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Commentary

The Cultural Undertow of Muslim Economic Rage


     
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Many of the arguments heard since September 11 have invoked the economic underdevelopment of the Islamic world to explain why so many Muslims appear angry at the West and particularly at the United States. Economic globalization has benefited the West and harmed vast segments of the Islamic world, it is said. Some add that Islam has exacerbated the conflict by transforming economic grievances into mistrust of Westernization, even into antagonism to modernity. This hostility is consistent, we are told, with the emergence of an Islamic banking system and with al Qaeda's use of hawala, an old Middle Eastern credit delegation instrument, to finance its deadly operations.

Other observers, trying to counter the perception that such acts of economic separatism represent broad trends, note that mainstream Islam has been, and remains, supportive of markets, technological creativity, and material prosperity. Nothing in Islam conflicts with economic development or global economic integration, says the latter group of commentators. The nineteen Arab hijackers of September 11 hardly spoke for the millions of Muslims who yearn to participate in the global economy as equals.

Whatever their inconsistencies, none of these interpretations can be dismissed out of hand. Each captures important truths that we ignore at our peril.

Widespread Muslim misgivings about globalization are not a figment of anyone's imagination; just as there are anti-globalists all across America and Europe, so there are many in Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia. But for the most part the observed Muslim resentment is less an expression of opposition to modern capitalism than it is a cry of desperation. Middle Easterners who have acquired skills to compete in the global economy, when given opportunities to participate in it, usually prefer peaceful production to hateful destruction. The Hebron crowd that danced in the streets on September 11 consisted overwhelmingly of people pushed by modern technologies to the fringes of the global economy.

Does it follow that poverty is responsible for whatever clash we observe between Islam and the West? Will the current tensions subside if measures are taken to uplift the Islamic world's desperately poor sectors?

While it would be comforting to believe that a quick fix exists, it is doubtful that the problems will respond to economic incentives alone. After all, the hijackers of September 11 were not unemployable souls living at the margins of subsistence. Holding university degrees, some of them were perfectly capable of achieving prosperity through legitimate means. What motivated them was not material deprivation but an all-consuming ideology. They were not just Muslims but Islamists pursuing goals they considered higher than life itself. The difference is critical. Just as Timothy McVeigh belonged to a small minority of Americans consumed by hatred against their government, so Islamists, whether or not they are prone to violence, differ from most Muslims by a commitment to radical global transformation.

Islamists believe that to be a good Muslim is to lead an "Islamic way of life." In principle, every facet of one's existence must be governed by Islamic rules and regulations — marriage, family, dress, politics, economics, and much more. In every domain of life, they believe, a clear demarcation exists between "Islamic" and un-Islamic behaviors. Never mind that in all but a few ritualistic matters the Islamists themselves disagree on what Islam prescribes. They have been educated to dismiss their disagreements as minor and to expect a bit more study of God's commandments to produce a consensus about the properly Islamic way to live.

The march of history, Islamists are also trained to believe, is going their way. Earlier generations of Islamists had predicted that the two major economic systems of the modern era, capitalism and Communism, were doomed to fail, because in their own ways they both bred injustice, inequity, and inefficiency. One part of this prediction was borne out by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Now it is the turn of capitalism, which is far less stable than the pace of its "arrogant" global spread might suggest. Just as Communism collapsed like a house of cards as soon as communist societies discovered it was safe to revolt, so capitalism will self-destruct when someone manages to expose its vulnerability. Or so the thinking goes. Capitalism, Islamists believe, has failed humanity because it breeds emptiness, dissatisfaction, and despair — even among the materially successful.

What Islamists offer as an improvement is an Islamic economic system. The key components of the envisioned Islamic economy are an Islamic banking system that avoids interest, an Islamic redistribution system based on Koranic principles of sharing and equity, and a set of norms to ensure fairness and honesty in the marketplace. To anyone familiar with the complexities of modern economic relations, this list will seem hopelessly truncated. In fact, the "Islamic" elements of the planned economic transformation do not go much beyond these three elements.

Consequently, there exists no workable Islamic economic system. Government-championed "economic Islamization" efforts in Sudan, Pakistan, and Iran have all ended in failure. Leading Islamist writers rationalize these disappointments by arguing that no properly Islamic economy can exist so long as the world is rife with corruption. Some add that none has existed in history, except during the initial few decades of the first Islamic state founded fourteen centuries ago in Western Arabia. After that "Golden Age," corruption took over, breeding unfairness, injustice, and inefficiency.

There is, of course, a massive contradiction here. How can the march of history be favoring the Islamist agenda if that agenda has repeatedly been frustrated for the last fourteen centuries, since shortly after the birth of Islam? And why should anyone believe in the viability of Islam's economic agenda if its proponents cannot cite a single contemporary example of successful implementation?

Yet, within the Islamist mindset, observed failures establish merely the need to redouble efforts to defeat the offending sources of corruption. Today, goes the argument, the principal source of corruption is Westernization, which masquerades as globalization and whose chief instruments are the military, cultural, and economic powers of the United States. Americans have been corrupting people everywhere, including Muslims, through seductive advertising and the dominance of their godless media. They have also been propping up client regimes that are committed, despite appearances to the contrary, to frustrating Islamist goals.

