The age-old debate about Islam’s role in the political backwardness of the Middle East has returned to the fore. The dramatic developments of the Arab Spring, followed by the re-emergence of authoritarian tendencies, have reignited the debate. While debates will continue, a tentative explanation can be offered: Flirtation with authoritarianism could be linked more to millennia of Arab history and culture rather than with Islam as such.In his seminal “Muslim Society,” British social anthropologist Ernest Gellner boldly asserted that, judged by various criteria, of the three great Western monotheistic religions, Islam was “the one closest to modernity.” He went on say that had the Arabs won at Poitiers and conquered and converted Europe, the modern rational spirit and its expression in business and bureaucracy could only have arisen from Islamic thought.
But there is 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 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 year 1000, 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.
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 say the same.
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 acted 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, and even successful ventures were terminated on the death of a partner. As a result most businesses remained small and short-lived.
Inheritance customs hindered business consolidation because when a Muslim merchant died, his estate was split among surviving family members. This prevented capital accumulation and stymied long-lasting capital-intensive companies.
Harvard economist Eric Chaney also debunks prevailing theories of the democracy deficit in the Middle East. Such a 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.
In the ninth century, according to Chaney, rulers across this region began to use slaves 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 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 – 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, the 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 onward. But in Islamic countries such as Turkey, incorporated into the Islamic world by non-Arab Muslim armies or by conversions, democratic developments have followed a more progressive trajectory.
For the Arab Spring, history does not have to be destiny. Some signs suggest that it may be possible for the Arabs to escape their 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 uprisings of the Arab Spring, while an expression of this change, would not automatically lead to democracy.
The events unfolding in Egypt and actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to grab power in the face of Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victories sharpen the possibility of further violent confrontation. The failure of United Nations 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 a sign that Muslim states will follow different trajectories. 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.
Riaz Hassan is a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His recent books include “Inside Muslim Minds” and “Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings.” This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2012, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.