No Arab spring without an Islamic renaissance

Wednesday, March 9, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

The West is riding a wave of optimism, despite the unresolved bloody mess in Libya prophesying a resurgent Arab/Muslim world. Led by cheerleading media — including such unexpected participants as Fox News — there’s lyrical reporting on anti-authoritarian signboards printed in English for Western audiences.

The enthusiasm may be misplaced.

Arab nations confront a restless, growing youth cohort, and these vast numbers of young people are as much a challenge as they are an engine for modernity. They need jobs in a new and rapidly growing economy to move out of 1,000 years of cultural stagnation. Virtually leaderless except for the occasional Muslim fanatic, these countries have few concrete ideas about how to produce those jobs.

Too often, frustrated anti-regime spokesmen fall back on the old lame excuse — colonialism, the usual scapegoat. European exploitation was real, of course, but so was the introduction of modernity that accompanied it. Years ago, a famous and charming communist Pakistani Urdu poet friend, in a tour of Lahore, pointed out to me how, like Calcutta, the city had been up to a certain point “typically” Edwardian. With his Marxist bent, his explanation for why it froze — we were speaking in the 1960s — was because European exploitation “didn’t pay anymore.”

However valid that explanation, the truth is that there is little fundamental about the current rebels’ so-called reform program. Their calls for eliminating corruption and inefficiency are unassailable. But efforts to remold economic facts of life in impoverished Muslim societies fly in the face of the traditional, religiously inspired cultural fatalism. Unfortunately, the Islamic orthodox have a virtual monopoly on moral regeneration. But their interpretation of Islam excludes individualism, which is at the heart of modern freedom, democratic governance and economic development.

Applying the concepts of Shariah — Islamic law — to the economy has been catastrophic. Western and even indigenous banks that pandered to the orthodox by replacing conventional banking with “Muslim concepts” quietly dumped them when they simply did not work.

Dubai is an example: Getting out of entanglements of a collapsed real estate bubble is proving virtually impossible, despite help from neighboring oil despots, because Muslim “rules of the road” purportedly eschew Western legal concepts of equity and interest. Malaysia, which lucked out in the 1997 East Asia financial crisis when it rejected the IMF’s bitter medicine, now trumpets the virtues of Islamic capitalism. But its economy is built on the backs of its minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, who follow a pragmatic work ethic while paying “rents” to their Malay overlords.

It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and even racism discussing these issues. A generation ago, some were bantering about the phrase “Hindu rate of growth” to describe India’s economic stagnation. Then along came a determined, charismatic, non-expert prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who shucked off Soviet planning and attacked the “babu” — clerk — government culture. And the economy took off. Alas, under current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the finance minister under Mr. Rao who has wrongly been given credit for the changeover, New Delhi appears to be slipping back into old habits.

True enough, in virtually all great religious traditions, fiery exhortations exist alongside professions of universal ethical standards. But Europe’s cultural wars over “that which is Caesar’s” long ago threw off most primitive calls for tribal vengeance, calls that are still prolific in Muslim cultures.

In seeking to avoid a dangerous confrontation involving large parts of the civilized world, Western public intellectuals look for commonality. It may not exist. Presenting Islam as just another Abrahamic religion along with Christianity and Judaism obfuscates important differences. Often Western politicians who hope to bridge the gap with Islam through rhetoric simply compound the problem. The latest attempt is the decision by the left-wing Swedish government coalition to provide massive “humanitarian” assistance to illegal immigrants, only to see those immigrants turn to ethnic and class warfare in Scandinavia.

The astronomical “rents” that regimes in the Arab/Muslim world can collect on fossil-fuel resources critical to the world economy only compound the problem. You can count on the feudal elites in these countries to misuse the profits. Just now, oil-rich members of the Persian Gulf community are attempting to stem ethnic and civil violence in Oman and Bahrain by setting up a $10 billion “Marshall Plan” to buy off the locals. But using that nomenclature shows an utter lack of understanding of post-World War II Europe, where refinancing the world’s most important manufacturing machine was the order of the day. This announcement follows a recent across-the-board increase in government stipends for Saudi Arabia’s potentially explosive natives, particularly the Shiite minority living in the country’s most productive oil fields.

These transfers — and given the levels of corruption in the region, one has to ask how much of the money actually will reach the intended target — will not solve more basic problems. These countries have made little progress establishing economies parallel to their oil wealth. They have imported low-wage South Asian labor to keep the petroleum boom going at full blast. But there has been no integration of these exploited workers and, in fact, migrants are often treated so shabbily that they present yet another danger to these artificial states.

That Arab spring may be long in coming, for it awaits an Islamic reformation.

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