August 16, 2009

"Why Don't Islamic Countries Get Rich?"

I came across this paragraph a couple weeks ago, and finally remembered to post it to the blog. The paragraph is a small part from a review published in the July 23rd edition of The Economist on Alan Beattie's book, False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World. Beattie is the world-trade editor at the Financial Times and a former economist for the Bank of England.

Turning to religion, Mr Beattie asks: “Why don’t Islamic countries get rich?” Ah, he replies, some of them do. Islam is often held up as inimical to economic progress. That is nonsense, he says. The Muslim Hausa have provided some of Nigeria’s most successful traders for centuries. “Had Max Weber lived among the Hausa”, Mr Beattie sniffs, “he might well have concluded that Muslims were good for growth and constructed his convoluted psychological theories around the tenets of Islam.” The author picks his way through religious texts, history and modern commercial practice to argue that there is no reason to draw a firm causal connection between any faith and economic progress.

Here is another review for False Economy, from Business Week, that discuss the Islamic question:

Beattie, who studied history at Oxford University and economics at Cambridge, draws on both disciplines to overturn assumptions about the evolution of the global economy. For example, the data do not support the belief that Islamic societies inherently perform worse than other nations, or for that matter that there is any correlation between religion and growth. Malaysia has both a strong Islamic identity and a modern economy. Religion is an obstacle only when development is blocked in God's name, often in self-defense by those who hold power, Beattie argues.

In looking up information about this book, I came across an old blog post at Aqoul that discusses a Financial Times article Beattie wrote on the same subject, most likely becoming part of his research for the book now published. (Unfortunately, the FT article is no longer available on the FT website.) However, the Aqoul post refers to the original study Beattie was writing about, Religion, Culture and Economic Performance by Marcus Noland at the Institute for International Economics, which was published in August 2003. In that study, Noland found that:

The results with respect to Islam do not support the notion that it is inimical to growth. On the contrary, virtually every statistically significant coefficient on Muslim population shares reported in this paper—in both cross-country and within-country statistical analyses—is positive. If anything, Islam promotes growth.

(A similar paper by Noland and Howard Pack, Islam, Globalization, and Economic Performance in the Middle East (published June 2004), came to the same conclusion.)

So, the partial answer to the question, "Why don't Islamic countries get rich?" is, "It's not Islam's fault." To answer the question more thoroughly requires a more conventional economic analysis. (I hadn't originally planned a part two, but I feel one may be necessary at this point.)

Update (8 May 2011): I think the events of recent months (the "Arab Spring" and especially the examples of Tunisia and Egypt) have shown that the problem with respect to economic growth in Muslim countries is not Islam itself, but the authoritarian control by governments over economic activity, especially when that control is used to stifle the economic activity of the average Muslim in favor of cronyism. Don't forget that the Tunisian revolution, which started the Arab Spring, started when a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because local officials wouldn't allow him to support himself and his family by selling fruit and vegetables from a pushcart.

19 comments:

George Carty said...

Isn't the West just far superior to the Muslim world, ecologically speaking? Western Europeans hardly ever had to fear famine, while in the Middle East it was an ever-present danger.

Didn't Suleiman the Magnificent's giant empire have scarcely more people than France of the same era?

Nowadays, the Muslim world is suffering from the consequences of colonialism, and the Middle East is suffering from the trifecta from hell: oil, Zionism and aridity.

JDsg said...

Isn't the West just far superior to the Muslim world, ecologically speaking? Western Europeans hardly ever had to fear famine, while in the Middle East it was an ever-present danger.

