As the American soldiers find their ways into the Afghan territories, the academics at home are fighting a battle of its own: To prove that Islam and modernity are incompatible. The accusations are such that: Not only that the Muslims are authoritarian and undemocratic, but also economically impoverished. This is then supposed to lend support to the thesis of civilizational clashes by Professor Samuel Huntington and endorse the recent revelations by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Islam is inferior to the West. The (implicit) aim is to justify the war on ‘terror’, and pave the way for the establishment of a new world order that is said to be based on freedom, justice, respect for international law and separation between the Mosque and the State.
Islam and Authoritarianism
Some Western scholars, as pointed out by Ibtisam Ibrahim, an Egyptian researcher, love to explain to the world that democratization in Arab countries is impossible due to the political culture of the Muslim people. They argue that, while Islam is a very complex phenomenon, its recommendations are fairly simple: both textually and historically, it supports authoritarianism by rulers and submission by followers.
This idea has been articulated by Elie Kedourie, a political scientist, who once put it: ‘There is nothing in the political traditions of the Arab World, which are the political tradition of Islam, which might make familiar, or indeed intelligible, the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government. The notion of a state as a specific territorial entity which is endowed with sovereignty, the notion of popular sovereignty as the foundation of governmental legitimacy, the idea of representation, of elections…, the ideas of the secularity of the state, of society being composed of multitude of self-activating, autonomous groups and associations, all these are profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition’.
These, in fact, are not ideas, but pure accusations irrelevant to the facts. First, I doubt that Kedourie has ever read the Koran. The very vast majority of those inspired by it have never touched it. The Koran is difficult to read, and, like the Bible, cannot be interpreted by political scientists. Frankly speaking, even the Muslim clerics themselves have found it difficult to interpret and that is why the doors of Ijtihad (Islamic research) remain wide and open.
Second, the experience of Islamic countries with democratization is not uniform. Even the Freedom House survey, a publication that is usually biased against the Arab world, has shown that the Muslim countries are at different levels of democratic change. Bangladesh, for example, is more open and democratic than Saudi Arabia, and Morocco is less repressive than the United Arab Emirates.
Third, at the country level, there is a clear pattern of continuous political change. In 1989-91, for example, Algeria was more open politically than it is now. Similarly, Iran is currently more repressive than during the period 1978é”81.
If Islam is to blame, then why are the Muslim countries not equally repressive and, more importantly, why did the level of repression fluctuated over the years in most of these countries?.
Furthermore, it is wrong to try to give the impression that the Muslim countries are all authoritarian while all others are full-fledged democracies. Would it be fair, for example, to assume that Morocco is more repressive than North Korea?.
On top of that, it may even be logical to assume that the notions of freedom and democracy themselves are relative and their interpretations differ from one place to another. You cannot, for example, accuse somebody of being an anti-globalist simply because that person has no taste for Pepsi cola. Tastes, like notions of democracy, are not homogenous across the globe.
Islam and Development
September 11, as pointed out by Philip Bowring of the International Herald Tribune, has spawned much theorizing about Islam and modernity. One notion now doing the rounds, as he put it, is that there is a clear connection between Islam and lack of economic development.
Algeria’s economic troubles have made the country victim to such a propaganda. To the Western audience, it has become self-explanatory to just mention the country’s name to get a taste of how Islam, civil conflict and underdevelopment reinforce one another.
The truth, of course, is different. Algeria’s underdevelopment has absolutely nothing to do with Islam or Algerians being Muslim. To verify this, I looked at the country’s experience with economic growth from 1965 to 2001. I found that between 1965 and 1979 (and to a lesser extent between 1980 and 1985), the country was a model for all developing countries, including those high performer countries in South-East Asia. Under the Boumedienne regime in the 1970s, Algeria prospered economically in a way that inspired the whole countries outside the Western world. Why Algeria has fallen back on its feet is a matter of simple economic arithmetic; Islam and the holy scripture have absolutely nothing to do with it.
There are other facts. As Bowring has correctly noted, there are many Muslim countries which have outperformed the success of non-Islamic ones. Egypt, for example, has been on a par with poor Asian performers like Catholic Philippines but way ahead of Buddhist failures such as Burma and Cambodia. Similarly, Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, had, until recently, the best economic and social development track record of any large developing nation. Malaysia, by any standard, is still one of the best performers of South-East Asia today.
If you look back at Africa, you may wish to contrast the success story of Tunisia with the experiences of a large number of non-Muslim countries. You will conclude, using the logic of Professor Samuel Huntington and Mr Silvio Berlusconi, that the absence of Islam must be held accountable for the failures of such countries as Rwanda!.
Put it differently: If Islam was to blame for the underdevelopment of some Muslim countries, then why was Malaysia doing better than Indonesia (both Muslim) and why was Egypt doing better than Cambodia?. Surely, there are other explanations (less appealing to many), but these are harder, for the clash of civilization promoters, to come by.
On the whole, it is a pity to see academics at the university level promoting conspiracy theories while turning their back on the facts. They might have been doing it for a few dollars more, but, for the world at large, this is not a fair play. It does not even prove that Osama has really done it!!!.