Why is so much of the Islamic world backward and ignorant?

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Dear Cecil: I’ll get right to the point. Why is the Islamic world so backward and ignorant? A thousand years ago, we hear, Arab culture put Europe in the shade, with great achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and architecture. Now it all seems to have boiled down to sadists and fanatics. I know this is a lot to explain in a column where they don’t even let you jump to an inside page, Cecil, but give it a whiz: Where did our Muslim brothers go wrong? Bud Clarke


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Let’s watch the glib generalizations, Bud. The Islamic world isn’t uniformly “backward and ignorant.” (And these days less than a fifth of its population is Arab.) Among the relatively nonignorant, nonbackward parts are Turkey and Malaysia, which, while not without their problems, have made considerable strides toward what Americans understand as modernity. But I’ll grant you that those countries are exceptions. I’ll grant you another point too: Throughout the Crusades, which began in 1095 when Pope Urban II called upon Christians to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control, one side might reasonably have been described as civilized, tolerant, and progressive, while the other was by and large a bunch of backward, ignorant, bloodthirsty fanatics. Hint: It wasn’t the Muslims who, upon capturing Jerusalem in 1099, gleefully slaughtered everyone there.

Today Islam claims some 1.2 billion adherents, most living in a broad swath stretching from the Atlantic coast of north Africa eastward to Indonesia and the Philippines. (For comparison, there are 1.9 billion Christians worldwide, most of them Catholics.) While abject poverty is rare in the Muslim world, the overwhelming majority of the population is just getting by. Take for example the 280 million people, the great majority of them Muslim, who live in the 22 Middle Eastern and African nations that make up the Arab League. According to a 2002 UN report by a group of Arab scholars, 65 million adults in these countries are illiterate, two-thirds of them women; the 1999 gross domestic product of the entire Arab League was less than that of Spain; for the past decade average annual growth in per capita income in the Middle East has been the lowest in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa; the 15 percent unemployment rate is one of the highest in the developing world; and Arabs have translated as many books in the last thousand years as the Spanish now do in one.

Some Western observers would have you believe that this is all because of an Islamic or Arabic culture that prizes bluster over substance. One influential book, Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (1983), suggests that the Arab predilection for overstated rhetoric (remember the absurd pronouncements of Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf?) is rooted in the floweriness of the Arabic language. Nonsense — the inflated talk can be more readily explained as an attempt to compensate for powerlessness. Similarly, it’s irresponsible to insist that some inherent quality of the Islamic religion perpetuates ignorant fanaticism. Islam is much like Christianity, in that you can find something in it to justify almost any fool notion.

The truth is that the present gap between the fortunes of the Islamic world and those of the West isn’t a result so much of Muslim failure as European success. For roughly a thousand years, from the death of Muhammad in 632 to the breaking of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, Islamic rulers vied with Christian ones for dominance in the Mediterranean. In the end the Muslim powers lost because the circumstances of empire didn’t compel them to develop their human resources the way the Europeans did — they were outmanned, outwitted, and outgunned.

The decline of the Ottomans (who were Muslims but not Arabs) is an instructive example. In 1453 they captured Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul, in the process eradicating the last vestige of the Roman empire. They built a mighty empire of their own and intimidated Europe for 200 years. But in the end their grand edifice suffered the fate of all empires — corruption, internal division, and decay. The European nations of the day had greater access to natural resources to start with and were obliged by the fiercely competitive nature of European politics to constantly innovate. As early as 1492 you could see the shape of things to come: not only did Ferdinand and Isabella finance Columbus’s voyages to America, they expelled the Moors from Spain.

By the 18th century it was clear that the Ottomans (and the Muslim world in general) were in decline. The Islamic response was to turn inward. Reformist Muslim sects argued for a return to tradition, and what had once been a tolerant religion grew more and more conservative and xenophobic. European colonization of Muslim lands in the 19th century increased resentment of the West, which in turn contributed to Muslim isolationism in the postcolonial era. By the time oil was discovered it was too late — Muslim (and particularly Arab) countries lacked the ability to exploit their own wealth and had to rely on Europeans to do it for them. Oil money enabled small elites to become Westernized, but despite a sharp increase in literacy in the past few decades, it’s fair to say that in many countries the Islamic masses remain comparatively backward and ignorant.

All of which is an object lesson, I guess. What did our Muslim brothers do wrong? Nothing. They just stopped doing a lot of the stuff they’d gotten right, and the world passed them by.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.