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 of anti-authoritarian signboards printed in English for Western audiences.
The enthusiasm may be misplaced.
For while the Arabs’ demography dictates the restlessness of a growing youth cohort, 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 a thousand years of cultural stagnation. Virtually leaderless except for occasional Muslim fanatics, hopefully still on the sidelines, there are few concrete ideas about how to produce them.
Too often frustrated anti-regime spokesmen fall back on old lame excuses – colonialism, the usual scapegoat. European exploitation was real, of course. But so was its introduction of modernity. Years ago a famous, 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 any more”.
However valid that explanation, the truth is there is little fundamental about the rebels’ so-called current reform program. Their calls for eliminating corruption and inefficiency are unassailable. But efforts to remold economic facts of life in impoverished Muslim societies flies in the face of the continuing 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 and democratic governance – and economic development.
Applying so-called sharia concepts – Islamic law – to the economy has been catastrophic. Quietly, Western and even indigenous banks which pandered in attempting to replace conventional banking with “Muslim concepts”, quietly are dumping them because they simply did not work. Dubai is an example: getting out of entanglements of a collapsed real estate bubble is virtually impossible despite neighboring oil despots coming to the rescue because purported Muslim “rules of the road” eschewed Western legal concepts of equity and interest. Malaysia, which lucked out in the 1997 East Asia Financial Crisis when it rejected the International Monetary Fund’s proffered bitter medicine, now trumpets Islamic capitalism. But it is built on the backs of its minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who follow a pragmatic work ethic paying “rents” to their Malay overlords.
It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and even racism discussing these issues. Only a few years ago some were bantering around the phrase “Hindu rate of growth” to describe Indian stagnation. Then along came a determined, charismatic, non-expert prime minister – unfortunately short-lived — who shucked off Soviet planning and threatened the babu [clerk] government culture. And the economy took off chasing the Chinese. Alas! under the current prime minister, who has falsely been given credit, New Delhi sinks back into the old morass.
True enough, in virtually all great religious literatures, old fiery exhortations exist unacceptable alongside professed contemporary universal ethical standards. But Europe’s long cultural wars over “that which is Caesar’s” long ago threw off most primitive calls for tribal vengeance now still prolific in Muslim cultures.
In searching to avoid a dangerous confrontation between large parts of the civilized world, Western public intellectuals look for commonality. It may not exist. Presenting Islam as just another Abrahamic religion [with Christianity and Judaism] obfuscates important differences. Often Western politicians who hope to bridge the gap with Islam with rhetoric are simply compounding the problem. The latest is a leftwing Swedish government coalition’s decision to provide massive” humanitarian” assistance to illegal immigrants who have turned to ethnic and classwarfare in Scandinavia.
Were it not difficult enough, through happenstance in underpopulated parts of the Arab/Muslim world fossil fuels resources critical to the world economy provide astronomical “rents”. You can count on the feudal elites in these countries always to misuse them. Just now oil-rich members of the Persian Gulf community are attempting to stem ethnic and civil violence in their neighbors, Oman and Bahrain, by setting up a $10 billion “Marshal Plan” to buy off the locals. Using that nomenclature shows 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 increased stipend for Saudi Arabia’s potentially explosive natives [particularly its Shia minority which sits on most of its current producing oil].
These transfers – and one has to ask how much actually will reached its intended target given the levels of corruption — will not solve basic problems. These countries have made little progress establishing economies parallel to their oil wealth. They have imported South Asian slave labor to keep the petroleum boom going at full blast. But there has been no integration, and, in fact, migrants are often so shabbily treated as to further endanger artificial states.
That Arab spring may be long in coming for it awaits an Islamic reformation.