How Different Are Islamic Societies?

by M. Shahid Alam

There are two opposite visions that animate American scholarship on Islam and Islamic societies. In the days, months and years ahead, a great deal will hinge on which of these two visions prevails in our foreign policy.

One projects Islam as an enemy that must be destroyed, or it will destroy us. This is the camp of warriors, led, among others, by Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer. Their thinking is reductionist and a historical: they believe that Islam is fundamentally at odds with the core values of the West. These warriors urge United States to confront this menace now, and contain it militarily before it threatens the West.

The second camp takes the view that Islamic societies are diverse, and each contains tendencies-religious, cultural and political-that pull in different directions. They do not think that political Islam rejects modernity: it seeks to indigenize modernity, to give it a local habitation and a name. This is the diplomatic camp, led, among others, by John Esposito, Richard Bulliet and Robin Wright. They believe in engaging political Islam, and taming its force, among other things, by adopting a more balanced foreign policy towards the Palestinian question.

It is worth noting that, in the world of scholarship, the warriors are a minority. However, together with their neoconservative allies, they enjoy considerably greater political and media clout than the diplomatic camp. This clout increased greatly after the end of the Cold War. And now, after September 11, President Bush appears to be embracing their objective of waging pre-emptive wars against major Islamic countries. We know that in the present climate of opinion, it would be all too easy to start these wars, but they may be harder to stop.

I will review some of the charges leveled by the camp of warriors against Islamic societies. I will examine whether Islamic societies lag in economic development, face a democracy deficit, and possess "bloody borders," a phrase coined by Samuel Huntington. I will examine if these charges are supported by the evidence. And if they are true-can we place these charges at the door of Islam?

Economic Development

The Islamic world does face any number of serious problems: it would be foolish to deny this. What we need to determine is whether Islamic countries have done worse, or much worse, than others with a comparable history in pursuing economic growth, promoting equality between the sexes, developing free institutions, and keeping the peace with its neighbors?

First, consider the question of economic development. Judging from their living standards in 1999, measured as per capita income in international dollars-taken from the latest World Development Report-it does not appear that Muslims have done too badly. In several paired comparisons, Iran holds its own with Venezuela, Malaysia is well ahead of Thailand, Egypt is modestly ahead of Ukraine, Turkey only slightly behind Russia, Pakistan a little behind-and Indonesia somewhat ahead-of India, Bangladesh is somewhat behind Vietnam, Tunisia is well ahead of Georgia and Armenia, and Jordan is significantly ahead of Nicaragua. It may be noted that nearly all the comparisons concede the historical advantage to the non-Islamic members of the pair.

The results do not change if the comparisons are based on a broader human development index. In a ranking that includes 162 countries in 1999-taken from the Human Development Report, 2000-22 Islamic countries occupy ranks between 32 and 100. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan rank lower down the scale, but still ahead of several non-Islamic countries in Africa. Notably, the Arab oil-rich countries are the leaders of the Islamic pack. And incredibly, Saudi Arabia, the bastion of conservative Islam, spends 7.5 percent of its national income on public education; this places it in the same class as Norway and Finland.

The evidence does confirm the charge of a gender bias in Islamic countries. Nearly half of them show gender bias in their development indices. A comparison of the human development index with the same index corrected for inequalities between sexes-both taken from the latest Human Development Report-shows that 17 out of 36 Islamic countries suffer a loss of rank as we move from the general index to the gender-related index. These losses are highest for Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Sudan and Lebanon. Only Turkey improves its rank significantly, by four places.

The cultural determinism of the warriors extends to demographics. Observing the rapid growth of Islamic population, they attribute this to a cultural resistance to birth control. Once again, an examination of the evidence quickly dispels this charge. Between 1970-75 and 1995-2000, nearly every Islamic country experienced a decline in the total fertility rate: this is the number of child births per woman over her lifetime. In several, the decline was quite impressive. The fertility rates for 1995-2000 were 1.9 in Azerbaijan, 2.3 in Tunisia, 2.6 in Indonesia, 3.2 in Iran, 3.3 in Malaysia and Algeria, and 3.4 in Morocco and Egypt: compared to 3.3 for India and 3.6 in Philippines. These low rates for the Islamic countries are more remarkable because they were achieved over periods much shorter than in Europe and Latin America.

Bloody Borders

We now turn to the matter about Islam's "bloody borders." In his book, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington claims that "Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny." In support of this thesis, he offers a list of inter-civilizational conflicts on Islam's borders in the 1990s. He also provides some quantitative evidence purporting to show that Muslims had a disproportionate share in inter-civilizational conflicts during 1993-94.

