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Human Development in the Arab World: Islam is Blocking Progress

by John L. Perkins


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 3.


What motivates so-called Islamic terrorism? Commonly cited factors include resurgent fundamentalism, a sense of injustice due to the Palestinian situation, and discontent arising from the relative social and economic deprivation experienced by Muslim countries, especially in the Arab world. The stark nature of these problems has been depicted recently in the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR 2003), produced by a group of Arab specialists for the United Nations Development Programme. This is a follow-up of a similar report made in 2002, the second of an expected four reports. The current report highlights the difficulties in producing a "knowledge society" in Arab countries and mentions in a guarded way the role of Islam in the Arab world's social, political, and economic difficulties.

The report conveys some alarming statistics. In Arab countries, the quality of higher education is declining and enrollment is down. Public spending on education has declined since 1985. Expenditure on research and development is a tiny 0.2 percent of GNP, and there is a "political and social context inimical to the development of science." The number of scientists and engineers per capita is a third of the world average. The number of computers per capita is a quarter of the global average. The number of newspapers published per capita is a fifth of that of developed countries, and the little news that is disseminated  is controlled and restricted. The few books that are published are censored,  and the proportion of religious books produced is three times the world average. The number of books translated into Spanish each year is one thousand times the number translated into Arabic.

On the subject of religion, the authors suggest that oppressive regimes and conservative religious scholars have colluded to produce "certain interpretations of Islam" that represent "serious impediments to human development, particularly when it comes to freedom of thought, accountability of the ruling authorities, and women's participation in public life." Blaming tyrants and extremists may be a convenient option; unfortunately, the problem runs much deeper than that, as the authors may realize. In their call to "reclaim Arab knowledge," a reference to the preeminence that Arabs enjoyed in scientific knowledge from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, the authors define a quest to build a knowledge-based society where "knowledge diffusion, production and application become the organizing principle in all aspects of human activity: culture, society, the economy, politics and private life."

This seemingly mundane aspiration is in fact a profoundly subversive concept in Muslim Arabic society. This is because Islam, rather than knowledge, is currently fervently held to be the "organizing principle" in all the aspects of human activity mentioned. Implicit but unstated in this aspiration is the need, at least in part, to replace Islam with knowledge. The authors are no doubt unwilling or unable to state such a message explicitly for fear of adopting a position that may be said to be "anti-Islam." Rather, they suggest that the quest for knowledge is compatible with Islam and can no doubt refer to a Qur'anic text for apparent support in this.

Here lies the problem. Inherent in the quest for knowledge, in the scientific method itself, is the expression of doubt. But in Islam doubt is forbidden. That this is the real beginning of the problem can be seen in the authors' treatment of the education system, which like other aspects of socialization falls "short of the epistemological and social environment necessary for knowledge production." The major reason for this, unstated by the authors, is that religious and Qur'anic studies form a significant and compulsory part of primary and secondary education in all Arab countries, including the so-called secular ones. This is the major cause of what the report describes as children's "passive attitudes" and "hesitant decision making skills," impairing children's thinking skills by "suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative."

In actuality there is no epistemological basis for regarding religious beliefs as a type of knowledge. In the non-Muslim world this is generally accepted, but in Muslim societies it is generally denied—or simply not thought of. Science cannot be learned or discovered from the Qur'an. What the authors needed to say—but failed to—was "we need less religion in education." The fact that they were unable to offer this simple prescription bespeaks their dire predicament; the best course they could recommend was limited to "delivering pure religion from political exploitation and respecting critical scholarship." Such a modest target may be a useful first step. However, until more ambitious targets can be discussed and formulated, there is little hope that much progress will be made on other problems besetting Arab countries, such as those identified in the original AHDR (2002).

