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Blaming Islam would be too easy

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Blaming Islam would be too easy

To suggest that the Islamic world missed out on modernizing because of religious belief would be to ignore the vibrancy seen in many of the world's Muslim states

By Jeffrey Sachs

The terrorist attacks in America and the war against the Taliban have incited widespread speculation about the relationship between culture and economic development. Most pointedly, is the Islamic world thwarted from modernizing because its culture is trapped in the Middle Ages? Is poor economic development in much of the Middle East and Central Asia the result of cultural practices that are hostile to economic growth?

The usual charge is that the Islamic world missed the advances of the European enlightenment, when the state and religion were separated, modern scientific ideas were adopted and cultural attitudes toward women modernized. As a result, it is alleged, the Islamic world cannot cope with the demands of modernization, either in technology or in cultural practices, such as the granting of rights to women, which is necessary for economic success in the modern world.

As always with crude generalizations, elements of truth are intermixed with a mass of confusion. The truth is that certain cultural practices support economic modernization. These include a tendency toward greater equality between men and women and their roles in society; a culture that rewards educational attainment with high social status; the secularization of many aspects of modern life, including the preeminence of modern science; and cultural practices that favor social mobility in the choice of occupations.

The falsehood is to believe that some cultures are static and inimical to change, while others are somehow uniquely modern.

In all parts of the world, cultures have had to adjust to the changes in economic organization, technology and scientific knowledge of the past 200 years. In Western Europe and the US, for example, the cultural acceptance of social and economic equality between men and women has involved a long process of political struggle and evolving social norms. The pace of change has varied markedly within regions and across cultural sub-groups.

The Islamic world, which stretches over 15,000km, dozens of countries, and includes more than 1 billion followers, is similarly subject to widespread cultural variation. Islamic countries in the Mediterranean region are culturally and politically distinct from Islamic countries in the Arabian Peninsula, which differ from Islamic countries in Central Asia and those of southeast Asia, as well as sub-Saharan Africa.

Consider one example: the number of children per woman in society, known as the "total fertility rate." In societies where women are not allowed to work and are expected to remain home and raise children, the number of children is very high. Economic growth tends to suffer: when poor households have many children, the education given to each child also tends to be reduced.

In some parts of the Islamic world, most notably in the Arabian peninsula, the fertility rate remains very high. A woman in Yemen will on average give birth to more than seven children in her lifetime. In Saudi Arabia, the average is over six children.

In other parts of the Islamic world, the fertility rate is far lower and has declined in recent decades, signaling a major shift in cultural norms. In Tunisia, the average fertility rate has dropped from 6.2 in the 1970s to 2.3 today, just slightly above the 2.0 average in the US.

Similarly, in Turkey the fertility rate fell from 5.2 in the early 1970s to 2.7 in the late 1990s. In Indonesia, the decline in fertility rates was about the same. Women have entered the labor force in these societies in much greater numbers, delivering economic gains and improvements in their social status.

We can therefore note that in Islamic societies like Tunisia, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, economic growth and cultural change has proceeded rapidly in the past generation. Some of these countries have been among the world's fastest growing economies in recent decades.

Islamic culture has neither been a barrier to growth, nor has it been static. As in other parts of the world, culture in these countries has shown its vibrancy and also its capacity to adjust to changing conditions.

In the Arabian peninsula, cultural change has been slower, as has economic development. Causation probably runs in both directions here: cultural factors may have impeded economic growth, while poor economic performance (say, bad economic policies and over-dependence on oil) may have slowed the adaptation of cultural practices to the needs of a modern economy.

In very remote places like Afghanistan or Chad, weak connections with the world economy have also delayed the process of social change.

These examples should warn us away from three current tendencies. The first is to give easy labels to complex and diverse societies. The idea of a single conservative Islamic world is as mistaken as a single modern Western society. Diversity is very high; cultural practices vary widely. Simplistic labels reflect more prejudice than understanding.

The second tendency is to believe that culture is somehow static and unchanging. Cultures everywhere change in response to technological developments, economic growth, and -- of course -- globalization.

The third tendency is to believe that culture is the key to economic development. Economic development is determined by many factors, including geography, politics, international relations, and culture. Cultural differences across societies are often more the outcome than the cause of differences in economic development.

Jeffrey Sachs is the Galen L. Stone Professor of Economics and director of the Center for International Development, Harvard University. Project Syndicate

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