Your questions seem quite scatter-shot today, George, and I don't have time to go over all of them now, but I did want to address your first question because it's obvious you've never lived in a desert. :)

The Middle East is not quite the ecological disaster you seem to be implying. Yes, of course, famines occurred throughout the Middle East over the centuries, but Europe seems to have had its fair share of famines as well. On the other hand, several parts of the Middle East are well known for the quantity of food they have produced over the centuries. I shouldn't need to remind you, of all people, about the Roman Republic's and Empire's huge dependence upon Egypt for their wheat supply. What may be more surprising is how adept the Persians were at agriculture. (There's are reasons why the Persian Empire was so huge and lasted for so long; their agricultural prowess was a major reason.) There's a footnote in the Rex Warner translation of Xenophon's The Persian Expedition (Penguin; p. 119) that's striking:

"The Persians were the great gardeners of antiquity. Each satrapal palace had its firdu (or 'paradise,' to give the Greek borrowing), which was large enough to allow the hunting of the numerous wild animals with which it was stocked, and which contained trees and plants of all kinds. Cyrus astonished Lysander, the Spartan, when showing him the paradise in Sardis, by declaring that he had planned the whole garden himself and that whenever he was not on campaign he gardened before dinner (Xen., Oeconomicus, 4.20-25). An earlier satrap had transplanted Syrian trees and plants to Lydia (Meiggs-Lewis, Greek Historical Inscriptions No. 12). So the large Persian irrigation works are of no surprise to us, though they excited bizarre explanations from Herodotus (I.189f. for the 360 canals of the river Gyndes and III.117 for water conservation in central Iran). Looking forward to the coming of Cyrus the Great, the prophet of Isaiah XL-LV foresees 'rivers in high places and fountains in the midst of the valleys,' 'the wilderness a pool of water and the dry land springs of water,' 'in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree,' 'in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together.'

For Persian gardens through the ages see The Legacy of Persia, ed. A.J. Arberry, p. 259ff."

Even if Western Europe is "ecologically superior" to the Middle East, everyone in this world is tested by Allah (swt). Those who suffer famines are being tested:

Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To God We belong, and to Him is our return":- (2;155-56)

And those who don't suffer from a lack of food or other personal possessions are also going to be tested:

That which is on earth we have made but as a glittering show for the earth, in order that We may test them - as to which of them are best in conduct. (18:7)

Nor strain thine eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to parties of them, the splendor of the life of this world, through which We test them: but the provision of thy Lord is better and more enduring. (20:131)

So, from a spiritual standpoint, there's not necessarily any benefit from living in the West. (In fact, perhaps even less.)

bambam said...

now i'm not going to tackle whether middle eastern countries have famine ( i can't recall a single incident for the ME while i can recount a dozen in europe) or the fact that the poor dark skinned people are the favourite test subjects for god, he just loved them so much he was always testing them to make them better thats all... they didn't even get a prophet poor guys as far as we know.
I find it really blind sighted and hyperbolic to try to link economy to islam before looking at the geopolitical forces in muslim countries and understanding the main reason for they are always behind the curve and poor ... i can guarantee that it has nothing to do with islam.

JDsg said...

BamBam: I completely agree.

George Carty said...

Yes, the pre-Islamic Persians built up a wonderful irrigation system which compensated for their arid climate. However, wasn't much of it -- which took millennia to build -- destroyed during the Byzantine-Persian Wars?

Dependence on irrigation made Middle Eastern countries extremely vulnerable by Western standards. IIRC the population of Iran plummeted by 90% as a result of the Mongol conquest, due to the destruction of irrigation systems.

Just as a matter of interest, how did the population of Christian Andalusia in 1600 compare with the population of Muslim Andalusia in 1000? When the Christians tore up the irrigation systems (which they viewed as Muslim, and thus suspect) and turned the land into ranches, did they impair the land's carrying capacity in the process?

My point about the Ottoman Empire was that while it was enormous in area it was sparsely populated (because so much of it was either desert or mountains), and that meant that once the West had caught up in military technology and governmental organization (the original Ottoman strengths) the Ottomans never stood a chance. In the 19th century the Austrians outnumbered them two to one, and the Russians six to one.

As for Egypt, on a Muslim forum one poster (a British Muslim staying in Egypt to learn Arabic, and who has a rather negative opinion of that country - his blog is here) mentioned how the main reason Egypt couldn't go to war on Israel was that it was dependent on Western food aid. I asked how the country that was breadbasket for Roman Empire and Caliphate alike ended up in such a wretched state. At that point another poster suggested that the Roman breadbasket was Carthage, not Egypt.

