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Shedding Light on Islam

Islamic Approach to Development

Article #: 16596  
Section: SPECIAL SECTION - TAKING THE MYSTERY OUT OF ISLAM File Size: 2,128 words
Issue Date: 9 / 1997 Start Page: 38
Author: Louis Cantori
Louis Cantori is the author of numerous articles on Islam, including ''Modernization and Development'' in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. For 1997--98, he is scholar in residence as the Major General Matthew Horner Chair of Military Theory, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia. He is on leave from the Department of Political Science, University of Maryland, Baltimore.
The Islamic approach to development is to reconcile moral and religious values with economic advancement.

       The growing importance of Islam insistently demands a greater degree of understanding of this faith on the part of the West.
       
       Islam is ascendant in Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia (where the only contest is its relative purity), and Sudan and has sole legitimacy as a political actor in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Even in Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, and Tunisia, where its legitimacy is contested, most observers would concede either the inevitability of its dominance or its eventual great importance.
       
       The increasing political and economic importance of the Islamic non--Middle Eastern states of Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia is part of this process. In short, in areas of the world where the United States and the West have enormous strategic interests--in energy supplies, trade, and the security of Israel--Islam is in the forefront. It is also important to stress that Islam's most distinctive feature at present is its modernist character, not the alleged reactionary nature so often cited in the Western press and sometimes in American policy circles. In this respect, just as the religion is emerging politically it is also undergoing profound internal self-examination as it adjusts to modern political and development challenges.
       
       Until the 1990s, the West either ignored Islam or, on the basis of long-established historical animosity and prejudicial stereotypes, opposed it. In U.S. policy and intellectual circles, a residue of this sentiment remains. Islam must be examined without preconceptions and understood as an expression of each country's political circumstances.
       
       In general, Westerners believe that the Islamic world is intrinsically unable to modernize or develop economically. This view overlooks the economic achievements of Turkey or, more dramatically, of Malaysia and Indonesia, whose economic growth rates are among the highest in the world.
       
       There is indeed a particular Islamic approach to development, one that strives to reconcile moral and religious values and economic advancement. Despite similarities to the successful Asian tigers, Middle Eastern states have far weaker economies. It may well be the case, however, that Islam's ascendancy will provide new leadership and a moral vision that will stimulate development.
       
       Political polarization
       
        The relationship between Islam and the West has been compared to that of the West and the eastern bloc during the Cold War. In Islam's case, from the eighth century, continuing with the Crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, on to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the siege of Vienna in 1566, the relationship was politically polarized. Behind this polarization was an ideological rivalry. Islam recognized the legitimacy of the prophets of Judaism and Christianity and of its fellow monotheistic religions, but Christianity found it difficult to concede equal recognition. This religious diference was accompanied by the alternating political strengths of the two faiths.
       
       When Europe was at its ebb, from the eighth to the tenth centuries, Islam was politically robust and culturally brilliant. This period was followed by European expansion, with the Crusades from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, and, in turn, the Ottoman Turkish expansion into central Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. European ascendancy became clearest in the nineteenth century, with the advent of European colonialism in Algeria in 1830. After centuries of interaction, Christian and Muslim attitudes became deeply embedded.
       
       The Islamic revival
       
        The intellectual development of the modern Arab world has been one of accommodation to Western culture, Arab nationalism, and, presently, the Islamic revival. This revival occurred on the heels of Israel's military defeat of the Arabs in 1967. From a secular point of view, the defeat signified the political exhaustion and humiliation of the Arab leadership.
       
       More important, however, traditional Muslims attributed a disaster of this scale to the displeasure of God (i.e., they had been religiously derelict). The response has been an increase in religiosity throughout the Middle East and the entire Muslim world. For Egyptians, this interpretation was confirmed when on October 6, 1973, a revitalized army ousted Israelis from defensive positions on the Suez Canal, while Muslim soldiers and officers saw "angels" dancing on the Bar Lev line.
       
       The Islamic revival also had political ramifications, which have manifested themselves in two distinct ways. The first and most common is the majoritarian way in the political mainstream, in cases where the political center has been willing to compromise and accommodate to populist religious sentiment (e.g., in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and, until recently, Turkey, as well as Morocco and Yemen). In these countries, Islam has worked within the existing system. In effect, it has legitimized the political status quo, even while it worked to re-Islamize society by controlling social services, such as health, welfare, adult literacy, and so forth.
       
       Majoritarian-reformed Islam has also come to the fore in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, but in these cases the political center has chosen repression rather than accommodation. Moreover, in Algeria and Egypt, majoritarian-reformed Islam has spawned splinter groups of a violent nature, and these groups have monopolized newspaper headlines worldwide.
       
       Modernization and the Islamic revival
       
        Modern science originated in the West in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Industrial Revolution was propelled by the technological offshoots of that scientific progress. Science and technology are now "being done" in Asia as well as in Europe and North America. As the phenomenon globalizes, it is beginning to lose its original cultural roots. More precisely, these roots are undergoing a dialectal change as different cultures meet and meld.
       
       In the Muslim world, this has meant that while the benefits of science are embraced, an effort is being made to found science in religious belief. Such diverse personages as Mawdudi of Pakistan, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali al-Shariati of Iran, and Hasan al-Turabi of Sudan have embraced the progressivism of science.
       
       Development and the Islamic revival
       
        The results of development are thought to be evident: Economic, political, and social improvement either occurs or it does not. This is true, of course, but the underlying principles of development are susceptible to an alternative formulation and, as a result, the objectives of development can be changed.
       