A more careful examination of the data tells a different story. Jonathan Fox, in the Journal of Peace Research (2000), has shown that Islam was involved in 23.2 percent of all inter-civilizational conflicts between 1945 and 1989, and 24.7 percent of these conflicts during 1990 to 1998. This is not too far above Islam's share in world population; nor do we observe any dramatic rise in this share since the end of the Cold War. It would appear that Huntington's "facts" about "Muslim bellicosity" fail to qualify as facts.

In any case, we have to be careful when we talk about "bloody borders." A hard look at the geography of civilizations soon reveals that the length of these borders vary strikingly, and that Islam's share of such borders is disproportionately large. On the one hand, Islam's geographic sweep across the Afro-Eurasian landmass brings it into contact-both close and extensive-with the African, Western, Orthodox, Hindu and Buddhist civilizations. In addition, we must count the internal borders between often large pockets of majority Islam within non-Islamic countries and vice versa. It is my impression that if we added up all of these borders, Islam's share of borders might well exceed the combined share of all others. A recognition of these facts might help to place observations about Islam's "bloody borders" in a less prejudicial perspective.

The Democracy Deficit

Finally, there is the charge of a 'democracy deficit' in the Islamic world: attributed by cultural aficionados, like Samuel Huntington and Elie Kedourie, to an Islamic culture that is seen as hostile to democratic values.

The proof of this is found in the latest global rankings on freedom and democracy provided by the experts at Freedom House: as if such complex matters could be ascertained by examining snapshots of countries at any one point in time. There is a further problem with these rankings: they are subjectively determined. Concerned about the biases this might introduce, the UNDP quickly discontinued their use in their annual Human Development Reports after using them once.

The cultural determinism of Freedom House is also on proud display in their most recent report. On the one hand, a quick review of the trends on democratization reveals two waves of democratization-in the 1950s and 1990s-data which point towards powerful international forces regulating these movements. The first wave accompanied the post-war dismantling of colonies; the second wave followed the end of the Cold War. If some countries, or block of countries, have not participated in these waves of democratization-or pseudo-democratizations for the most part-this is attributed to cultural flaws. Thus, the latest Freedom House report declares that "the roots of freedom and democracy are weakest" in the Middle East (emphasis added).

Nevertheless, let us take a closer look at the latest numbers provided by Freedom House. Their data for 2001 show that only 23 percent of the Islamic countries have electoral democracies; the comparable numbers are 38 percent for Africa, 62 percent for Asian countries, 70 percent for post-Communist countries in Europe and the CIS, and 91 percent for the Americas. There are some revealing patterns within the Islamic countries. Of the 16 Arab countries and six Central Asian Republics, not one is democratic. When we exclude these two groups from the Islamic countries-about a fifth of world's Islamic population-the proportion of democracies in the remaining Islamic countries rises to 47 percent. It may be noted that, in some cases, the Freedom House classifications are questionable. If Iran and Malaysia were classified as electoral democracies the last number would go up to 59 percent, quite comparable to the number for Asian countries.

Is there any rationale for excluding the Arab and Central Asian countries from the Islamic count? It turns out that in fact there are several. Since the end of the Cold War, Western donors and multilateral institutions have used their financial leverage to encourage democratization in client countries. However, there is one significant exception to this. These pressures are not applied to Islamic countries-mostly in the Arab world-where democratization is likely to bring the Islamists to power. On the contrary, the Arab despotisms-with the exception of the 'rogue states'-have received political, moral and intelligence support from Western powers in the repression of their mainly Islamist opposition.

There are other factors stacking the odds against democracy in the Arab world. Not the least of them is Israel, a colonial-settler state, increasingly seen by Muslims as the military fist of the United States in Zionist gloves. After the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, there is no other conflict that can match the Israel-Arab conflict in its durability or the way it has warped a whole region. The Israeli presence in the Arab heartland magnified the security imperative of the front-line Arab states, allowing them to build praetorian states with the capacity to suppress all forms of dissent.

In the Arab world, oil has been another negative factor. Of the sixteen Arab countries, nine are oil rich, and all but three of them have quite small indigenous populations. Their oil revenues and small populations have allowed most of these countries to exempt their citizens from paying taxes. That is one more strike against democracy: a citizenry that pays no taxes lacks the moral authority to demand representation.

In addition, eight Arab countries are monarchies, and all but two of them are also oil-rich. These oil monarchies were either created by the British, or, in the case of Saudi Arabia and Oman, they were supported and shored up by them, and, more recently, they have been maintained as American proxies ensuring that Arab oil remains in trusted hands. American commitment to these monarchies was demonstrated during the Gulf War.

