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The Mysterious Curse of the Middle East


Everyone agrees that economic and social development in the Middle East has lagged disastrously behind that of the rest of the world. Nobody seems to agree on the reasons for the problem. Some, like Bernard Lewis in his "What Went Wrong," seem to blame the problem on Islam, which is portrayed as a backward and repressive religion that controls all aspects of society and imposes upon it an order of life that is suited for nomadism or pre-industrial society. Others blame the conflict with Israel or western imperialism for Middle Eastern backwardness. Tom Friedman has now joined the "name the curse" game, putting the blame for lack of development in the Middle East on oil.

Friedman argues that if Middle Eastern countries had not had oil, they would have had to change their societies to meet the challenge of industrial development. He cites the examples of Japan, Korea and other Asian countries that were able to industrialize and modernize because they were not "spoiled" by oil.

It is easy to show that none of these hypotheses explains the curse of the Middle East. The Japanese were introduced to the West in 1854 by the visit of Commodore Perry. By 1905 they had developed sufficient industrial capacity to beat Russia in a war, and by World War II Japan was a literate, industrial society. The Muslim world was introduced to the West in 1799 by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. The Muslims were geographically closer to the West and had every opportunity to observe Western civilization through their ambassadors and trade contacts. Instead of importing and copying machinery, the Muslim world imported guns and Muslim rulers invested in vainglorious projects of no economic significance. The Japanese built industries first, and then industries built boats and guns. The Muslims built armies and funded the guns for them from their meager agricultural output. The result was that by the 1880s if not before, Turkey and Egypt were virtually bankrupt. The curse of the Middle East was already active. No oil had yet been discovered in any Middle Eastern country and nobody cared about oil, so Tom Friedman's hypothesis is untenable. Western imperialism and colonialism gained a foothold in the Middle East because of economic and social weakness, and particular the huge debt incurred by Egypt and Turkey to Britain and France; it was an effect of weakness, not a cause. Iran remained independent the West for most of its history, but the history of development in Iran is not really better than that of Iraq or Egypt. There were hardly 10,000 Jews in all of Palestine, so the problems of Turkey and Egypt can hardly be blamed on Zionism and the Jews. Modern Syria and Egypt have no oil, but lack of oil certainly did not help their economies.

Pre-industrial Europe was far more intolerant and repressive than 19th century Turkey, Egypt or Iran. The Catholic church zealously stamped out intellectual inquiry, discouraged literacy among the masses, objected to the printing press and insisted that governments were subordinate to it. Prohibitions on "usury" similar to those of Islam, made trade without Jews more or less impossible. Yet this society, without the stimulus or example of outside models, was able to transform itself into modern western society. It is a matter of opinion whether the result is more or less Christian than the medieval version of Christianity, but it is certain that most North Americans and Europeans consider themselves to be Christians. Religion did not vanish - it was transformed. Turkey has has been actively secular since 1922, but nonetheless the Turkish economy cannot compare with those of EU countries or North America, nor even with those of many Eastern European countries.

The "curse of the Middle East" can be ascribed to poor resources and poor timing. Middle Eastern countries for the most part have neither agricultural or industrial resources. Most Middle Eastern countries have little or no water and few exportable crops. Egypt had cotton, but Egyptian cotton was eclipsed by the southern United States and ultimately by synthetic fibers. Modern medicine made possible the population explosion characteristic of industrial societies, without providing the means of feeding all those new mouths. Unlike Japan, Middle Eastern countries had no iron and hardly any other important industrial resources. What product made in the Middle East could compete with European industries of 150 years ago? In the 19th century, the industrial revolution was fueled by coal. If some genius had drilled oil wells in Saudia Arabia, nobody would have known what to do with it. By the time oil came into wide use, it was too late.

Lacking industrial development, Middle Eastern societies have failed to evolve. There are no jobs for women in industry, so there is little pressure for equality, education and family planning. Educated Arabs often immigrate to the West because they cannot find work in the Middle East.

At the same time, the importation of modern weapons, administration and communications technology put powerful weapons in the hands of repressive governments. In the west, it took many hundreds of years before society became sophisticated enough to control the destructive and repressive potential of modern weaponry and mass communication. This development was fraught with great upsets and wars - two World Wars in the last century, the Russian Revolution, the American Civil War, the French Revolution. Millions were killed in wars and by repressive dictators. The lessons evident in the pacific organization of modern Europe were learned at great cost, resulting in democratic regimes and regional and international agreements that control the use of force. However, you cannot have real democracy without an educated populace and a large middle class. It can't be created over night. Imagine that Louis XIV or Charlemagne had tanks, mass communications and electronic surveillance, and you get a picture of the kinds of regimes run by Saddam Hussein or Hafez Assad.

