Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Muslim Cultures Lag Behind

In the past fifty years, many countries have caught up with the rich and developed Western World. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, with virtually no natural resources, have created advanced, urbanized and prosperous societies, complete with world-class technology that often exceed that which is found in the West. India, Brazil and China, although not yet fully developed, now all possess large and affluent middle classes that did not exist just a few decades ago. There is no reason to believe why their economic and social progress of all of these countries will not continue for the foreseeable future.
The Muslim world, on the other hand, has struggled during this era of unprecedented global wealth creation. These countries have profited almost solely, by happy geological accident, from oil and gas extraction. Beyond these activities, economic activity in Muslim countries remains scant, low tech and strictly oriented towards local consumption. Despite trillions of dollars in oil revenue over the past sixty years, Muslim progress in many other areas, such as scientific research, social issues and education, lags badly behind the rest of the world.
How could this be the case? The answer, which the major media dares not touch, lies in the very culture of Muslim countries themselves. Consider the following cultural traits which are all typically found in majority Muslim countries:
Belief in magic. State-owned Malaysian newspapers and television stations routinely run breathless stories about witch doctors (‘bomoh’), evil spirits and other forms of the supernatural. Visitors to Malaysia get a good laugh out of such quaint cultural practices, until they realize with a shock that Malaysian belief in such superstition is absolutely sincere. But it’s not just here in Malaysia where this happens. In Saudi Arabia, witchcraft is considered very real and a capital offence. In Iran, laws are on the books that make 'sorcery' a crime. And in Iraq, many of the locals are absolutely convinced that American soldiers wear sunglasses that can see through clothing and have bases protected by force fields. A culture that is eager to embrace the supernatural takes a giant step away from rationality and deceives itself fundamentally. Self-deception is always, sooner or later, the path to failure.
Belief in conspiracies. Muslims take it as an Article of Faith that various groups of so-called infidels or other outsiders are engaged in various conspiracies to keep Muslims down, make Islam look bad, or are otherwise up to No Good. The lack of evidence means little to a society where ‘skepticism’ is already an unusual and foreign concept. For instance, even well-educated Muslims will tell you, with total earnestness, that the 9-11 terror attacks were actually perpetrated by Zionists, or the CIA, or the U.S. Government, or some other nefarious group. Never mind the vast amount of evidence to the contrary. When presented with rebuttals from non-Muslims, Muslims will usually just shrug it off and carry on with their nonsensical conspiracy theories.
Lack of innovation. Here in Malaysia, it is telling that the word in the Malay language for innovation (“inovasi”) did not exist until it came from English, quite recently, as a loan word. Innovation, meaning to create something without precedent, is a risky and therefore dangerous business in the Islamic world. The reason for this is because Islam already has a word for innovation, “bid’ah”. In Islam, this word is essentially the same in meaning as ‘heresy’, which is yet another capital crime under Islamic law. Hence creativity and individuality are utterly stifled in a totalitarian fashion, even in Muslim countries where Islamic law has not yet been fully implemented. Improvisation is also discouraged for similar reasons. This is a major reason why Islamic countries are usually characterized by a near-total lack of scientific research and reluctance to embrace technology in general.
Lack of devotion to non-family/non tribal/non-clan organizations. In most Muslim societies, loyalty often runs no farther than one’s tribe or sect. People from the far-off central government, or those from the next valley over for that matter, are foreigners to be met with suspicion or hostility. Afghanistan is a perfect example of this sort of chaos. Even if these differences are eventually papered over, so to speak, by the force and coercion of a dictatorship, the lack of cohesion and distrust remain. Muslim leaders usually come into and stay in power by exploiting this very characteristic, by playing one tribe or group off another. Patriotism amongst the general public is another foreign concept, taken for granted in the West. Muslims may remain loyal to Islam in general, but more importantly, to the tribe in particular.
Lack of empowerment of women. The future, no matter what form it may take, is almost certainly going to involve more technology, not less. How well equipped is a society for this future if half of its members are only (at best) grudgingly given their rights? In many Islamic countries, women are often illiterate and have no rights in essential critical life decisions, such as those involving child-rearing, marriage or education. And why should they? Various Quranic verses, age-old Islamic traditions, and core Islamic teachings render women as nothing more than chattel and the property of their male relatives—never the equal of men. And no one can ‘reform’ these teachings to something more enlightened—see the penalty for “bid’ah” above.
Lack of personal responsibility. Muslim leaders often lie to or deceive their own people, to subordinates, or to allies in order to advance their own personal agendas. Remember that most Muslim countries are a patchwork of tribes who barely tolerate one another in the best of times. Loyalty to one’s country as a whole is next to non-existent. So, the main objective of these leaders, whether at the top, middle or bottom, is to steal as much as they can, while they can, in order to enrich themselves and their families, clans or tribes—'national interest’ be damned. If you’re one of the rare incorruptible types, or are otherwise too stupid to steal when presented with the opportunity, then more the fool you are. Other tribes or groups are useful as scapegoats when the need arises or when blame must be deflected.
Lack of skilled labour. Rich, developed and successful countries like Germany, Japan and others do not just spring into existence. It takes the efforts of millions, skilled specialists toiling endlessly in dangerous and/or monotonous drudgery for decades, to build and also maintain the ever-growing complex web of systems that modern nations depend on to function. But Muslim countries, even the ones with trillions from oil revenue, have consistently failed to create large enough castes of technical specialists that modern nations must have. As there are never enough people willing or able to work within their own borders, Muslim nations are forced to outsource their labour needs. In Saudi Arabia and most Arab states, for instance, cleaners and maids come from India or the Philippines, while engineers and others in the technical trades come from America, Europe and increasingly east Asia. This trend is accelerating, paradoxically enough, at a time when the governments of the burgeoning Arab world are having an increasing problem just feeding their exploding populations.
Lack of meritocracy. The West has thrived not only because they have learned to hold people responsible for their actions, but also they have learned to give out rewards based on individual achievement. Hence higher–performing individuals tend to be eventually in charge and reap the most rewards (in prestige, rank, money, etc.). Westerners do not always manage to live up to these ideals, but the concepts themselves are not questioned. In the Islamic world, however, what counts is personal loyalty, personal connections, and tribal/sect membership. Incompetent leaders are preferable to competent ones, so long as they are properly loyal. Such a state of affairs makes for incredible inefficiency on a normal day and catastrophic consequences when any sort of crisis arises. Muslims are fond of saying “it’s God’s will” at difficult times, which for Muslims seems like most of the time. Actually, it’s not so much “God’s will” but more like the inevitable consequences of their dysfunctional culture.
If you’ve read up to this point, no doubt that you could add a few more things to this list. But remember, political correctness dictates that all cultures are somehow ‘equal’, and Muslims are convinced their cultures are somehow superior; never mind the reams of evidence to the contrary. So while I want to be optimistic, the smart money is not riding on the would-be reformers of the under-performing societies of the Muslim world. At least not yet.


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