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A Vademecum of Islam: Economic Development in Muslim Societies


 We have previously discussed the two main fissures in Islam: the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and the ethnic divide, much less discussed, between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. The third great fissure in the Camp of Islam is that of wealth. There is a gulf between the Muslim countries that have oil (and gas) and those that do not. The fabulously rich Arab sheikdoms, that is  the U.A.E., Qatar, Kuwait,  as well as larger Muslim countries endowed with oil or gas, which include Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Algeria,  have not been in the habit of sharing their wealth with poorer Muslim states. Instead, those poorer states have found ways to inveigle money out of the generous Infidels. Tens of billions of dollars have been and are still being transferred by the North American and European governments to Egypt, to Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to Jordan, to the terrorist-supporting “Palestinian” Authority.

In the last few decades the American government alone (leaving aside what the countries of Western Europe contribute) has given $90 billion in total aid(civilian and military) to Egypt, funds from which members of the Mubarak regime, with its Friends-and-Family Plan, was able to divert large amounts for themselves, and in so doing, to cause some ordinary Egyptians, out of resentment and despair,  to support the Muslim Brotherhood. Another despot, Al-Sisi, came along to rescue the country from Mohamed Morsi. It’s still not clear if the Al-Sisi regime is as corrupt as was that of Mubarak. And the American money keeps flowing to Egypt..

More billions have gone to Jordan, a poor country. Some of that money has been diverted to King Abdullah, who has been happy to pocket a great deal of the American aid, with some $750 million as his private fortune. A gift from unsuspecting American taxpayers. Why do we never learn of these things, or have a say in stopping them?

Pakistan is another nation blessed with decades of American aid. It’s been a favorite of the American government ever since the Dulles brothers (Allen headed  the C.I.A. and John Foster was Secretary of State) along with many other ill-informed  Americans in government, saw Islam only as a “bulwark against Communism,” and failed to realize that it was also a permanent enemy of the West.  Those Pakistani generals, all pukka-sahib and ramrod straight, with their fly-whisks, and Terry-Thomas mustaches, were so much easier for the Americans to deal with than were those left-wing Indians, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his Marxist foreign minister Krishna Menon. The aid money flowed to Pakistan. Itt was American money, diverted by the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I) of Pakistan’s military, that paid for the nuclear project of A. Q. Khan, a metallurgist who, having stolen secrets from Western labs, was given vast sums to direct a nuclear project.That resulted, as the Americans discovered to their chagrin, in what the Pakistanis — and other Muslims –proudly call “the Islamic bomb.” Not content with that, Pakistan also sold nuclear secrets to North Korea and possibly to Iran.  That has almost certainly been   the most  disastrous example of American foreign aid being diverted in ways that endanger America.

The Americans also transferred aid to Somalia, trying to rescue its population from famine, and only the murder and mutilation of American servicemen, and the dragging of their corpses through cheering mobs on the streets of Mogadishu, led to an end to that program of Infidel aid.

The “Palestinian” Authority, first under Arafat, and now under his epigones, less obviously thuggish with no-one-here-but-us-accountants leader Mahmoud Abbas,  but just as corrupt as Arafat was, has managed to misplace, or lose, billions of dollars. At Arafat’s death up to six billion dollars simply was unaccounted for, but Mrs. Arafat still appears to be living quite well in Paris, and Mahmoud Abbas and his two children (who have companies reaping large sums from contracts with aid-donor countries), and many other “Palestinian” Arab warlords, are doing fine, with villas in southern France, apartments in London,  and children being educated in the United States and then set up with businesses in the Gulf.

As for the several trillion dollars spent, or rather squandered, in Iraq, tens of billions of it was  received directly by many Iraqis, now living well on American aid, just like Egyptian despots, “Palestinian Authority” warlords, Pakistani generals, and good King Abdullah of Jordan, all that aid paid for by you, and by me.

Aid from Infidels to Muslims,  in addition to the transfer of wealth from Infidel oil-consuming nations to Muslim oil-producing nations (nearly thirty trillion dollars since 1973 alone), has been largely ineffective. If the goal was to produce more decent societies, that aid has had the opposite effect. Such foreign aid encourages corruption, since inevitably it flows to the government, that is to those who rule, or are well-connected to those who rule. And in Muslim societies, the road to wealth is through political power. Whoever controls the government, gets to distribute the wealth, and also to pocket some of it for personal use. That wealth comes either from oil and gas reserves, in the rich Muslim lands, or from Infidel foreign aid in the poor-to-middling lands, or in a few cases (as Egypt), from tourism.  There is not much other wealth, save in a handful of countries – Turkey, Tunisia come to mind – where Islam has been systematically tamed, and something like real economies, as a result, have managed to develop. The more money that comes from foreign aid, the more corruption. And the more corruption, the more resentment by those who are not among the lucky recipients, and who observe the corrupt rulers flaunting their wealth and their power. Blame is put not only on the rulers but on the Infidels who supply the aid, as if they are responsible for the corruption. In Muslim societies, when there is opposition to the rulers, that opposition always is stated in Islamic terms: the rulers are insufficiently Islamic, or still worse, are accused of being “collaborators with Infidels” or, worst of all, of being Infidels themselves. Aid from Infidel states to Muslim states has proven to be an error; you can’t easily halt the flow. You are damned if you do provide aid, and corruption ensues, as it usually will, and damned if you cut it off,  because Muslims have grown to expect it. Better never to start. Let them instead go hat in hand to Saudi Arabia, to the U.A.E., to Kuwait, to Qatar.