Industrial and post-industrial societies do not evolve smoothly. Social ills are often resolved by violent upheavals. There are rebels as well as repressors, and reactionaries as well as progressives, all seeking power, all promissing to solve the injustices created by development as well as to cater to the awareness of existing injustices that is generated by development. Imagine Cromwell with tanks and airplanes, and you might have Hitler. Imagine Calvin with nuclear capability and you may have the Ayatollah Rafsanjani. Imagine Jan Hus or Martin Luther with plastic explosives, ricin and Katyusha rockets and you might have Osama Bin Laden or the Hizbollah.

This obvious explanation is not usually offered, because is not an attractive hypothesis for those who are looking to further particular opinions. It is useless for politicians, but very valuable for understanding. Some wars may be necessary, but wars are not a solution in themselves. Jihadism is not due to a genetic pecularity of the Muslims or Arabs or to real and imagined persecution of Palestinians. It is a product of social upheaval due to unequal development, along with the excesses of Pan-Arabism, and it is magnified by access to modern weaponry. The "war against terror" is not a war between Islamic and Christian (or Judeo-Christian, or Judeo-Christian/Shinto/Buddhist) civilizations but between backwardness and progress, order and disorder, bandits on the make and orderly government, and between different special interests that still do not have a satisfactory mechanism for adjudicating their differences.

Solutions will require patience, wisdom and courage, rather than scapegoating of the Jews, Islam-bashing or renewal of colonialism.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000254.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Moderator @ 02:47 PM CST [Link]


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Replies: 13 comments

Suggest you have this translated into Arabic and distributed to Arab newspapers.

Posted by David Zohar @ 05/09/2004 05:21 PM CST

Juan Cole contends that part of the reason the Arab Muslim states do not have advanced economies is that Israel has forced them to devote their resources to military projects, and not enough is left for projects which could advance the economy. This is so absurd that I must question his arguments in the entire article.

Posted by Susan Freiman @ 05/09/2004 06:13 PM CST

"This is so absurd that I must question his arguments in the entire article. "

Once again, I am astonished by reader's comments. I didn't make any claims for Juan Cole's article or his ideas. If you have issues with him, why not take them up with him?

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Moderator @ 05/09/2004 10:24 PM CST

Ami, I wonder why on earth you would have thought I was referring to you when I specifically referred to Juan Cole. Basic English grammar: "his" refers back to the previously specified person, no to someone who has not been mentioned.

Posted by Susan Freiman @ 05/10/2004 07:23 AM CST

Tom Friedman is in error if he believes that the Muslim world would have behaved as the Asian "Super Economies" had it not been for oil. In the Posst-WW2 era it was first the Korean War and then the Vietnam War that provided the impetus for massive economic growth. However it occurred in highly developed and stable societies, where civil structures had existed for centuries and possibly millenia. These were also all countries that had been profoundly shaken in the 19th C by the West's capacity to exploit their weakness. It is no coincidence that key political figures in the 20th C had all had significant contact with the West with purpose of learning from those societies. None of these societies are particularly inventive, however their strength lies in being able to adapt and build upon the inventions of others.
The social paternalism that exists in Oriental societies binds the economically weak / subordinate to the dominant groups through the obligation that Confucianism demands of the dominant groups and individuals. This fundamentally differs from the Muslim world. In addition Confucianism afforded a large degree of tolerance provided the individual did not challenge the basic social order. In that social order there was scope for the able through structures such as the 8 Legged Exam to progress without regard to religion.

Zionism and Colonialism are not a cause of the economic and social inadequacies. Zionism had the effect of fundamentally challenging the status quo. Muslim societies prior to Zionism had assumed that the social heirarchy established via Islam was the norm and correct. Muslim men dominated everyone, and everyon else occupied a place within a carefully defined progresion of inferiors. Muslim male self-identify was built upon the assumptions about that hierarchy. The success of Zionism especially militarily challenged not only the Muslims worlds perception of Jews, but more importantly its perception of itself. Whereas prior to 1948 Muslims could percieve Jews as being weak, supine, dependent and in character "female". In the post 1949 world this perception no longer held true. This caused a crisis of identity which sought to be assuaged by a number of "credible" explanations such as the British or Americans had fought alongside the Israelis, or that Jews exert some pseudo-mystical and satanic control over the world. The subsequent wars in which the Arab states failed to attained their most basic war aims contributed to this continued self-deception.