Not that this tendency to blame outside forces for various sorts of failures is limited to terrorists. Islamists with no affinity for violence attribute sundry domestic problems, including failures of their own movements and initiatives, to the prevailing moral standards. Articulated incessantly in diverse contexts, such excuses foster an intellectual climate that enables violent groups to justify their destructiveness as essential to ridding the world of evil and building an Islamic utopia. It also aids these groups in finding recruits.

Contrary to common understandings, the notion that Islam offers the world a workable economic system destined to outperform its alternatives is a recent creation. It emerged in late-colonial India, in the 1930s, a time when leading Muslim Indians were intensely debating whether the dominant element of their communal identity was their Muslim faith or their Indian nationality.

Some Muslim leaders proposed that to be a Muslim was to live differently from Hindus and Westerners, and that their Westernized co-religionists were Muslims only in name. To substantiate these views, they undertook to show that Islam offers distinct prescriptions in all domains of life — marriage, friendship, dress, government, economics, and much more. Concepts such as Islamic economics and Islamic banking emerged in the course of a sustained campaign they launched to differentiate what they considered the properly Muslim lifestyle from other lifestyles.

Many clerics in South Asia and elsewhere endorsed this campaign, partly because the elevation of religious values would enhance their own authority. Weak governments, including ones run by essentially secular Muslims, have had their own reasons to support Islamist efforts to define, articulate, and, where necessary, invent an Islamic way of life. To stay in power, they have found it convenient to trumpet their Islamic virtues by supporting Islamist pet projects. The Saudi regime has bankrolled Islamic universities in numerous countries, sponsored conferences on the Islamization of knowledge, and built institutes to train Islamic bankers. Pakistani leaders known to have a low opinion of Islamic economics have paid lip service to the ideal of economic Islamization, supported a ban on non-Islamic forms of banking, and founded an Islamic redistribution system.

Neither individually nor collectively have the economic measures taken in the name of Islam revolutionized the economies they were supposed to cleanse and perfect. This is hardly surprising when one considers that they were inspired by cultural goals rather than efforts to stimulate economic development.

In any case, whatever the economic successes of Islamic history, it is patently unrealistic to expect the Koran or early Islamic precedents to yield the blueprint for contemporary economic life. A modern economy is far more complex than the seventh-century Arabian desert economy that contemporary Islamists treat as their model. The inspiration for economic development must come primarily from outside Islam and Islamic precedents.

Forced to confront this plain fact, even some Islamists grant the necessity of basing the design of modern economic institutions at least partly on non-religious experiences and human judgment. Yet, such recognition does not amount to a discarding of their Islamist beliefs. Their capacity for mental compartmentalization (a capacity we all share) allows them to revert to Islamist thought patterns in contexts where it is convenient to have clear and simple answers to complex problems. Their mental compartmentalization is facilitated by the prevalence of Islamist discourse and by the paucity of challenges to its premises, assertions, and arguments.

The economic grievances that contribute to Muslim resentment of the global economic order have, then, an unmistakable cultural, and specifically religious dimension. Muslims who are angry at the United States are propelled by more than their own poverty or that of their societies. They are driven also by a vision that treats Islam as the answer to every conceivable problem and attributes all failures to non-Islamic influences.

If I am right, there can be no immediate solution to the current world crisis. Catching Osama bin Laden and destroying the Taliban will do nothing to alleviate nightmarish conditions in the Afghan countryside or the slums of Cairo. Nor will it keep Pakistani and Saudi youths from being taught that capitalism is evil and that an oversimplified form of Islam is a source of unrivaled economic wisdom.

A lasting solution to our crisis requires an arduous two-pronged strategy of economic development and cultural repair. Out of both compassion and self-interest, the developed countries must take steps to assist the Islamic world in ways that go beyond window dressing.

For starters, the United States and the European Community should lift barriers to the industrial and agricultural exports of the Islamic countries, especially the poorest. Equally important, the developed world must lend a helping hand to the secular education systems of the Middle East and South Asia. Within the Islamic world itself, governments and civil organizations can join the struggle through a dual program of their own. Making a renewed and credible commitment to poverty reduction, they must also be willing to counter the nonsensical and destructive elements of Islamist discourse.

Regardless of their faith or creed, the world's intellectuals can also help out by abandoning the relativist strains of modern multiculturalism. Although all major cultures, including those associated with Islam, offer much that is valuable and instructive, they are not equally successful at producing viable economic solutions. In particular, whatever other comforts Islamism gives its adherents, it is clearly an inferior instrument of economic development.

In fact, some of its variants, including that of the Taliban, have proven to be positively harmful, even hostile, to material prosperity. The laudable goal of cherishing the achievements of diverse cultures and respecting cultural differences does not absolve us of the responsibility to acknowledge failures, dead-ends, and dangers where they are noticed.


Timur Kuran is Professor of Economics and Political Science, Gorter Family Chair in Islamic Studies, and Associate Director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University.






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