Opinion: The Islamic world continues to lag behind the rest of the globe. Four centuries ago, the mighty Ottoman Empire threatened Vienna and the heartland of Christian Europe with its formidable armies. Two hundred years ago, the Middle East had declined, but still ranked second behind Europe as the world’s most powerful civilization. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the region was a Western colony. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it has become a stagnant backwater, trailing enormously behind the once-destitute nations of east Asia in wealth and technological ingenuity.
But technology alone cannot account for this backwardness. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Ottoman Turks – greatest of the modern Islamic empires – possessed advanced European firearms and equipment, and in absolute terms far outgunned their conquering ancestors. The modern petro-states around the Persian Gulf utilize some of the most sophisticated technology on the market. These are no camel-rustling Bedouins. Yet there is strikingly little investment in these states by Arabs or by outsiders. In the early 2000s, Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis estimated that (discounting oil) the combined exports of all Arab states amounted to less than that of Finland, a country of less than 5.5 million people. It is clear that these countries lag far behind the rest of the world. The obvious question is, “what went wrong?”
Perhaps the roots of Islamic stagnancy lie in Middle Eastern cultural themes. One Afghan proverb goes like this:
“Ahmad the farmer is plowing his field one day when he accidentally unearths a buried lamp. Dusting the vessel off, he is surprised to find a genie appear before him. The kindly genie thanks Ahmad for rescuing him, and offers the poor farmer a single wish of his choosing.
“‘But,’ the genie adds mischievously, ‘Whatever you wish for I will grant twice over to your neighbors, so wish wisely.’
“Ahmad considers thoughtfully for a spell before making his wish.
“‘Genie,’ he says, ‘I wish that you would gouge out my left eye.’”
It is something of a truism that there is more loyalty to the clan in Afghanistan, for instance, than there is to the capital, Kabul. Such deep-seated tribalism is at the very heart of many Middle Eastern cultures, from the Arab countries to the invented state of Pakistan (its name an acronym of local cultures: Pashtun, Afghani, Kashmiri). Outside of Iran – perhaps the region’s only true “nation” in the cultural and historical sense – there are few forces beyond military power which keep Arab and central Asian states together.
Since Islam’s explosive entry into history in the 6th century A.D., Muslim rulers have attempted to establish lasting polities on the basis of pan-Arab nationalism, or universal Islamism. Until the twentieth century, they favored the latter, and for understandable reasons. The early Muslims’ greatest imperial achievement was the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750): a vast dynasty centered on Damascus and built just three decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, stretching from Iberia in the west (al-Andalus) to the border of modern India in the east. Only the Turks came so close to wielding near-universal power in the Middle East and North Africa nearly a thousand years later. But modern attempts to recreate the Islamic caliphate have failed – such as the 19th century Mahdi (“guided one”), Muhammad Ahmad, famous for carving out a tenacious empire out of British upper Egypt and Sudan during the Mahdist War (1881-1899); or the collapsing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria waging jihad in the Middle East today.
But Islam never really was a great unifier. Less than thirty years after Muhammad’s death, the first caliphate was divided into two camps (the origin of the modern Shi’ite and Sunni divide). Throughout Islamic history, there have nearly always been at least two major centers of Muslim power vying for hegemony – Arabia and Turkey, Egypt and Syria, Persia and Iraq – and Turkish attempts to couple Western-inspired patriotism with politico-religious loyalty only tore their multi-ethnic empire into shreds.
Cold War-era Arab leaders often tried their hand at a kind of secular caliphate. In the 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser grew famous in the Arab world for crushing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and nationalizing the British-owned Suez Canal. Nasser seized on this political opportunity to call for a union of Arab countries, and similar movements sprang up abroad. Hijacking Western ideas of nationalism and Marxism, Nasser appealed to “Arab socialism” – a secular authoritarianism that ended in spectacular disaster. By 1961, pan-Arabism had utterly collapsed, and subsequent attempts to revive its tired soul have all expired.
As Islam’s initial waves of conquest subsided and the West grew in power, Muslim theology began to grow increasingly insular. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Turkish scholars were skeptical of using Western technology beyond its immediate military applications – after all, how could the ideas of backwards infidels possibly improve upon Islamic thought?
The Islamic world is undoubtedly weaker than the West, and will surely remain so for decades. But as Hilaire Belloc observed in 1936, however weak in arms the Muslim world may be, it is far stronger than the West in moral spirit. Western atheism is practically unknown in the Middle East; since the Arab Spring, secular government is an increasingly rare thing. The short-lived caliphate in Raqqa may be on its last legs, but Americans would do well to remember what rallying cry united the caliph’s martyrs.
If history is any judge, it won’t be the last time we encounter the words, Allahu-akbar.
Follow this author on Twitter: @tasciovanus
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