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Islam, Authoritarianism and Intolerance  

Yesterday’s news might be seen as a confirmation of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations idea, pitting Islam against the West.

First was the headline news that Islamist militants, angered by a trailer posted on YouTube depicting Prophet Muhammed as a sexual predator, homosexual and child molester, attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi, set the Consulate ablaze, and killed ambassador Christopher J. Stevens and three members of his staff. There were violent protests elsewhere, including in Egypt.

Second was the perhaps equally disturbing news from Pakistan of an 11-year-old illiterate Christian girl (described as “slow” by the news reports) now freed from jail but still running from the mob, threatening to kill and burn her and her family, because of “blasphemy” (she’s accused of burning pages from an Islamic textbook).

Add to this the general poverty and authoritarianism of the Middle East and North Africa and other Islamic countries (especially if you leave out oil wealth), the case seems open and shut.

There are many versions of why Islam is at the root of authoritarianism, backwardness and poverty in these countries. Perhaps the most famous one argues that Islam, by failing to recognize the separation of religion and state, naturally leads to authoritarianism. In a now famous book, What Went Wrong, historian Bernard Lewis popularized a version of this idea. He wrote, for example:

The idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to the Muslim thought (page 100).

He went on to compare Islam to Christianity in this regard:

From the beginning, Christians were taught, both by precept and practice, to distinguish between God and Caesar and between the different duties owed to each of the two. Muslims received no such instruction. (Page 103).

Though popular, this view doesn’t seem entirely well grounded in history or scripture.

First, as we argued in Why Nations Fail, there is another obvious explanation for extractive economic and political institutions in the Middle East and North Africa: the legacy of Ottoman rule and institutions.

Second, the close relationship between politics and religion is not confined to Islam. Rulers have used religion to cement their power or support their attempts to conquer new lands throughout the ages. For example, though colonialism was not a religious endeavor, religious rhetoric and the project of converting heathens to Christianity did play a role in motivating the Spanish and the English alike and provided a pretty good “cover story”.

Third, it is true that secularism, in any of its forms, has been all but absent in Muslim lands, but this is at least as much because politics has co-opted religion rather than the other way around.

Fourth, there is really nothing in the Koran or even the Hadith about constitutions or how the government should be organized and operated.

But the question remains: it’s unlikely to be a coincidence, nor easily explained by the Ottoman legacy, that most Muslim countries are not democratic and almost totally lack civil society, and most branches of political Islam are intolerant and often violent.

Jean-Philippe Platteau suggests that this is in part because the particular organization of Islam has led to an “obscurantist deadlock” in which various individuals, parties and social movements compete for legitimacy by arguing to be the ones that are true to the faith — and often subscribe an extremist version of the faith in doing so. He writes:

… when despots use religion to legitimize themselves in a highly contested environment they may provoke a counter-move in the form of religious backlash in which the ruler and his opponents compete to demonstrate their superior fidelity to the faith.

This equilibrium is made possible by the fact that, just like Protestantism, Islam does not have a centralized authority with which rulers can make exclusive deals (in the way that European rulers did with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages).

This would be consistent with the patterns emphasized by Gilles Kepel in his insightful book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Many rulers with secular backgrounds — whom we would call extractive — have tried to use Islam and co-opt a subset of the Islamic scholars, the ulema, to gain legitimacy and suppress democratic, often left of center or socialist, movements. This includes Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, Houari Boumediene in Algeria, and the military junta under the leadership of Kenan Evren that came to power after the 1980 coup in Turkey. In each case, the strategy worked for a while and ultimately backfired. Bhutto’s cynical policies in Pakistan, for example, paved the way for the religious fanaticism and repressive dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq, with disastrous consequences for Pakistan and for the region.

But why is it that we see this sort of dynamics in Islam but not in Protestantism? Though it is true that protestant radicalism emerged during certain periods, for example in the run-up to the English Civil War as documented by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down, many of these radicals such as Roger Williams fought against authority and for freedom rather than for a world order in which they would get to repress others and dictate to them what to do (see this interesting book on Roger Williams).

Here is one idea: as we argued in our previous post, Muhammed develop his teachings and Islam in the context of a state building project. This may have made Islam and Islamic scholars particularly receptive to calls by rulers or would-be rulers. The general tendency of Islamic scholars towards state authority is well captured by the famous Islamic scholar and philosopher al-Ghazali (cited in Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, page 144):

the tyranny of a sultan for a hundred years causes less damage than one year’s tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another.

