Monday, June 20, 2011

Timur Kuran's column in the New York Times

Book Recommendation: The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East

(On Long Divergence- How Islamic Law held back the middle east an excellent book which I recommend wholeheartedly-YLH)

By Timur Kuran

To start with the underutilization of female labor in the Middle East, we need to distinguish between pre-industrial and modern times. It is only in the past century or two that the abilities of Middle Eastern women have been underutilized by global standards of the day.

Until industrialization, women were restricted players in economic life everywhere. In western Europe, as in the Middle East, high birthrates kept women focused on childrearing and household chores, limiting their participation in commerce and finance. They did control assets, of course, including real estate. Although no systematic comparative study exists, there are grounds for believing that Middle Eastern women controlled more assets, not less, than Western women. Most critically, whereas Middle Eastern women received around one-third of all estates, in substantial parts of the West women did not share at all in inheritance settlements.

This inter-regional difference is rooted, as the Long Divergence discusses at length (chap. 5), in the egalitarianism of the Islamic inheritance system relative to most inheritance systems practiced prior to industrialization in the West. Whereas the Quran-based Islamic inheritance system mandates shares for all daughters, it was common in England, Holland, northern France, and Scandinavia for an estate to go in its entirety to the oldest son.

However offensive primogeniture appears to us today, it did have the virtue of fueling economic modernization: in concentrating wealth, it promoted capital accumulation as well as large and durable enterprises, fostering self-propelled economic transformation. By the same token, the Islamic inheritance system, which was relatively favorable to women, kept the Middle East economically stagnant.

Why, then, do Western women now make much larger economic contributions than Middle Eastern women? The question merits a book-length treatment, but here is a hint of what happened. The process of economic modernization eventually raised the demand for female labor, and the accompanying process of mechanization boosted the supply. With women working outside the home in growing numbers, they gained power in the marketplace, in various professions, in political governance, and at home. Gender relations got transformed, so that women are now educated to be breadwinners.
The transformation is under way in the Middle East, too, though with a long lag, which reflects the region’s very late start in economic modernization. The least industrialized parts of the Middle East, and those where most wealth is oil-based, remain at early stages of the transformation.
A complicating factor has been the rise of Islamism, as a reaction to modernization and to meet a need for identity protection. Gender relations constitute one of the few areas where Islamists are able to preserve a semblance of old lifestyles. Economic life has been transformed beyond recognition, as have governance, international relations, science, communications, and much else. The Middle East is undereducating and underutilizing its women partly because gender relations is central to the Islamist campaign against the secularization. The campaign will falter, I believe, but in the meantime the region will lose.

The second question, about colonialism inhibiting economic development, is the easiest to answer. The objectives of colonial powers (principally France and England) and of the post-colonial superpower (United States) have not necessarily been aligned with local interests. For example, the American support given to the Saudi monarchy has facilitated the survival of a regime that makes poor use of vast wealth, oppresses women, and denies religious freedoms.

We must recognize, however, that outside powers have treated countries differently. They have considered Saudi Arabia as an oil exporter without much potential for non-oil wealth creation. By contrast, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia benefited early on from economic “institution building.” Foreigners promoted, even undertook, the establishment of banks, stock markets, municipalities, and industries that contributed to economic modernization. An important 2001 article by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson, “The Colonial Origins of Economic Development,” is relevant here. It observes that in the Middle East, as elsewhere, foreigners pursued comprehensive economic modernization only in places where they settled, or hoped to settle, in substantial numbers. Places with an inhospitable climate, such as Arabia, got short shrift, and the impact has persisted.
In any case, the harm that colonialism did to the region pales in comparison to its huge benefits. Economic growth rates jumped massively as a result of foreign-inspired or -led reforms. That is why no one, not even Islamists who complain about Westernization, thinks of undoing the fundamental economic institutions established in the colonial era. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis do not take issue with the corporation, even though it had no place in traditional Islamic law. Nor do they object to banking per se, which is another institution transplanted to the Middle East in modern times, through the help of colonial powers.

Finally, there is the issue of whether the inquiry pursued in the Long Divergence may worsen cross-cultural tensions. As the book’s preface makes clear, during the decade I spent researching and writing the book this possibility was never far from my mind. Like any book, this one may in the end be misunderstood or misused, however earnestly I tried to think straight, write clearly, and address possible objections.

Yet the risks of avoiding the book’s themes are greater. A huge number of people, including many Muslims, believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with modernity. If headline-making Islamist terrorism continues, this poorly grounded view will gain even more currency, heightening tensions. This book shows that the economic stagnation of the Middle East resulted, by and large, from institutions that served Middle Easterners in general, and its Muslims specifically, quite well in the Middle Ages. It also shows that Islam is compatible with a market economy and with institutional flexibility. These are points that are poorly appreciated even by compassionate defenders of Islam.
There remains the point that in some areas popular understandings of Islam happen to need careful reconsideration. Attitudes toward religious freedom offer an example. The second half of the book demonstrates that denying Muslims freedoms enjoyed by others can do unintended harm.

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