Islam and Arab Human Development

Various possibilities have been put forward as factors motivating what is commonly known as Islamic terrorism. Among these are a resurgence in Islamic fundamentalism, a sense of injustice due to the Palestinian situation, and discontent arising from the relative social and economic deprivation experienced by Muslim countries, the Arab word in particular. Regarding this latter concern, a relevant issue is the role played by religion as a factor in the social, political and economic difficulties that the Arab world faces. The stark nature of these problems has been depicted recently in the Arab Human Development Report (2003), produced by a group of Arab specialists for the United Nations Development Programme. This is a follow-up of a similar report made in 2002. The current report highlights the difficulties in producing a "knowledge society" in Arab countries, and mentions in a guarded way, the role of Islam in these difficulties.

The report reproduces some alarming statistics. In Arab countries, the quality of higher education is declining, and fewer students are enrolled. Public spending on education has declined since 1985. Expenditure on research and development is a tiny 0.2 percent of GNP, and there is a "political and social context inimical to the development of science". The number of scientists and engineers per capita is a third the world average. The number of computers per head is a quarter the global average. The number of newspapers published is a fifth that of developed countries, and what news there is is controlled and restricted. Books are censored, few are produced, and the proportion of religious books is three times the world average. The number of books that are translated into Spanish each year is one thousand times the number that are translated into Arabic.

On the subject of religion, the authors suggest that oppressive regimes and conservative religious scholars have colluded to produce "certain interpretations of Islam" that represent "serious impediments to human development, particularly when it comes to freedom of thought, accountability of the ruling authorities and women's participation in public life". Blaming tyrants and extremists may be a convenient option, but unfortunately the problem may be a lot deeper than that, as the authors perhaps realize. In their call to "reclaim Arab knowledge", a reference to the preeminence that Arabs had in scientific knowledge from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, they define a quest to build a knowledge-based society. This is one where "knowledge diffusion, production and application become the organizing principle in all aspects of human activity: culture, society, the economy, politics and private life".

This seemingly mundane aspiration is in fact, for Muslim Arabic society, a subversive concept. This is because Islam, rather than knowledge, is currently fervently held to be the "organizing principle" in all the aspects of human activity mentioned. Implicit, but unstated, in this aspiration is the need, at least in part, to replace Islam with knowledge. The authors are no doubt unwilling or unable to state such a message explicitly, for fear of adopting a position that may be said to be "anti-Islam". Rather, they suggest that the quest for knowledge is compatible with Islam, and can no doubt refer to a Koranic text for apparent support in this.

However here lies the problem. Inherent in the quest for knowledge, in scientific method, is the expression of doubt, but in Islam doubt is forbidden. That this is the real beginning of the problem can be seen in the authors' reference to the education system. This and other aspects of socialization, "fall short of the epistemological and social environment necessary for knowledge production". The major reason for this, unstated by the authors, is that religion and study of the Koran is a significant and compulsory part of primary and secondary education in all Arab countries, including the so-called secular ones. This is what really lies behind the Report's reference to children's "passive attitudes, hesitant decision making skills", affecting how a child thinks by "suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative".

There is actually no epistemological basis by which religious beliefs may be regarded as knowledge. In the non-Muslim world this is generally accepted, but in Muslim societies this is something that is hardly recognised. Science cannot be learnt or discovered from the Koran. What the authors needed to say was "we need less religion in education". The fact that they were unable to state this simple proposition is in itself and indication of their dire predicament. Instead, their strategic vision was expressed in terms of "delivering pure religion from political exploitation and respecting critical scholarship".  Such a target is perhaps a useful first step. However until more ambitious targets can be discussed and formulated, there is little hope of that much progress can be made in other problems besetting and Arab countries, such as those that were identified in the first AHDR, in 2002.

The earlier report similarly identified a number dire statistics regarding the Arab world in terms of economic and social performance. Over the last twenty years, growth in per capita income was the lowest in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa. Despite oil wealth, at this rate the Arab world will be left behind, not just by the developed world but by most of the developing world as well. Labour productivity is low and declining. The report identified "three deficits" compared with other regions The deficits were in freedom, women's empowerment and in knowledge. By use of an index measuring various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political rights and independence of the media, of the seven regions of the world for which the index was computed, the Arab region had the lowest value. Female illiteracy is high and the rate of female labour force participation is by far the lowest in the world. A recent World Values Survey indicates that Arabs expressed the lowest preference for gender equality in employment. The loss in the productive potential of half the population is an enormous social as well as economic cost. The particular aspects of the deficit in knowledge, identified in the 2002 report, were focussed upon in the 2003 report, which is the second of an expected four reports.