Any society that is so challenged reverts back to its social reference points and questions them. In 1945 the collapse of Nazi Germany stripped away from the Germans the deception that they possessed some "God - Given" role to rule the world, nevertheless they retained an element of a pre-Nazi / Imperial German identity to fall back on. But for the Muslim world this means questionning the very fabric of existance as described in the Koran. The Koran prescribes Muslim male dominance as directed by God throught the words of Muhhammed as interpreted by the generations of religious leaders.

However the degree of challenge to the Muslim world is so slight that the extent to which basic social assumptions are challenged is equally slight. Despite the failure to beat Zionism in war or to assert itself over the Christian West and heathen East, the average Muslim continues life. None of the wars have been as cataclysmic WW1 & 2 for Europe. Unlike their Western counterparts war has barely touched their lives; the Isrealis have not ploughed through Cairo or Damsacus like the vengeful Russians in 1945; every school does not have a memorial at its doors remembering a generation slaughtered. Even the Israeli occupation of "Palestine" is a relatively gentle affair when compared with the German, Russian and Japanese occupations. For the most part their engagement with the external war against either Zionism or Western "colonialism" is viewed and has always been so viewed through the distant lense of newspaper and TV reports. So the "Arab Street" marches and chants for war and revenge ignorant of the realities of the total existential war they demand.

Where the Muslim world is the vistim of the West is that the West fails to challenge the Muslim world intellectually in a sufficiently robust manner. There is a palpable desire to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities throughout much of the West. In part this is an expression of the guilt that many intellectuals in the West feel about their nations former colonial roles, but also an inverted form of racism which awards Arabs and other Muslims with a lesser intellect like children. There is also a strange of sense of there being a mass "Stockholm Syndrome" occurring where the West starts to identify with the groups fo Muslims that threaten the international stability upon which the Wests wealth depends. Figureheads finds means to justify acts of gross violence by Muslims against Jews and other Westerners, whilst totally ignoring the violence visited upon other Muslims, especially women and children. Politically there is a desire to avoid conflict with the Muslim world, and to accomodate its demands. The Muslim world leaders exploit this weakness continually by threatening with disengage from the "offending" nation.

I believe the root of the problem with Muslim failure to progress socially and economically is the failure to develop a rational and credible communal history based upon factual events. To undertake this the Muslim world needs to recognise itself and the characteristics within itself. It will be a painful and dangerous journey in which those that currently have power are likely to lose a considerable amount of it. Muslim fundamentalism is part of the resistance to the urge to progress. It appeals to the fascistic tendencies within Muslim society.

In truth the world doesn't care whether the Muslim world progresses or not. Its instability is largely containable, and its governments corruptible. Its sole weapon, oil, is largely a spent force. Once is was used in the 1970's the West simply set about devising better ways of generating energy from it, or other sources. The world trading partners do not want the Muslim world to emerge from it poverty and provide more competition. Muslim terrorists are a political irritant but not a real force to be reckoned with. Their impact upon national consciousness is limited. 9/11 although horrific is not the Holocaust nor the first morning of the Somme.

PS Sorry this is so long

Posted by Rod Davies @ 05/10/2004 11:00 PM CST

I am not disagreeing totally with what you have to say, I would like to add something you have obviously overlooked.

You can go ahead and blame any number of issues for it, but if you really want to know the reason behind the "Mysterious Curse of the Middle East" you should look in the Bible, in Genesis 12:3... "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee..." This is God's covenant with Abraham. All you have to do is look at who is doing the blessing and who is doing the cursing in regards to Israel and you will have your answer. This is in no way "Islam-bashing" as you put it, this is just a statement of the Truth. The Bible also says, in John 8:32 "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

God bless you in your search for Truth! I sincerely hope you find Him! (Psalm 37:4)

