TCS Daily

Islam and Development

By Hans H.J. Labohm - February 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Why has the Arab civilization, which reached its apogee when Europe languished in its dark Middle Ages, been declining for so many centuries?

In the Arab literature external causes have been emphasized, such as the ousting of the Arabs from Europe, the crusades, and the Mongol incursions from the East. Later periods were marked by European colonial interventions in the Arab countries.

But in the Western literature other explanations, many of which are connected with internal factors, prevail, such as climatological and ecological differences, particularly the encroaching aridity (desert and steppes) of the Middle East, Islamic north Africa and central Asia, resulting in increased resource scarcity.

Moreover, the trade function of the Arab countries was undermined by the European discoveries, especially the opening up of the maritime trade routes to Asia, thus circumventing the traditional trade roads, such as the Silk Road and the Red Sea.

Many centuries later, after the end of the colonial era, the Arab countries adopted the wrong economic system. When they gained political independence, they saw the West as a threat. Therefore, they opted for a inward-looking, nationalistic development strategy, based on the Soviet-style command economy or similar models with excessive government intervention.

Faith and Reason

But there is another more fundamental - and also highly controversial - factor that is still taboo in the analyses of most of the Islamic scientists, namely the impact of the Islam on the thinking and actions of Muslims. Influenced by the Greek civilization, Arabs scholars initially believed that reason took precedence over faith. But in the course of many centuries, the Arab world went through a cultural and intellectual u-turn, whereby faith overtook reason. This development took place as a result of orthodox thinking, driven by the fear that the application of reason would result in all kinds of heretic ideas, which would undermine the community of the faithful. The result was religious orthodoxy and spiritual as well as intellectual conformity. It goes without saying that such an orientation has a crippling impact on individual creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, with devastating effects on scientific, economic and technological progress.

The 'Arab Human Development Report 2002' has been published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. It is unprecedented. Similar reports has been routinely published for others regions of the world. But so far the Arab world was conspicuous by its absence.

The report states that the Arab countries have made great progress over the last three decades. Life expectancy has risen by 15 years. Literacy has markedly improved, both for men and women, and the incidence of absolute poverty (an income of less than 1$ a day) is less than in other development regions. Yet, on balance, the report puts more emphasis on the shortcomings of the development in the Arab world.

In 1999, the total annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the Arab world amounted to $530 billion. That is less than the GDP of one single member of the European Union, Spain, with a GDP of almost $600 billion. As regards income per capita the Arab world occupies a higher ranking in the world league than most other developing regions. But in terms of the Human Development Index (which in addition tot GDP p.c. also includes life expectancy, literacy and school enrolment) its score is worse. Although it ranks higher than Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia, its position is lower than that of East Asia and Latin America. Therefore, the report concludes: 'The region is richer than it is developed.'

With the exception of Sub-Sahara Africa, annual income growth in the Arab countries was the lowest in the world: 0.5%. If it continues at this pace, it will take 140 years before the Arab citizen will achieve a doubling of his income, while in some other development regions in the world the same result will be achieved in 10 years.

As most important obstacles the report identifies the lack of civil and political freedom, as well as the lack of transparency and accountability of governance. Also women's participation in public life is lagging behind that in the rest of the world. Therefore, the region needs women's empowerment. Despite progress in school enrolment, still 65 million adults remain illiterate, of which two thirds are women. Moreover there is a mismatch between education and the requirement of the labour market. The use of ICT is minimal: only 0.6% of the population is connected to Internet and less than 1.2% has access to a computer.

The report presents recommendations in many fields. As regards the economy these do not deviate from the pro-market liberal agenda currently prescribed for all other parts of the world. Thus, they are fully in line with the international development consensus.

But the report evades the delicate question of the impact of the Islam on the sustained absence of an economic take-off. Arab proponents of secularization believe that the omni-present Islamisation of the Arab society has a deleterious influence on economic and social development. But this issue is still a political taboo in the Arab world. More than any form or amount of western development aid, the Arab world needs a kind of exegetical revolution, similar to which Judaism and Christianity have been subjected in the 19th and 20th centuries, whereby new notions should be developed about the distinction between eternal truths and time-bound opinions in the holy books. In short, if the Arab world wants to achieve economic and social progress, it particularly needs alternative interpretations of faith.

Hans H.J. Labohm is senior visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, 'Clingendael', in The Hague.

TCS Daily Archives