What’s wrong with the Arab world?


Hesham A. Hassaballa’s Column

An almost countless number of pundits, commentators, and “experts” have rattled off a number of reasons for the decrepit situation of the Arab world. Many, such as Elan Journo of the California-based Ayn Rand Institute, lay the blame solely on the shoulders of Islam: “The plight of the Middle East is not an accident. It is born of and reinforced by certain ideas: the precepts of Islam, which subordinate reason to faith and the individual to the collective.”

In particular, Mr. Journo decries the definition of Islam as the main problem: “In Islam piety demands the total surrender of one’s life to Allah-and to those claiming to be His representatives on earth. In practice a Muslim has no right to his own life.” Examples he cites of this horrible “dictatorship of the Divine” include property rights being “anathema” to Islam, and that the zakat, or alms tax that Muslims are required to pay, purifies the Muslim “from the supposedly base activity of earning a living.”

These claims are fallacious, based on stereotype, myth and half-truth. Islam denotes submission of one’s will to that of God alone. No where does Islam claim that Muslims must also submit to those who claim to be God’s representatives on earth.  A Muslim believes that, since God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Giver of Life, it is only right that his will be trumped to God’s. It is a similar concept to that embodied by the phrase “Thy will be done,” found in the Lord’s Prayer.

First of all, property rights are not anathema to Islam. Islam upholds the individual’s right to own property. Earning a living, in fact, is considered to be an act of worship of God. In addition, Islam was first in human history to guarantee property rights to both men and women. The submission to God that Islam calls for, however, dictates how a Muslim earns that living. For instance, since theft is forbidden in Islam, a Muslim must not earn his living by stealing other people’s property or cheating his or her customers.

Secondly, the Zakat is due from Muslims with a certain minimum amount of unused wealth accumulated from the past year. It amounts to 2.5% of that wealth and must be given to the poor. The Biblical parallel is the concept of tithing. Payment of zakat ensures that the poor–who are exempt from this tax–are adequately cared for and purifies the Muslim from greed and miserliness, not the “base activity of earning a living.” The zakat is yet another example of the submission Islam demands. If a Muslim earns an infinite amount of wealth, Islam would not raise any objection. That wealthy Muslim, however, must own up to his responsibility to provide for the less fortunate through his or her payment of the zakat.

Thridly, Mr. Journo goes on to claim that: “a Muslim must surrender [his mind] in order to demonstrate his faith in his religion’s key tenets,” and that the pitiful state of the Arab world is due to “the Muslims’ rejection of…reason.” This is fallacious as well. Journo must not have read the  numerous verses in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy scripture, commanding its reader to think, ponder, and use his or her intellect. Journo must also have overlooked the vigorous, centuries-old debate among Muslim philosophers, such as those of the Mu’tazilite and Ash’arite schools, over reason and its relationship to faith. Obviously, there are instances where faith does trump reason: most notably, with the belief in the existence of God. Nevertheless, to claim that Islam demands human beings be little more than robots with no mind of their own is sheer fantasy.

Lastly, Journo faults Islam for subordinating the “individual to the collective.” Does not democracy, or any other system of governance for that matter, do the same thing? For example, if we disagree with a Federal law currently on the books, we are still obliged to obey that law. Isn’t this also subordinating the individual to the collective?

This does not at all imply that there is nothing wrong with the Arab world. The United Nations Development Program issued a report which exhaustively detailed a number of problems in the Arab world today: 65 million of the 280 million people in the Arab world are illiterate; 10 million children do not attend school; the unemployment rate is the highest in the world; Arab women are an oppressed majority. These problems hinder the progress of the Arab world and must be corrected. Nevertheless, the reason for the backwardness of the Arab world does not stem from Islam. This claim is an old and tired one and does nothing but fan the flames of hatred and intolerance against Islam and Muslims at a time when more understanding between the West and Islam is desperately needed.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for Beliefnet.com and Media Monitors Network (MMN)He is author of “Why I Love the Ten Commandments,” published in the book “Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith” (Rodale Press).