This combined with the powerful role that Islamic scholars occupy in Islamic societies, particularly in view of the fact that the Koran leaves a lot unspecified and open to interpretation, may have paved the way for a subset of the scholars to make deals with any despotic ruler or any usurper to suppress dissent. This sort of intense repression, especially shutting off any legitimate political organization opposing the authority of the ruler, may have left religious rhetoric as the only channel through which people could formulate and partially voice their grievances. The decentralized organization of Islam and Islamic scholars may have then created a platform in which another subset of the scholars would support movements using this channel to oppose the ruler; and what would be more natural than claiming greater purity and devotion to Islam in the circumstances, thus leading to Platteau’s “obscurantist deadlock”?


Religion and State Building  

In Why Nations Fail we discussed how King Shyaam took a major step in the process of state building in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, founding the Kuba Kingdom. Though we do not know the details fully, we know that this was not an easy process, necessitating King Shyaam and his men to build new institutions, defeat rivals and increase their domination. Though this was mostly a political process, it did have a religious component also. King Shyaam, like many chiefs at the time, was also a medicine man (magician).

In fact, religion and state building are often intertwined. We also saw in an earlier post how the emergence of sedentary societies preceding the Neolithic Revolution was not only a major institutional innovation but also closely associated with the emergence of a religious elite class and new elaborate religious rituals.

Looked at through these lenses, Muhammed’s huge success in spreading Islam in Medina and Mecca, and then more broadly, can also be seen as a political process. Perhaps Muhammed was as much a state builder as a prophet (as Montgomery Watt also argues in Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman), and Islam developed as part of a complex of institutional innovations necessary for initiating and maintaining the process of state centralization.

To agree with this perspective, one need not go as far as the 19th-century French religious scholar Ernest Renan who claimed in Studies of Religious History that: the Muslim “movement was produced almost without religious faith”. Instead, it is sufficient to observe that before Muhammed, the Arabian Peninsula consisted of diverse tribes with no centralized authority and its polytheism was but a reflection of this diversity of authorities and traditions. It seems plausible that a successful attempt at political centralization must also centralize beliefs, a task in which Muhammed was very successful. But what Muhammed built wasn’t just a centralized, monotheistic religion but also, by the standards of the time, a centralized state which became the basis of the later expansions of Islam out of Arabia.

Nor is the interplay between religion and state building just confined to Islam. It is plausible that one of the main objectives of Emperor Constantine in adopting Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was one of increasing the — by then dwindling — authority of the state over the vast territories of the empire. Constantine’s objectives were not so different than his equally illustrious predecessor, Diocletian, who also made great strides in further building Roman state institutions and stemming the tide of decline, though in the process also ruthlessly persecuting Christians. Constantine, like many emperors of this era, was another usurper and would-be centralizer. And, in contrast to Diocletian, he was able to rule as the sole emperor of Rome — and for quite a while.

None of this is to argue that Constantine did not really believe in Christianity (he probably did, but he was also probably less than fully monotheistic) or to agree with Renan that the movement that Muhammed led was almost without faith (almost without doubt, his early followers were devoted believers). Rather, it is to suggest that religion — just like culture more broadly —both needs to be understood in the context of institutions and the politics of the time in the place, and plays a major role in the political dynamics of its era.


Politics and the Origins of Religious Rituals  

The culture hypothesis, as we dubbed it in Why Nations Fail, is partly based on the presumption that there are certain beliefs, values, attitudes and traditional practices that are not only important for economic activities but also unchanging, or very slow changing, and largely exogenous. What better example than religious rituals?

For example, Muslims, as part of their religious duties, pray facing Mecca, fast during the month of Ramadan, do not eat pork and circumcise their male children. These seem tailor-made for illustrating these exogenous, unchanging rituals.

But several religious historians have argued that the origins of these rituals are also endogenous and related to the political alliances that Muhammed was trying to build.

Muhammed was born in Mecca, an important trading town Arabia at the time dominated by a tribe called the Quraysh. In Mecca he got a dedicated but small following, and in the year 622, after his relationship with the leading families of the Quraysh became almost untenable, he was forced to leave Mecca for the oasis settlement of Yathrib, which would later come to be known as Medina, about 200 miles north of Mecca. It was in Medina that many key parts of Islam got formulated and Muhammed became both politically and religiously stronger, with a much greater following.

Robert Wright in The Evolution of God, in part following Montgomery Watt’s classic Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman and Jonathan Berkey’s The Formation of Islam, argues that key rituals, such as fasting, ban on pork and circumcision, all rituals common with Judaism, were adopted because Muhammed was trying to attract, or perhaps develop friendly relations with, the Jewish tribes of Medina. What’s more, Muhammad instructed his followers during this period that Muslims must pray facing Jerusalem, just like the Jews did.

Political alliances were again key.

Overall, there seems to be little doubt that throughout this period, Muhammed preached friendly relations with other Abrahamic religions, and particularly with Jews. 

