An Arab Renaissance?

Article excerpt


The West is riding a wave of optimism, despite the unresolved bloody mess in Libya prophesying a resurgent Arab/Muslim world. Led by cheerleading media - including such unexpected participants as Fox News - there's lyrical reporting on anti-authoritarian signboards printed in English for Western audiences.

The enthusiasm may be misplaced.

Arab nations confront a restless, growing youth cohort, and these vast numbers of young people are as much a challenge as they are an engine for modernity. They need jobs in a new and rapidly growing economy to move out of 1,000 years of cultural stagnation. Virtually leaderless except for the occasional Muslim fanatic, these countries have few concrete ideas about how to produce those jobs.

Too often, frustrated anti-regime spokesmen fall back on the old lame excuse - colonialism, the usual scapegoat. European exploitation was real, of course, but so was the introduction of modernity that accompanied it. Years ago, a famous and charming communist Pakistani Urdu poet friend, in a tour of Lahore, pointed out to me how, like Calcutta, the city had been up to a certain point typically Edwardian. With his Marxist bent, his explanation for why it froze - we were speaking in the 1960s - was because European exploitation didn't pay anymore.

However valid that explanation, the truth is that there is little fundamental about the current rebels' so-called reform program. Their calls for eliminating corruption and inefficiency are unassailable. But efforts to remold economic facts of life in impoverished Muslim societies fly in the face of the traditional, religiously inspired cultural fatalism. Unfortunately, the Islamic orthodox have a virtual monopoly on moral regeneration. But their interpretation of Islam excludes individualism, which is at the heart of modern freedom, democratic governance and economic development.

Applying the concepts of Shariah - Islamic law - to the economy has been catastrophic. Western and even indigenous banks that pandered to the orthodox by replacing conventional banking with Muslim concepts quietly dumped them when they simply did not work.

Dubai is an example: Getting out of entanglements of a collapsed real estate bubble is proving virtually impossible, despite help from neighboring oil despots, because Muslim rules of the road purportedly eschew Western legal concepts of equity and interest. Malaysia, which lucked out in the 1997 East Asia financial crisis when it rejected the IMF's bitter medicine, now trumpets the virtues of Islamic capitalism. But its economy is built on the backs of its minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, who follow a pragmatic work ethic while paying rents to their Malay overlords.

It's easy to fall into stereotypes and even racism discussing these issues. A generation ago, some were bantering about the phrase Hindu rate of growth to describe India's economic stagnation. …