies in the Muslim-Arab world, is real, Chaney notes, but it's a product of the long-run influence of control structures developed in the centuries following the Arab conquests.

Unlike Bernard Lewis, who argues that Muslim "rage" for having lost cultural primacy that was once theirs to the West is the root cause of their current conditions, Chaney has a more grounded historical explanation. In the ninth century, according to Chaney, rulers across this region began to use slave armies as opposed to their native population to staff armies. These slave armies allowed rulers to achieve independence from local military and civilian groups and helped remove constraints on the sovereign in pre-modern Islamic societies. In this autocratic environment, religious leaders emerged as the only check on the rulers' power. Religious leaders cooperated with the army to design a system that proved hostile to alternative centers of power. This historical institutional configuration which divided the power between the sovereign backed by his slave army and religious elites was not conducive to producing democratic institutions. Instead, religious and military elites worked together to perpetuate what Chaney calls "classical" institutional equilibrium – which is often referred to as Islamic law – designed to promote and protect their interests.


Regions incorporated into the Islamic world after they were conquered by non-Arab Muslim armies, such as India and the Balkans, and where Islam spread by conversion, for example, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sub-Saharan Africa, did not adopt the classical framework. Their institutions continued to be shaped by local elite which preserved political and cultural continuity. Consequently democratic deficit has remained an enduring legacy in the Arab world and in lands conquered by the Arab armies and remained under Islamic rule from 1100 AD onwards. But Islamic countries such as Turkey incorporated into the Islamic world by non-Arab Muslim armies or by conversions the democratic developments have followed a more progressive trajectory.

For the Arab Spring, history does not have to be destiny. Some optimistic signs suggest that it may be possible for the Arab world to escape its autocratic past.

The region has undergone structural changes such as increasing levels of education, urbanization and industrialization over the past 60 years which have made it more receptive to democratic change than any time in the past. The widespread uprisings of the Arab Spring since 2011, while an expression of this change, would not automatically lead to democracy. The events unfolding in Egypt and actions of the Supreme Council Armed Forces to grab power in the face of Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories sharpen the possibility of further violent confrontation. Failure of the UN monitors to stop the Syrian state from murdering and suppressing its people will only accentuate sectarian violence and bloodshed. It will take time to dismantle authoritarian institutions and mindsets of their minders.

But there is one clear sign that Muslim countries will follow different trajectories. Countries like Turkey, Albania, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia are more likely to defy history than the Arab countries, but poverty and weak civil institutions remain obstacles to democratic change.

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This article was first published in Yale 360.

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About the Author

Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore. His most recent books are: Islam and Society: Sociological Explorations (Melbourne University Press 2013) and, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings, (Routledge January 2014).

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