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The Alliance that Stifles the Muslim World

The historical roots of the crisis in Islamic civilization

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-08-29 21:53:06

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Ahmet T. Kuru, Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment. A Global and Historical Comparison, Cambridge University Press, New York 2019

 

Why is it that Muslim societies have failed to keep up with the West over the last five hundred years and are still, today, to a large extent, held back by underdevelopment and authoritarianism? The question has been fuelling debate—and, often, bitter controversy—between scholars of varying persuasions for at least two centuries. It has also been exercising Ahmet Kuru, political scientist at San Diego State University, ever since one evening in 1989 when his father Uğur had a rather heated exchange with a general in the Turkish army regarding the Muslim contribution to modern civilization. Intrigued by the incident, the young Ahmet began to investigate the subject personally, embarking on a research project that was to end thirty years later with the publication of his Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment. The book distances itself from two prevailing approaches, in particular: on the one hand, the essentialist one, according to which it is Islam itself that prevents the advance of the societies in which it is rooted; on the other, the dependency theory, which traces the Muslim world’s problems to the colonial exploitation of which it has been a victim. The first thesis is belied by the fact that, up until the eleventh century, Muslim societies were more developed and intellectually lively than European ones; the second by the economic success of certain countries, particularly those in the Far East, which have been spared neither colonial domination nor authoritarianism. Thus, for Kuru, the question is more complex and account must be taken of other elements including, for example, the fact that the abundance of hydrocarbons has led to a rentier economy in most Muslim-majority countries and this has, in turn, fostered the establishment of authoritarian systems. This is not the book’s basic argument, however. According to the Turkish scholar authoritarianism and underdevelopment can ultimately be traced to two closely intertwined factors that have been weighing Muslim societies down for a thousand years: the alliance between state and ulama and the absence of a politically independent merchant class.

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