More interestingly, later in the Medina period, Muhammed took a much harder line against the Jews, after certain Jewish tribes supported the enemy in the wars with the Quraysh of Mecca. Thereafter, Muhammed abandoned the project of converting Jews, violently expelled some of them from Medina, in the process killing scores of them, and his teachings became less friendly to Judaism. It is during this period that Muslims stopped praying facing Jerusalem and instead started facing Mecca. Of course there is some debate on all of this, and Robert Wright even questions whether the break with the Jews really happened in this form, though this seems to be a minority view.

What seems more certain is that even religious rituals that appear so exogenous and unchanging are as much an outcome of political struggles, of political alliances, successful or unsuccessful, and of one group using all aspects of all institutions in society to achieve their objectives.


Why the Jews Are so Educated?  

Historically, Jews have typically been more educated than the average population of the countries in which they have lived. They have also tended to be concentrated in urban areas and in a number of skilled occupations. In joint work with Tarek Hassan, we showed that this was the case for Soviet Jews, and argued that one of the many negative legacies of the Holocaust in Russia has been to create a hole in the social structure of areas where the fraction of Jews was high and fell under Nazi control during World War II. We showed that these places are now economically and politically more backward, a gap that seems to have opened up even further after the collapse of communism.

But why have Jews been so educated throughout history? A clever argument was offered by the great economist Simon Kuznets in his Economic Structure of US Jewry. Jews, being a minority, Kuznets argued, chose to concentrate in a few industries and occupations in order to be able to maintain their cohesion and group identity separate from the majority. Because the industries and occupations in which they chose to specialize were in cities and were human capital intensive, this shaped their location and education choices.

Max Weber also wrote a book, Ancient Judaism, where he suggested that Jews voluntarily segregated from the rest of the population.

Perhaps more common and more plausible is the idea that Jews were often barred from agricultural occupations, and this pushed them into urban occupations and also encouraged them to invest in human capital that would give them the flexibility to choose urban occupations (often despite discrimination even in towns).

Yet another view would be a more cultural one: perhaps Jews are more educated because their religion requires them to be educated. In fact, (male) Jews are expected to read the Torah and teach it to their children (sons). Philo of Alexandria articulated one version of this in the 1st century A.D. (quoted in Eliezer Ebner, Elementary Education in Ancient Israel, page 12):

Since the Jews esteem their laws as divine revelations, and are instructed in the knowledge of them from their earliest youth, they bear the image of the law in their souls.


So perhaps it is the Jewish culture that has made them more educated and as a consequence, more successful.

These questions are taken up in Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein’s intriguing new book, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History (itself following up on their 2005 Journal of Economic History article on the same topic). Botticini and Eckstein first show that common explanations don’t hold much water. For a long time, Jews were not segregated occupationally and were farmers just like the rest of the population in the areas they lived. This continued essentially until the 7th century. So Kuznets’s thesis is unlikely to be the right explanation. They also point out that during this transition, taking place within Arabic and Muslim lands, there were no legal restrictions on Jewish economic activity, and Jews could choose any occupation and own land (in contrast, there were such restrictions within the Roman Empire, but the Jews did not make the occupational transition during that time). In sum, the Jewish educational advantage is unlikely to be a consequence of direct regulations either.

Instead, Botticini and Eckstein document that the greater education of Jews is indeed related to the tradition of reading and teaching the Torah. Sounds cultural, doesn’t it?

But here’s the catch. If this was just a cultural practice, with its roots in Jewish religion, we would expect it to have originated at the same time as Judaism. But it hasn’t.

Botticini and Eckstein document that Jews were not more educated before 1st century A.D. and most probably before 7th century A.D. Rather, as Solo Baron’s classic A Social and Religious History of the Jews also argues, the change in Jewish educational practices and institutions came out of an internal conflict about the control of Jewish society between two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Before the destruction of the Second Temple, the sect of Sadducees controlled Jewish society, largely through their dominance of religious and social roles therein. The Sadducees were the high priests, were responsible of the Temple, and in charge of religious learning. They justified their dominance by accepting only the Written Torah and the Hellenistic culture, and restricting access to educational institutions to a very small segment of the Jewish society. Their role was challenged by the Pharisees, who countered the Sadducees’ approach by advocating the study of both the Written and Oral Torah by all Jews, thus in some sense democratizing education and undercutting Sadducee domination. They effectively pitted the common people against the more aristocratic Sadducees.

The balance of power in Jewish society shifted with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. by the Romans in response to the Jewish revolt, led by the Sadducees. The Pharisees did not participate in the revolt, and used this window of opportunity to wrest power from the Sadducees, who seem to disappear from the record thereafter. The Pharisees started the process of fundamental educational reform along the lines they had advocated before. It is possible that this was also a move to permanently shift power to themselves, as democratizing educational institutions would undercut the foundation of the power of the Sadducees. Traditions such as reading and teaching the Torah to one’s sons and supporting primary schools for Jewish communities and synagogues as learning institutions developed after this period, and spread more widely in the 6th and 7th centuries. Notably, this happened in part while Jewish society was still mostly agricultural.