As for being "tested by Allah", I've noticed that some clash-of-civilizations types think that Islam is not a disease but a symptom, and that the real disease is arid climate. In this interpretation Islam in particular (and monotheism in general) are products of a fatalistic culture rooted in the vulnerablity of people living in desert regions.

James DeMeo's Saharasia and Eg Ban's The Constant Feud are examples of this genre. However, I did notice an attempt (by a non-Muslim) to rebut such claims here.

JDsg said...

George:

which took millennia to build

Millennia??? Hundreds of years, certainly, but most unlikely to be millennia. The Hohokam, an Indian tribe that lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area, built over 200 km of canals over the span of several hundred years, but it certainly didn't take them millennia.


IIRC the population of Iran plummeted by 90% as a result of the Mongol conquest, due to the destruction of irrigation systems.

Well, don't forget that more than half of the dead were murdered, as opposed to dying by famine. Moreover, the famine was most likely due to the loss of farmers as opposed to climactic reasons.


My point about the Ottoman Empire was that while it was enormous in area it was sparsely populated (because so much of it was either desert or mountains)...

Hugh Kennedy, in his book "The Great Arab Conquests" (pp. 68-9), discusses the depopulation of Syria/Palestine post 540. In his discussion the three main reasons for the depopulation were: 1) the Bubonic Plague, which began in 540 and continued on annually through the seventh century. He believes that the plague of that time was at least as severe as the plague of 1348-49, which killed one-third of the Middle East and Western Europe. 2) The Byzantine-Persian wars of around 540 through 630, and 3) Mass migrations of people (voluntary and involuntary) out of Syria/Palestine. He cites two different waves, the first being an involuntary migration of residents of that area who were moved to Persia after the Persian victories over the Byzantines in 540 and 573. Their descendents, of course, were later slaughtered by the Mongols seven hundred years later. The second wave was of Greek-speaking Byzantines who fled the region to either North Africa or Rome. Famine is never mentioned as a possible reason for depopulation.

...and that the real disease is arid climate.

Well, once again, I don't think these people really understand what it's like to live in a desert. I have, for 20 years. What non-desert people don't understand about desert dwellers is that the latter are very good at living off smaller sets of resources, such as water, than is assumed. Conservation becomes more deeply ingrained into the consciousness. Society, especially the ancient desert cultures, focuses around the infrastructure that support the ability to live in the desert, especially the canals. Phoenix was built only because the ruins of the Hohokam canal system were re-dug, allowing the water of the Salt River (and later the lakes in the mountains east of Phoenix) to flow into the city once more. (The canal system in the Phoenix area is still a major supplier of the region's water.) Anyone who thinks an arid climate is a "disease" is completely ignorant as far as I'm concerned.

George Carty said...

Interesting information about Phoenix, Arizona! You mentioned that you were sure that I've never lived in a desert. It's worse than that - I've never even crossed the 45 North line of latitude! (And I'm the only member of my family who's been abroad period...)

You mentioned the sixth-century plague in the Middle East, but I was looking at the zenith of the Ottomans, which was a thousand years later. Was the Muslim demographic disadvantage then a legacy of the Mongol massacres rather a limitation of the land's carrying capacity? (Being irrigation-dependent couldn't have helped though, as the rate of population recovery would be limited by the rate at which irrigation systems could be rebuilt and kept in working order.)

Do you have any information relating to my question on Andalusia? How did the Christian system of ranching compare in productivity to the Muslim system of irrigated croplands?

JDsg said...

I've never even crossed the 45 North line of latitude! (And I'm the only member of my family who's been abroad period...)

Well, it sounds like you and your family need to get out more. ;) (I've played that game most of my life - what's the furthest I've gone in each direction. My two current goals are to get south of the equator (so near and yet so far), and to finish encircling the globe. One flight to Europe would solve that for me.)