The transfer of wealth through aid,  from Infidels to Muslims, is exactly the wrong policy. Such aid is pocketed by the Muslim recipients without gratitude, and they quickly come to regard that aid as their due. It is theirs by right. And the donor nations, in Europe and North America, or those who run their aid programs, far from registering any anger at this attitude, themselves begin to exhibit fearfulness about the possible reaction of Muslim recipients to any decrease in that aid. What this means is that every Infidel aid program to Muslim states becomes, in the end, akin to Jizyah, in the sense that it is given, out of fear, by Infidels, who keep paying Muslims what has become protection money. Every foreign aid program that involves Infidel donors and Muslim recipients becomes, in the end, a disguised Jizyah.

Islam is based on the idea of the unity of the Umma, the Community of Believers. And Muslims are taught that their loyalty, their sole loyalty, must always be to Islam, and to that Community of Believers. But the governments and peoples of the Western world appear unable to raise the matter of why, if that is so, the fabulously rich members of that Umma, the Arabs of the Gulf, and the other Arabs and Muslims in OPEC, continue to sit back and watch the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid flow from Infidel countries, and never lift a finger to help those fellow members of the Umma that don’t have oil or gas. Why are they not helping fellow Muslims? No Western government or collection of Western governments says it is going to cease to give aid  for Muslim states, cease to rescue them from the consequences of their own misrule. No Western government has yet had the courage to stop subsidizing economic failures that are a result of “a certain way of doing things” (that is, Islam itself). Western states should begin to insist that the poor Muslim states ask for help not from them but from their rich “Muslim brothers” and not expect anything further from us, the Infidels. Furthermore, having already given more than a trillion dollars to black Africa in aid, the Western donor states have earned the right to insist that rich Muslim Arab states should pay the peoples of black Africa something similar, as reparations for the Arab slave trade.

Aid, remember, is finite, and if aid goes from the Infidel nations to Muslim nations, it will not go to other, non-Muslim, likely worthier recipients. For the economic problems of Muslim states – problems one can see are overcome, in part, only in those Muslim countries that limit the power of Islam (as Turkey and Tunisia) – can also be seen in the rich Arab and Muslim countries. Despite the nearly thirty  trillion dollars in oil and gas revenues received since 1973, which surely constitutes the largest transfer of wealth in human history, the Muslim members of OPEC have failed to create modern economies. In the Arab sheikdoms the vast majority of the workforce is foreign. In Saudi Arabia, it is 2/3 foreign, and the Saudis who are counted as working arrive to sit in offices two, or at most three, hours a day. These are rentier states. The sums they receive do not reflect any industriousness or entrepreneurial flair on the part of their population. The oil itself has been discovered, drilled for, transported, and distributed by Western oilmen.

The Saudis have tried to diminish their dependence on oil. They long ago announced big plans, and invested tens of billions, in agriculture, but those plans came to nothing, were a failure. And the university, the “richest university in the world,” that was founded to train Saudis in science and engineering — appears not to be delivering on its promises. Of course, in a country where you can always get a state job that, if not no-show, asks of Saudis only a  few hours a day(it’s the foreigners who do the real work0 many people will be content with that. And who can blame them?

But there are other reasons why most Muslim states are economic failures, those failures disguised in those states that are oil-and-gas rich, which give an illusion of continuous wealth and economic progress? The reasons are to be found in the tenets, and the attitudes, and the atmospherics, of Islam, and even of the history of the Arabs themselves. The raiding parties of seventh-century Arabs, exemplified by the attack of Muhammad and his Arab warriors on the hard-working inoffensive Jewish farmers of the Khaybar Oasis, an attack undertaken simply to steal the property of those farmers, is an example of how the Arabs survived. They lived largely by raiding caravans.. And that way of life did not end with the seventh-century. Warring tribes continued to raid, and the Arabs, or rather the Muslims who ruled over vast territories inhabited by non-Muslim peoples, exacted the tribute of the Jizyah from non-Muslims, and that Jizyah helped to support the Muslim state. Indeed, in order to ensure that there would be non-Muslims to pay the Jizyah, the Muslims who conquered Iran with its Zoroastrians began to treat them as honorary members of the Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book, so that they would not all be converted or killed, but could provide the JIzyah that would support the Muslim state. In India, after tens of millions of Hindus had been killed, it was deemed more sensible not to kill or convert the rest, for then no one would be left to  pay the Jizyah.

