Tag Archives: Nicholas Kristof

Is Islam the Problem or the Solution? Maybe neither.

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting column on why the Middle East stagnated economically after the 1200s while the western world boomed.

Many Arabs have an alternative theory about the reason for the region’s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. “For all its discontents, the Middle East’s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,” writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.”

Professor Kuran’s book offers the best explanation yet for why the Middle East has lagged. After poring over ancient business records, Professor Kuran persuasively argues that what held the Middle East back wasn’t Islam as such, or colonialism, but rather various secondary Islamic legal practices that are no longer relevant today.

It’s a sophisticated argument that a column can’t do justice to, but for example, one impediment was inheritance law. Western systems most commonly passed all property intact to the eldest son, thus preserving large estates. In contrast, Islamic law stipulated a much fairer division of assets (including some to daughters), but this meant that large estates fragmented. One upshot was that private capital accumulation faltered and couldn’t support major investments to usher in an industrial revolution.

Professor Kuran also focuses on the Islamic partnership, which tended to be the vehicle for businesses. Islamic partnerships dissolved whenever any member died, and so they tended to include only a few partners — making it difficult to compete with European industrial and financial corporations backed by hundreds of shareholders.

The emergence of banks in Europe led long-term British interest rates to drop by two-thirds leading up to the Industrial Revolution. No such drop occurred in the Arab world until the colonial period.

These traditional impediments are no longer a problem in the 21st century. Muslim countries now have banks, corporations, and stock and bond markets, and inheritance law now isn’t an obstacle to capital accumulation. So if Professor Kuran’s diagnosis is correct, that should bode well for the region — and Turkey’s boom in recent years underscores the potential for a renaissance.

Yet one challenge is psychological. Many Arabs blame outsiders for their backwardness, and cope by rejecting modernity and the outside world. It’s a disgrace that an area that once produced outstanding science and culture (giving us words like algebra) now is an educational underachiever, especially for girls.

The crisis in the Arab world provides a chance for a new start. I hope we’ll have some tough, honest conversations on all sides about what went wrong — as a starting point for a new and more hopeful trajectory.

America’s History of Fear

Good column today by Nicholas Kristof

Screeds against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque. The starting point isn’t hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.

Followers of these movements against Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and other immigrants were mostly decent, well-meaning people trying to protect their country. But they were manipulated by demagogues playing upon their fears — the 19th- and 20th-century equivalents of Glenn Beck.

Most Americans stayed on the sidelines during these spasms of bigotry, and only a small number of hoodlums killed or tormented Catholics, Mormons or others. But the assaults were possible because so many middle-of-the-road Americans were ambivalent.

Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days. But we should also recognize that historically this distrust has led us to burn witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.