You mentioned the sixth-century plague in the Middle East, but I was looking at the zenith of the Ottomans, which was a thousand years later.

I had thought about that as I wrote my comment, but I think looking at the sixth-century was beneficial for a couple reasons: It provided several reasons other than famine to consider, especially disease (and we didn't even mention child mortality). And it provided a baseline of sorts for considering the latter period (population growth during that thousand-year-period would not have increased the number that much when you consider historical world population numbers and their long, slow slope up through 1900). That depopulation of the sixth century would have taken a long time to recover from, most likely centuries.

Was the Muslim demographic disadvantage then a legacy of the Mongol massacres rather a limitation of the land's carrying capacity?

I think so. The other thing to consider is geographic terrain and its ability to allow or not allow mass migrations that could threaten ancient empires. Both of us are well aware of the numerous mass migrations that flowed out of Asia into Europe, especially as the Western Roman Empire began to fall. But think about the Ottoman Empire. The only way to attack from the south would have been through the very narrow Nile River valley, the Sahara blocking almost all of North Africa from any potential invasion; likewise, the narrow and desert Sinai peninsula making any exodus out of Africa difficult to achieve (only one successful attempt that I know of ;) ). From the north and northwest the mountains of Anatolia made passage difficult for the few migrations that went through there. (Thomas Asbridge's The First Crusade and, of course, Xenophon's Anabasis describe quite decently the same route taken by both groups; Asbridge in particular describes how difficult that journey was for the civilians along on the first Crusade.) The Mediterranean would have blocked most mass migrations to the Ottoman Empire (although not navies). Which leaves the northeast, which was how the Mongols got through to Baghdad. But other than the Mongols, there were no other mass migrations through that route, and even if there might have been.the Mongols who settled in central Asia and became Muslim would have provided a sufficient guard at the back door, so to speak. So I think for the most part the Ottoman Empire was better guarded than Central and Western Europe. The Islamic civilization's real problem was that both Baghdad and Cordoba fell within a 22-year-period of each other.

(Being irrigation-dependent couldn't have helped though, as the rate of population recovery would be limited by the rate at which irrigation systems could be rebuilt and kept in working order.)

Agreed.

Do you have any information relating to my question on Andalusia?

Sorry; I haven't done any reading on that at all.

George Carty said...

Well, it sounds like you and your family need to get out more. ;) (I've played that game most of my life - what's the furthest I've gone in each direction. My two current goals are to get south of the equator (so near and yet so far), and to finish encircling the globe. One flight to Europe would solve that for me.)

I'd like to talk to someone about my family situation, but I don't think the comments of this weblog are an appropriate place. Do you have an e-mail address which I could use or a Facebook account which I could access?

JDsg said...

My e-mail address can be found on the profile page; my facebook account is "JD SG". Although I don't pretend by any stretch of the imagination to be a family counselor.

George Carty said...

From the north and northwest the mountains of Anatolia made passage difficult for the few migrations that went through there. (Thomas Asbridge's The First Crusade and, of course, Xenophon's Anabasis describe quite decently the same route taken by both groups; Asbridge in particular describes how difficult that journey was for the civilians along on the first Crusade.)

Wasn't Anatolia poor for most of the Ottoman period though (because of its devastation by Timur) - isn't this one reason why the Kemalists have a negative view of the Ottoman era?

IIRC the Balkans vilayets were the most important to the Ottomans.

Oh, and Ramadan Mubarak!

JDsg said...

Wasn't Anatolia poor for most of the Ottoman period though (because of its devastation by Timur)

I wouldn't think so, if only because the amount of Anatolia that was ruled by the Timurid dynasty was a small fraction compared to Anatolia as a whole. The Timurids only ruled maybe 20% of eastern Anatolia at the most. (See the map.)

...isn't this one reason why the Kemalists have a negative view of the Ottoman era?

Not in my book: "Religion was viewed as a potential threat to the Kemalist nation-state", and therefore "the state actively attempted to reduce the role played by religion in private lives." () I very much believe this to be the case. Go ask Dr. M this question and see what he says. ;) (And pray he doesn't bite your head off. ;) )

IIRC the Balkans vilayets were the most important to the Ottomans.