Posted by Brenda K. @ 05/11/2004 09:46 PM CST

I thoroughly appreciate your comments on the failure of Arab societies to keep up with the rest of the developing world despite the wealth generated by their one and only natural resource - oil. And I agree that oil has been both a a blessing and a curse to the Arab world. A blessing because of the obvious monetary wealth that it has brought to the region but a curse mainly because of the failure of the Arab leadership to (a) democratize this tremendous resource - oil belongs to all the people and not just to a privileged few; and (b) transform this wealth into other self sustanining industries which would broaden the base in their economic interactions with the rest of the world. The Arab mind is obviously rich in God-given creativity, inventiveness, poetry and wisdom. But misdirected religious fanaticism has made Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, appear stupid and medieval. I cannot help but call attention to the Biblical passage where God declares that Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, would be a "wild ass', at odds with his own and with his neighbors" (Genesis). If you look at the history of the sons of Ishmael, you can see that they have been just that - at war amongst them selves, and even today, causing unspeakable horror with their cowardly terroristic behavior all over the world - truly a herd of wild asses! It is also my understanding that Allah, the 'god' of Islam, is NOT the God of Abraham (the JudeoChristian God), but was the 'moon god' chosen from the Hindu pantheon of 'gods' - hence the crescent moon symbol of Islam. So please, do not claim that Allah and Jehovah God are one and the same! Let Truth reign regardless of which God you believe!!

Blessings and Prayers for all of you in Jesus' wonderful name!


Posted by Craig Hauger @ 05/12/2004 05:11 AM CST

The confusion between the differing expressions and possible inspirations for a deity and the practical exploitation of natural resources serves only confuse the issue.
Christianity and Islam have both claimed that the others expression of the God is rooted in something other than a monotheistic expression. This is largely just a bitch between two competing faiths.
The more serious issue is about the exploitation of a natural resource, in this case oil. It is the manner that the oil states deployed the benefits they obtained from the oil sales that resulted in the current situation. Had they used the revenue to develop their environment to retard desertification and to diversify their economies then as an investment it would have produced a significant and socially stabilising return. However the oil states used the income in a manner akin to the Ottoman Empire - purchasing the mechanical baubles manufactured by the industrialised countries. While this produced an immediate and superficial improvement in the dominant social groups standard of living, it did not have the trickle down effect that might have been hoped for. As the oil income was banked with largely western financial insitutions, they in turn loaned it out to the developing nations and existing industrial states who made more manufactured goods to seel to the oil rich states. Instability and corruption made the Arab states a poor investment prospect and thus the banks stayed away from them in large part. The curse therefore has not been the presence of oil, but the inadequacy of the Arab states as societies. Also the Arab states have been cursed by a failure of the rest of the world to upbraid them about they atrociously poor use of their financial resources, and the enthusiasm that the rest of the world has indulged the Arab states desire to amass the manufactured products of the developed world.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 05/12/2004 11:33 AM CST

I have read all the comments about
the curse of the Middle East. I
took special interest in Brenda
K's comment from her knowledge of
the Bible.
I happen to be a survivor of the
Six Day War, and also happen
to be fortunate enough to have
survived the Israeli attack on
a U.S. ship, the USS Liberty. If
any of you want to know more about
this subject you can go to
www.ussliberty.org and find a
wealth of information. For those
who look to the Bible, as I do,
for answers I have a short story
to tell them.
In June 8th. of 1967 the Israeli
Defense Force attacked an unarmed
U.S. ship, the ship was the Liberty
and the only armament we had was
four fifty caliber machine guns
a few forty fives and M1 carbines
to protect us. They had torpedos,
napalm, rockets, jet planes, machine guns and I am sure other
small weapons. We were defensless
and yet stayed afloat, and actually
sailed the Liberty a thousand miles
to Malta and into dry dock.
My question to all the Bible believers, of which I am one, is
this: Where do you think God was
that day?

Posted by Ronald K @ 05/12/2004 04:18 PM CST

The idea that easy wealth through exploitation of natural resources weakens a culture is not unique to critics of Moslem societies. It is also commonly applied to explain why Spain did not flourish as other European countries did - the import of gold from its colonies made easy wealth accessible.

Posted by Susan Freiman @ 05/13/2004 09:40 AM CST

I want especially to comment on the people here who use the Bible to 'explain' such complicated matters as 'what went wrong in the Middle East'. What makes you different from Muslims who claim the truth is in the Quran, and because Allah is with them, they eventually will gain the victory?
How can what happened to Ishmail thousands of years ago be an explanation of what is happening in the Middle East nowadays? Maybe it is in some way useful to show me that fundamentalist Christianity can be just as backward as muslim fundamentalism. With all the emphasis on muslim fundamentalism I almost forgot about that...

Posted by Ratna pelle @ 05/14/2004 12:19 AM CST

The Bible specifically states that Palestine is Jewish land so why attack a country who reclaims land captured by the Arab?

Posted by Ivey @ 05/14/2004 05:47 AM CST

The Bible specifically states that Palestine is Jewish land so why attack a country who reclaims land captured by the Arab?

Posted by Ivey @ 05/14/2004 05:47 AM CST

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