       The Western concept of development originated in the Enlightenment, with its liberal assumptions of individualism, secularism, equality, and materialism. Development is thought to occur when individuals seek to maximize their own self-interests in a society in which religious values are personal and private. Egalitarianism is believed to be the norm, and development is thought to happen when political equality is accompanied by a just, economic inequality based on market competition.
       
       The Islamic approach to development begins with different assumptions but still embraces capitalism. In some cases, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, very high economic growth rates are achieved. The Muslim begins by establishing that spiritual advancement is the first priority ("God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own inner selves," Qur'an, sura 13.11).
       
       Only when spiritual matters are attended to first will God reward one with material advancement. The Muslim therefore begins with the concept of the oneness of God (tawhid) and of the community of believers (umma), the members of which have a responsibility for one another. The good side of man (taskiyah) should be cultivated, which creates self-discipline against evil. This creates his well-being, or falah. The individual Muslim is seen as benefiting spiritually in terms of increasing piety and rectitude, which are viewed as the antecedents of development. In referring to the Qur'an, Qutb notes that "while the earth is subservient to you," a balance must be sought between individual gain and the welfare of society. The specific provision of the latter is the religious mandate of zakat, or almsgiving.
       
       The concept of tawhid also is associated with political ideals. It suggests the organic solidarity of society or its corporatism (takafaliya). Individuals are related to the organic whole by the concept of khilafah, or the vicegerency of the individual as the expression of God on earth, constituting the brotherhood of man in the sharing of this vicegerency. Therefore, man is the custodian, or amin, of God's resources, meaning, in developmental terms, economic resources.
       
       As a result, individuals may acquire wealth in a capitalist fashion but only with the understanding that such wealth does not belong to them but to God. Justice (adalah) requires that conditions be placed on the acquisition of wealth because the individual has a commitment to the elimination of zulm, or inequity. Related to the idea of individual responsibility and dependence upon God is the injunction against usury (riba).
       
       The system of Islamic banking reflects these principles. Bank deposits are directly invested in business ventures on a risk basis, and the periodic return is not predetermined but rather reflects business performance (i.e., it reflects losses and gains). In summary, Islam creates a conservative political culture that (1) sets moral and ethical developmental goals; (2) uses the past as a guide to the future; and (3) subordinates the individual to the requirements of the group and community.
       
       The corporatist nature of religious belief and society is also reflected in political development. A strong state is assumed, which at a minimum is expected to maintain order to permit the maintenance of religious practices and collection of taxes. Society itself is modeled on the ideal of the solidarity of the patriarchal family. The expectation is that decisions will be made top down. While this appears to be quintessential authoritarianism, the reality is more complex.

       
       Islamic corporatist society is one whose ideal of solidarity is maintained by the value of consensus (ijmaa). Individuals should seek to subordinate themselves to the opinions of others by a process of shura, or consultation. Factiousness (hizbiyya) is to be avoided. The practical effect is that informal consultation takes place constantly, and when an election takes place, it is neither a matter of "one man, one vote" nor necessarily of alternative choices. Instead, it is more likely to be a case of "one group, one collective vote" and the expression of affirmation rather than of conflictual choice. Therefore, Islamic "shuracratic" democracy stands in sharp contrast to the conflictual pluralism of the democratic principles of the Enlightenment.
       
       Why doesn't the Middle East develop?
       
        The question has been asked at the World Bank, "Why not the Middle East?" In the 1960s the Middle East and East Asia had similar per capita income figures, but today figures for East Asia are 10 or more times those for the Middle East. Further concrete evidence is that East Asia has gross domestic product growth rates of 9.2 percent (World Bank Annual Report, 1996), the highest such rates in the world. These contrast with a rate of approximately 4 percent for the Middle East and North Africa. The question is particularly interesting because the Asian tigers (for example, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and Malaysia) are also societies that emphasize cultural and religious values and possess organic, corporatistic societies and strong states.
       
       If the label of corporatism is applied to both groupings of states, what might explain East Asia's developmental success? Perhaps the most noteworthy difference is that Asian leaders employ the conservative values of their cultures to construct a developmental vision. This vision emphasizes not only the moral values of cooperation and mutual responsibility but also economic improvement.
       
       In addition, the Asians call for self-sacrifice on the part of their workers, based on the principle of mutual responsibility: The workers will lift productivity to new heights and achieve enviable savings rates in exchange for assured employment and provision for their basic needs. The value of social equity underlies the system. Asian corporatism is a mobilizational corporatism. Middle Eastern corporatism is unmobilized.
       
       The Middle Eastern state, prior to the current rise of Islamism, has been one whose leadership has divided its attention between the unresolved conflict with Israel and its own self-aggrandizement. Far from mobilizing its population for moral and productive purposes, it has repressed and exploited them. The Middle Eastern corporatist state represents the political and economic status quo.
       
       In addition, it has failed to construct the efficient, Asian-style civil service that makes it possible for the state to plan industrially and work cooperatively with large-scale private industry. Also, the Asian state uses 20 percent of its government expenditures on education, compared to about half that in the Middle East (World Bank Development Report, 1995). As a result, the Asian worker quickly adapts to new technology, and Asian engineers are able to put their own innovative stamp on modernization and development.
       
       Islam's progress is so dramatically important that it compels close examination of this religion of one billion adherents. Until now, the Middle East has had at best a tepid record of economic development. The corporatist similarities of the countries of Asia and the Middle East are as striking as their dissimilarities in economic performance. What appears to be missing in the Middle East is the moral vision that is culturally present in the Confucian and Islamic societies of Asia. Nevertheless, the ascendancy of Islam in the Middle East suggests the possibility of a renewed cultural and developmental beginning.
       
       

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