Very little was said about religion in the first report, its role as a determinant of the circumstances discussed or as an aspect of the policies proposed. Regarding freedom, the relationship between Islam and autocracy is a matter of controversy and perhaps one that it was too difficult to expect the authors to tackle in their first assignment. The policy of the United States for example in this matter has for decades been based on the assumption that Islam and democracy were incompatible. This has been recently been reversed and a policy of seeking to impose democracy by invasion has been adopted. The wisdom of this policy may be exposed as folly should the former assumption prove correct.

The problem for Islamic democracy lies in the roles assigned to the laws of man and the laws of God. For the devout, the laws of God as defined in the Koran and the sharia, take precedence over any man-made law. This leads to a practical desire to implement the sharia as a legal civil code. If this is accomplished then it may be deemed that as the laws of God do not change, no legislature is then required. The laws of god may require some interpretation, however this may best be performed by a cleric rather than a judicial officer. In this extreme scenario there is little role for politicians, elected or otherwise. In practice, the politics of most Arab counties are dominated by a contest between forces seeking to impose an Islamic state, which is by its nature autocratic, and secular forces using autocratic means to prevent such an autocracy from being established. The only solution to this dilemma may be the approach adopted by Turkey, whereby using constitutional means, Islam is excluded from politics and civil affairs. This strategy however is seen as a betrayal of Islam by many Arabs, and was perhaps too revolutionary a suggestion to be incorporated in the report.

In the long term economic demise of Arab states, the role of Islam is perhaps less well perceived. While it is true that the unfair trading policies of the European Union, the United States and Japan with respect to agricultural goods is the single largest avoidable cause of world poverty, this affects all underdeveloped countries, not only the Arab region. Another significant problem is the diversion of funds into arms purchases instead of being used more socially productive projects, but again, this is not a problem that affects only the Arab region. A major specific reason for low income growth per capita in Arab countries is high population growth, and in that, Islam is a causal factor. The preference for women to be assigned to home duties and child rearing is not unrelated to a doctrine of female inferiority, which is explicitly derived from the Koran (4:34). It is difficult to imagine any solution to this problem that may be couched in terms of "pure religion" or "moderate religion". As with the education problem, the only viable but so far unmentionable solution is "less religion".

Other economic handicaps may be less tangible but no less significant. The traditional doctrine regarding the payment of interest may be pragmatically averted by use of alternative forms, but not without an effective imposition of higher costs, higher overheads and higher effective rates. More pervasive may be the general economic psychology engendered by Islamic fatalism and other- worldliness. A doctrinally inspired aversion to risk-taking practices and entrepreneurial behaviour lowers the inclination for innovation. The scientists and engineers required for such innovation are lacking. Without innovation and investment in new productive capital, there is no productivity growth. A low growth potential and low international competitiveness reduces the attractiveness of foreign investment. This bleak situation unfortunately characterises the Arab economies. In a highly competitive world economy, it is thus difficult to anticipate anything other than a continuing relative economic decline in the Arab world. The implication of this for reducing motivations for terrorism is not encouraging.

The deep-rooted effect of Islam on the economic psychology of society not only makes Arab economic problems more intractable, but disguises the self-inflicted nature of the problem. It is unfortunately far easier for blame to be assigned to external causes, especially when there are certain highly visible but unrelated grievances that can quite legitimately be blamed on external factors. It is to be hoped that in their next report, the AHDR authors begin to identify and articulate these problems and the necessary solutions. As they indicate in the second report, an important way forward is to seek some genuine implementation of the safeguards for human rights that many Arabs aspire to and to which they are entitled. In the meantime, others can only work as best they can to set a higher standard than has currently been achieved, in their own countries and in international relations, in the application of universal principles of justice and honesty.


A version of this paper was published in Free Inquiry Vol. 24 No. 3, April / May 2004
(C) Copyright 2003   John L Perkins