That earlier report similarly identified dire statistics regarding the Arab world's economic and social performance. Over the last twenty years, per capita income growth has been the lowest in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa. If this continues, despite its oil wealth, the Arab world will soon be left behind, not just by the developed world but by most of the developing world as well. Labor productivity is low and declining. The authors computed an index measuring various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political rights, and independence of the media. The Arab region scored lowest of the seven regions of the world for which the index was computed.

The report identified "three deficits" compared with other regions: deficits in freedom, women's empowerment, and  knowledge. Female illiteracy is high; female labor-force participation is by far the lowest in the world. On a recent World Values Survey, Arabs expressed the lowest preference of any group for gender equality in employment. Thus losing the productive potential of half of the population levies enormous social as well as economic costs. Very little was said about religion in the first report; timid as its successor was, in its treatment of religion, AHDR 2003 seemed bold by comparison.

If hopes for Islamic democracy seem dim, the fault lies in part with the way traditional Muslim societies view the laws of man and those of God. For the devout, the laws of God as defined in the Qur'an and the Sharia take precedence over any man-made law. This leads to a practical desire to implement the Sharia as a civil legal code, then to a conviction that, since the laws of God do not change, there will be no need for a legislature. Such occasional interpretation as the laws of God require is best performed by clerics rather than judicial officers. In this extreme scenario, there is little role for politicians, elected or otherwise. In practice, the politics of most Arab counties become a contest between forces seeking to impose an Islamic state that is by its nature autocratic and secular forces using autocratic means to prevent such an autocracy from being established. Democracy is all but frozen out. The only solution to this dilemma has been the approach adopted by Turkey, whereby Islam is constitutionally excluded from politics and civil affairs. This strategy, however, is seen as a betrayal of Islam by many Arabs.

There is another sense in which Islamism promotes longer-scale Arab economic decline. While it is true that the unfair trading policies of the European Union, the United States, and Japan with respect to agricultural goods is the single largest avoidable cause of world poverty, this affects all underdeveloped countries, not only the Arab region. Another significant problem is the diversion of funds into arms purchases rather than more socially productive projects, but again this is not a problem unique to Arab countries. A major specific reason for low per capita income growth in Arab countries is high population growth, and, in that, Islam is a causal factor. The preference for women to be assigned home duties and child rearing is not unrelated to a doctrine of female inferiority, which is explicitly derived from the Qur'an (4:34). It is difficult to imagine any solution to this problem that may be couched in terms of "pure religion" or "moderate religion." As with the education problem, the only viable—but so far unmentionable—solution is "less religion."

Other economic handicaps may be less tangible, if no less significant. The traditional doctrine that proscribes the payment of interest may be pragmatically averted by use of alternative financial mechanisms, but only by imposing higher costs, higher overheads, and higher effective rates than competitors not laboring under a ban on usury. More pervasive still may be the general economic psychology engendered by Islamic fatalism and otherworldliness. A doctrinally inspired aversion to risk-taking practices and entrepreneurial behavior lowers the inclination for innovation. The scientists and engineers required for innovation are lacking; without innovation and investment in new productive capital, there is no productivity growth; low growth potential and low international competitiveness reduces the attractiveness of foreign investment. This bleak situation unfortunately enfolds the Arab economies. In a highly competitive world marketplace, it is difficult to anticipate anything other than a continuing relative economic decline for the Arab world. The implication of this for reducing motivations for terrorism is not encouraging.

Islam's deep-rooted effect upon economic psychology of society not only makes Arab economic problems more intractable but disguises the self-inflicted nature of the problem. It is to be hoped that in their third report the AHDR authors will begin to identify and articulate these problems and the necessary solutions. As the second report indicates, one important way forward is to seek genuine implementation of the human rights safeguards that many Arabs aspire to and to which they are entitled. In the meantime, others can only work as best they can to set a higher standard than has currently been achieved, in their own countries and in international relations, in applying universal principles of justice and honesty.

References

http://www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr/englishpresskit2002.html 
http://www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr/englishpresskit2003.html 


John L. Perkins is a senior economist in the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research in Australia

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