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 regionâ€™s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. â€œFor all its discontents, the Middle Eastâ€™s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,â€ writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, â€œThe Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.â€
Professor Kuranâ€™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 wasnâ€™t Islam as such, or colonialism, but rather various secondary Islamic legal practices that are no longer relevant today.
Itâ€™s a sophisticated argument that a column canâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 â€” 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 isnâ€™t an obstacle to capital accumulation. So if Professor Kuranâ€™s diagnosis is correct, that should bode well for the region â€” and Turkeyâ€™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. Itâ€™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 weâ€™ll have some tough, honest conversations on all sides about what went wrong â€” as a starting point for a new and more hopeful trajectory.