There are several reasons for economic failure in most Muslim states. One is the hostility, in Islam, to bidah, or innovation. The new is distrusted, and even more than the new, the idea of receptiveness to the new. For it goes against the Islamic belief that everything is contained in the immutable and uncreated Qur’an, that all of what one needs to know is already contained in the Islamic texts, and that any irritable searching after other kinds of knowledge, or new ways of doing things, is dangerous. However, Muslims have shown themselves perfectly willing to accept, appropriate, and use, the fruits of Western technology. What they have been unable to emulate, are the habits of mind, and the ways of doing things, including willingness to innovate, that allow non-Muslims to produce the very goods that, in a manner akin to members of a Cargo Cult, Muslims are happy to use but are indifferent to all the mental steps that must be taken to produce such things. And innovation does not mean only new products; it means new ways of manufacturing, distributing, and marketing them. There is no Muslim Steve Jobs, no Muslim Jeff Bezos, no Muslim Elon Musk. And there won’t be.

Still another obstacle in Muslim countries that gets in the way of economic development, and hinders the advancement of science,  is that Islam discourages skeptical inquiry. Muslim clerics don’t want people acquiring a habit of mind that could conceivably cause questioning the tenets of Islam, or — still worse — anything about the character of Muhammad, that Model of Conduct and Perfect Man. But that determination to prevent any questioning of the texts and teachings of Islam has a more general effect on Muslims. They do not acquire the habit of skepticism which is so important to the enterprise of science. And science is connected to the development of the economy through technology. Even though the Saudi government has spent a fortune on creating universities where science can be studied, the results, at such well-endowed places as the King Abdul Aziz Center for Science and Technology, have been singularly unimpressive. Could it be that the habits of mind Islam encourages are preventing people from fully engaging with science, or with the practical benefits that scientific research can bring?

We might take, as a sign of the situation of science under Islam, the number of  Nobel Prizes in Science awarded to Muslims. There have been only three. The first was to Mohammed Abdus Salam, who won a Nobel in Physics. But Salam was an Ahmadi in Pakistan, where Ahmadis are forbidden to identify themselves as Muslims. In fact, it was the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 in Lahore that drove Salam out of Pakistan to England, where he did most of his major work. He appears to have been a freethinker, and to claim him as a Muslim when Ahmadis are not regarded as such by orthodox Muslims, is at least curious.  As for the second winner, the Turk Aziz Sancar, he did all of his graduate work, and spent his entire career, in the United States. He has described himself as a “nationalist’ and a great admirer of Ataturk (who said “I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea.”). He even gave his Nobel medal to the Ataturk museum. It is reasonable to assume he is not a believing Muslim, but rather a Kemalist, determined to limit the role of Islam in Turkish life. The third winner, Ahmed Zuwail, is an Egyptian who did all of his graduate training, and all of his scientific work, in the United States, far from any Muslim environment. So if we discount the Ahmadi and the Kemalist, that leaves — at most — one Muslim Nobel Prize winner, though even here we do not know how devout Zuwail was. This suggests that there is something about Islam that discourages the enterprise of science.

Along with the prohibition on bidah, and the antipathy to skeptical inquiry, there is still a third problem with Islam and economic development: what may be called inshallah-fatalism. It is great fun for Westerners to count the number of times the word “inshallah” (“God willing”) comes up in conversation with Muslims. But it is not merely a verbal tic, of no consequence. The Muslim God is whimsical. He does what he wants, whenever he wants. He is not bound by physical laws, nor by moral laws. Our lives are ruled by his whims. He can give us prosperity, or reduce us to penury, or do now one and now the other. Ours not to reason why. Allah Knows Best. And if enough people in a society believe that what they do matters less, and what counts is what Allah Decides To Do, then this belief, encapsulated in the word “Inshallah” that most of those who grow up in societies suffused with Islam share, then hard work is unlikely to be regarded as admirable, or as making any kind of sense. In the Western world — and now also in the Asian, especially East Asian, world — such fatalism is foreign; in the West and in the Far East (China, Japan, Korea)  we have always grasped the close connection between work and economic prosperity.  This makes far less sense in the world of Islam. Even if there are exceptions to this, particularly among some educated Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies and adopt many of the attitudes of the circumambient society, the general observation holds. So spend your days in coffeehouses, watching television or playing tric-trac or smoking hubble-bubble pipes. Wait for manna from the government, or for a government no-need-to-show job, or aid from non-Muslims, all the result of Allah’s beneficence. And that is why all those hopes and dreams of the  Bush Administration, which were then muted under Obama, and are not even on the radar of the Trump Administration, for a new economic order in Iraq, came to nothing. That is why the hopes and dreams for Afghanistan,  will come to nothing. The sources of economic wealth everywhere, aside from natural resources, are the industriousness of the population, and the entrepreneurial flair of an economic elite. Inshallah-fatalism limits or undercuts the former; hostility to innovation, bidah, limits the latter. The economic failures of Muslims states and societies come from Islam itself. That is something that ought to be talked about, and loudly.

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