These events illustrate that even religious practices, the clearest form of cultural factors, cannot be studied and understood in isolation of the political struggles over these practices and without an investigation of why certain groups advocate them and succeed in implementing them. We’ll see in the next post that the same is true even for the more basic teachings of religions.


Culture and Development

In the last few posts (here, here, here and here), we have discussed how even inefficient institutions such as central planning are not just an outcome of blind ideology and ignorance, but often empower one group in society and enable them to control the rest. This is not to deny that ideology and ignorance play a role in the fates of nations. For example, clearly, if European leaders at Maastricht knew the problems that single currency and implicit bailout guarantees to financial markets on sovereign debt of peripheral countries would create, they would not have opted for it, instead choosing another path to increasing integration in Europe. So what’s needed for a more satisfactory understanding of the interplay between ideas and development is a broader perspective recognizing how differences in ideas, beliefs and ideology interact with institutions and politics, and influence policy and institutional choices.

As we discuss in Why Nations Fail, another popular approach to comparative development is the culture hypothesis, which sees the roots of divergent economic performance across nations in their cultural endowments. The Collins English Language Dictionary defines culture as “the ideas, customs, and art that are produced or shared by a particular society”. Social scientists, particularly economists and political scientists, use it to mean a society’s values, customs and beliefs.

An economist’s way of thinking about this might go as follows: when one analyzes a society by means of an abstract model, it is useful to distinguish between technology, preferences, and institutions. Take standard general equilibrium analysis in economics, pioneered by the work of Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu. This involves specifying technology (e.g., what can be produced from what), the preferences of households, and institutions, which make up the initial endowments, and also the market structure (e.g., competitive markets or monopolistic competition etc.). Here, culture would most closely correspond to preferences. If people in two societies had access to the same technology and had the same endowment and market structure, but different preferences, this would lead to different equilibria. This is not the only impact of culture the economy of course. Once we go beyond the simplest general equilibrium models, culture may also affect how production is organized and how much a society can produce, because people with different preferences, attitudes or beliefs may choose different levels of cooperation.

Religious differences are an especially clear example of cultural differences. Weber’s famous argument in his seminal The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism about Protestantism underpinning capitalist development illustrates this. So does the popular view that there are “national cultures” encouraging or discouraging hard work, openness to ideas and innovation (see, for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks’s argument that Haitians are poor because of their dysfunctional culture).

Just like institutions, culture is a somewhat unfortunate term. It’s used for many different things in the English language (The Collins English Language Dictionary has a dozen other definitions for it). What’s more, social anthropologists often refer to things such as political organization and economic structure as “culture,” adding to potential confusion (and they were there, talking about culture much before economists and political scientists).

Be that as it may. Explaining it all with culture (or blaming it all on culture as the case may be) is hugely popular — that is, “culture” with the narrower definition used by economists and political scientists. The volume edited by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, Culture Matters, is a sort of manifesto for this view. Economic historian David Landes in his The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some so Poor, though listing almost every factor that could potentially shape comparative development as significant, comes down most heavily on the side of culture, in fact, emphasizing the central role that Judeo-Christian culture plays in economic development (and we cannot resist but ask: why on earth England, so far from the center of Judeo-Christian culture, spearheaded the institutional changes and the Industrial Revolution, and places at the center of it such as Italy, Byzantium and the Balkans didn’t).

It was from David Landes that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was taking his cue (and in fact his exact language) when he told a group of elite Israeli businessmen “Culture makes all the difference,” throwing central questions of social science into the middle of the presidential debate.

As we explained in an earlier post and in Foreign Policy (see here), Mitt Romney is better off sticking to politics, or something else if that doesn’t work out in November, than social science. But it would be incorrect to think that this sort of culture view is just something that Mitt Romney and nobody else believes. Even though few would go as far as Harrison, Huntington and Landes in advocating such an extreme form of it, the culture view permeates most writings on comparative development. However, as we have explained in Why Nations Fail, and will discuss again in the next few posts, cultural differences by themselves do not help us much in explaining the deep divides in comparative development. Not only huge differences among places, such as North and South Korea, sharing the same culture emerge even over comparatively short periods of time. But also culture is often endogenous and changes rapidly in the face of changing institutions, incentives and politics. Even more important, culture has great plasticity and adapts to circumstances in subtle ways as we will discuss in the next few posts.

All of this is not to say that we can abstract from culture in economic and social scientific inquiry. Institutions are often held in place by certain beliefs and shared attitudes. And of course those beliefs matter even beyond giving durability to institutions. The right perspective when it comes to culture is then the same as the one for ideology: to develop an approach in which cultural factors interact with institutional and political ones.