That may very well be. To be honest, you are probably better well read on the Ottomans than I am.

Oh, and Ramadan Mubarak!

Thank you very much, George. And Ramadan Mubarak to you too, even if you're not fasting with us. :)

JDsg said...

@ Nizar: Don't come onto my blog out of the blue and think you can use insulting language ("quit the bullshit"). I can and will (and have) delete(d) all of your comments. Don't like it? Too bad! You either comment here with respect or you don't comment here at all. Moreover, I'm not interested in conversations with people who play the fool with their arguments. If that sort of thing interests you, then write it up on your own blog. Don't play stupid here.

George Carty said...

I wouldn't think so, if only because the amount of Anatolia that was ruled by the Timurid dynasty was a small fraction compared to Anatolia as a whole. The Timurids only ruled maybe 20% of eastern Anatolia at the most. (See the map.)

Wasn't an Ottoman army destroyed at Ankara though, far to the west of the area shaded in the map on Wikipedia?

Not in my book: "Religion was viewed as a potential threat to the Kemalist nation-state", and therefore "the state actively attempted to reduce the role played by religion in private lives." I very much believe this to be the case.

Would I have been more accurate if I'd wrote "Kemalist propagandists sought support by claiming that the Ottomans did very little for Anatolia"?

That may very well be. To be honest, you are probably better well read on the Ottomans than I am.

A lot of my information on the Ottomans comes from the posts of John Piccone (screen name "Abdul Hadi Pasha") on the AlternateHistory.com forum. He's mainly interested in the late empire, and you can search his posts here.

JDsg said...

Wasn't an Ottoman army destroyed at Ankara though, far to the west of the area shaded in the map on Wikipedia?

That's correct, but Timur lost control of the Ankara region by the next year (1403), so his control of the region was marginal at best.


Would I have been more accurate if I'd wrote "Kemalist propagandists sought support by claiming that the Ottomans did very little for Anatolia"?

I couldn't say one way or the other.

George Carty said...

Another question - most Westerners view the Nazis as the epitome of absolute evil. Why don't most Muslims view the Mongols similarly?

(The only example of modern Muslim demonization of the Mongols which I'm aware of is the Hamas Charter, which likens Zionism to a "Nazi-Tatar invasion".)

Is it because Muslims do not need an earthly substitute for Satan as secular Westerners do?

JDsg said...

Why don't most Muslims view the Mongols similarly?

A couple of reasons, I'd guess. It's an ancient memory that doesn't have the emotional resonance that the Crusades have with Muslims. (Even there, I wonder if the Crusades would have the same emotional resonance today if Israel hadn't been created.) WW2, I think, is just too recent of history. The Nazis were in many ways the perfect villains, especially for Hollywood, and even those of us who don't have a living memory of that era grew up watching over and over so many movies and TV programs about that war that we're all shaped in one way or another by it. (As opposed to say, my daughter, who, when she grows up, insha'allah, probably won't have the memory of that war drilled into her head as it was in mine and yours.)

Also, the fact that the Mongols who settled into Central Asia repented and became Muslims. Their work didn't restore all that had been lost, but it was a partial restitution.

I suspect that if most Muslims think about the Mongols that it's about the superiority of Islam rather than about the destruction caused by the Mongols. The Mongols becoming Muslim, and the Muslim Mamluks who finally stopped the westward Mongol advance.

George Carty said...

Could another factor be that the Mongols were an entirely external menace for the Muslim world (at least until Timur came along, who was just as bloodthirsty despite being Muslim), whereas the Nazis developed within Western civilization itself, taking the brutal methods used by European colonialists against non-white peoples, and using them against fellow whites?

(That's the biggest irony about today's neo-Nazis -- don't they realize that in fact Hitler was the worst ever traitor to the white race? Almost all his victims were white, and the crimes of the Nazis permanently discredited colonialism.)

JDsg said...

Difficult to say, George. Maybe.