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January 03, 2011, Monday

What made the Middle East fall behind the West?

Between the 10th and 13th centuries the Middle East was the most advanced part of the globe in nearly all respects, including living standards, science and the arts. Why, by the 18th century, had it fallen behind the West? This has been one of the major questions of comparative studies.

Responses have differed. Orientalist scholars (in Edward Said’s sense of the term), located mostly but not exclusively in the West, have tended to attribute the Middle East’s backwardness to its prevailing religion. They have held that Islam, which embraces every aspect of life, is fundamentally incompatible with modernity. Critics of Orientalism have attributed the West’s superiority to the great explorations, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Many Middle Easterners who have tackled the question have attributed their region’s socioeconomic backwardness to such factors as colonialism, authoritarian nationalist regimes, policy failures and the oil curse. For their part, Islamists believe that the Muslim world fell behind because modernization movements turned their back on Islam. None of the foregoing theories has withstood scrutiny. Each has been refuted, in part or in full.

Timur Kuran, professor of economics at Duke University of the United States, has been investigating the causes of the Middle East’s underdevelopment since the late 1990s. His book, titled “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East” (Princeton University Press), was published last month. The analysis presented in the book is based partly on a comprehensive study of 17th century court records of İstanbul. His data are being published as a 10-volume set under the title “Social and Economic Life in Seventeenth Century Istanbul: Glimpses from Court Records” (Türkiye İş Bankası Cultural Publications, İstanbul). The first two volumes are already in print.

As the title of his book suggests, Kuran argues that Islam hindered the socioeconomic development of the Middle East not through its belief system but its legal infrastructure. He pins responsibility primarily on three elements of Islamic law: the inheritance system, which inhibited capital accumulation; the absence of the concept of corporation, which hampered the exploitation of advanced technologies; and the “waqf” (the trust known in Turkey as “vakıf”), which despite its many advantages locked vast resources into unproductive organizations for delivering social services. According to Kuran, these obstacles to socioeconomic development were largely overcome through radical reforms adopted in the 19th century. Nevertheless, they have had lasting consequences, including the weaknesses of the Middle East’s private economic sectors and its human capital deficiencies.

Kuran’s analysis carries both a pessimistic and an optimistic message for the future of the Middle East. The negative message is that the region cannot overcome its present state of underdevelopment in a short time because, with few exceptions like Turkey, countries of the region are unable to compete in global markets for industrial products and services. Also, their civil societies are too weak to sustain democratic government. If the autocratic regimes of the region were to fall now, he says, the development of strong private sectors and civil societies could take decades.

The positive message is that the region adopted key economic institutions of modern capitalism sufficiently long ago to make them acceptable to conservatives, and even to Islamists. Besides, the economic history of Islam provides traditions favorable to permitting private initiative and limiting the economic role of the state. Thus, Muslim-majority societies are not incompatible with a market system.

Interviewed by the Turkish edition of Newsweek (Dec. 19, 2010), Kuran pointed to the exceptional place of Turkey in the Middle East today. Turkey’s per capita income is 50 percent higher than the regional average. Its civil society is stronger and its democracy far more advanced than that of any other country in the region. More than half of the region’s giant firms are Turkish. On the basis of such comparisons, Kuran argues that Turkey, which began modernizing reforms earlier than the rest of the region, is now better characterized as a transitional European country than a Middle Eastern one.

Certain groups may find Kuran’s analysis unsettling. They include the neoconservatives of the United States, who consider Muslim-majority societies inherently incapable of modernizing due to their religious faith, and Islamists who maintain that the relative underdevelopment of their societies is a consequence of turning away from Islam. Yet this is a study that deserves to be taken seriously and widely discussed. There is no doubt that Kuran’s rigorous scholarly study makes a major and original contribution to our understanding of why the Middle East fell behind and still remains underdeveloped.

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