As for the six Central Asian countries, we find that all of them are members of the defunct Soviet Union. They have been run, since their independence, by former communist bosses backed by Moscow. Russia maintains a military presence in these countries, or has strong ties to their military, with the intent of sealing their southern borders against Islamist influence from Iran and Afghanistan. Thus, Russia now is playing the same role in this region-opposing democratization-that United States has played in the Arab world.

Yet Islam Remains A Problem

If Islam is 'normal', why is it still a problem for United States?

This problem is born of a tension between a great power, United States, and a historical adversary, Islam. United States enters into this contest with its vast power, Christian evangelism, the constraints of domestic lobbies, energy needs, and a vision of itself as a civilizing force. Islam enters the stage as a fractured, wounded civilization, humiliated by two centuries of Western domination, divided into ineffectual political units, without a core state, rich in oil resources it does not control, with a colonial settler state planted in its heartland that daily adds insults to its injuries. It appears that history has produced an explosive dialectic.

And now this dialectic, in its most recent convulsion, has produced a decentralized, secret, fanatical and violent Islamist enemy which, because it cannot strike down its domestic tormentors, has decided to attack the more vulnerable United States. Having destroyed their only safe haven, and convinced that the Islamists who intend to perpetrate terror are still lurking in the shadows, United States desperately searches for appropriate, accessible Islamic targets.

This is what is driving United States into the camp of the warriors. The warriors offer us easy targets: It's the Islamic world, stupid. Just get rolling and take it out-root, stock and barrel. In the present climate, this temptation will be hard to resist. It will be hard to resist because America's evangelism, messianism, and civilizing missionary zeal have been roused. Americans are also convinced of their overwhelming power to inflict damage, without taking any losses.

We might perhaps take a leaf from Israel. It too has long enjoyed the same overwhelming superiority of power over the Palestinians. It too can rain down terror on the Palestinians. But it has achieved neither security nor peace. In this contest, the greater responsibility for restraint rests upon United States. This burden lies with us because we are the greatest power on earth-and this power lies in the hands of august persons, educated, civilized, privileged, and possessing an understanding of the world and the consequences of their actions which the Islamist fanatics do not have. We must pray for United States to carry this burden, and prove that is not only a great civilization-but it also cares for civilized values.

Copyright: M. Shahid Alam.

Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at

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Editorial Notes: by Dr. Amir Ali:

This is an excellent analysis of the present situation of the Muslim world in relation to the West. However, I would like to add the following comments.

1. The author has used term "Islamic countries". In fact, there are no Islamic countries in the world but Muslim majority countries. An Islamic country implies that the law of the Qur'an and Sunnah is enforced in all aspects of lives of the people that includes Islamic politics, Islamic economics and Islamic social system. This is not true for a single country with Muslim majority.

2. The author writes, "Since the end of the Cold War, Western donors and multilateral institutions have used their financial leverage to encourage democratization in client countries." In fact, IMF, World Bank, loans and grants by the West have been used to prop up dictatorship, lining pockets of the puppet dictators and prop up tyrannies and oppression. There is no Muslim majority country which has prospered by taking aid from the West in any form or shape.

3. The author contends, "Thus, Russia now is playing the same role in this region-opposing democratization-that United States has played in the Arab world." This contradicts his comment quoted above in note #2. In fact, the U.S. is preventing democratization in the whole Muslim world because democracy means absence of availability of purchasable leaders whereas propped up dictatorship means subservient slaves for exploitation of natural wealth of the Muslim world by the West.

4. The author writes, "United States desperately searches for appropriate, accessible Islamic targets." The U.S. knows her targets and that is the carriers of Islamic ideology beyond religious rituals and these are the Islamic parties spread throughout the Muslim majority countries. The U.S. targeting them as Al-Qaedah, frequently a false pretext.

5. The following quote is a most excellent summary and I agree: "This is what is driving United States into the camp of the warriors. The warriors offer us easy targets: It's the Islamic world, stupid. Just get rolling and take it out-root, stock and barrel. In the present climate, this temptation will be hard to resist. It will be hard to resist because America's evangelism, messianism, and civilizing missionary zeal have been roused. Americans are also convinced of their overwhelming power to inflict damage, without taking any losses."

6. The author writes, "We must pray for United States to carry this burden, and prove that is not only a great civilization-but it also cares for civilized values." Civilizing force of the U.S. stops at her borders. Beyond the borders the only motivation is enslavement of the Third World countries for the benefit of the masters, that is, people of the U.S., particularly, executives and stock holders of the multi-national companies. We must look beyond nationalism for the U.S. and become a humanist society.


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