Islam perfectly compatible with development: San Diego State University professor

October 27, 2020

TEHRAN – Ahmet T. Kuru, professor of political science at San Diego State University, says Islam was historically perfectly compatible with development, and contemporary problems are created by class relations, rather than Islam.

In an interview with the Tehran Times, Kuru also says, “Violence, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment constitute a vicious circle in not only the Muslim world but also all around the world.”

Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: You compared the history of Islam and Europe in your book entitled “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison”. What was the reason for this comparison? According to this comparison, what were the most important reasons for Western Europe’s development?

A: Many thanks for this interview. Iran has always been very important for Muslim intellectual life. I am happy that my new Islam book is now being translated into Farsi by Mehri Publication. The answer to your question about my comparison depends on my life story: I grew up in Turkey and have lived in the United States since 1999; thus, I spent half of my life in a Muslim-majority country and the other half in a Western country. Comparing these two is natural for me. Moreover, my academic field is also comparative politics.

My first book, “Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey,” which was published by Cambridge in 2009, compared secular state policies in Turkey with those in France and the United States. It asked, “Why was there a ban on Muslim females’ headscarves in Turkey and France, whereas there was no such ban in the United States?”

My new book asks, why were Muslim countries philosophically and economically superior to Western European countries between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and why are they less democratic and less developed than Western Europeans today? Answering these comparative questions is crucial to understand the historical roots of Muslim-majority countries’ contemporary problems of authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment.

My book reveals that between the ninth and twelfth centuries Muslim countries had dynamic intellectual and merchant classes, which support each other, whereas Western Europe was dominated by the alliance between the Catholic Church and the military aristocracy.

Later, however, class relations changed in Western Europe. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Western Europe experienced three interrelated processes. First, the Catholic Church and royal authorities tried and failed to dominate one another, leading to the institutionalization of the separation between them. This substantially contributed to decentralization in Western Europe. Second, universities were opened and provided an institutional basis for the gradual emergence of the intellectual class. Third, the merchant class began to rise in Italian and other European city-states. Subsequently, decentralization, intellectuals, and merchants became the engine of Renaissance, the Printing Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment.

Q: You believe that in the Seljuk period in the 11th century a powerful “religion-state” alliance was formed. What effects did this have on class relations and what similarities did it have with medieval Europe? Also, what were the long-term effects of the domination of the military elites and clerics on the society and the weakening of the flourishing grounds of the influential thinkers and merchants in this period? How does this historical process explain underdevelopment of the Islamic world compared to Western countries today?

A: My book explains that the period between the ninth and eleventh centuries was Muslims’ “Golden Era” in terms of scientific and economic development. Iran produced many world-renown polymaths during this period. At that time Muslims had creative intellectuals and a dynamic bourgeois class in Iran, Transoxiana, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Andalus. During this period, there was a certain level of separation between Islamic scholars (the ulema) and political rulers. This separation led to socio-religious diversity and dynamism, which did not exist in early medieval Europe.

“Iran produced many world-renown polymaths during this period.” The separation between the ulema and political authorities started with the Umayyad rulers’ persecution of Prophet Muhammad’s family members and continued with the oppressive policies of certain Abbasid rulers. Hence, most Sunnis and almost all Shiis regarded political authority as corrupt and contradicting morality. Both Sunni ulema, such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafii, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and Shii ulema, such as Jafar al-Sadiq, refused to serve the state and put a distance between themselves and state authorities.

Nonetheless, the eleventh century experienced a multi-dimensional transformation. Economically, the iqta system of centralized land distribution began to replace the market economy. Politically, the Ghaznavid and Seljuk sultanates made the state structure more militaristic. Religiously, the Abbasid caliphs Qadir and then Qaim declared a Sunni orthodox creed against the Shiis and the Mutazilis. These transformations weakened the merchant class and made the Sunni ulema ready to accept the state patronage.
The Seljuk vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, established a madrasa network, the so-called Nizamiyyas. These madrasas became the institutional basis of the Sunni orthodoxy and the ulema-state alliance. The most well-known product of these madrasas was Ghazali, a genius scholar. Ghazali wrote important books to attack Ismaili Shiis and philosophers. In sum, the newly emerging ulema-state alliance began to marginalize the merchants and the intellectuals in Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq in the eleventh century.

“If Muslims keep blaming Western imperialism, they will not solve their own ideational and institutional problems.”In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Mamluk Sultanate spread this Seljuk model of ulema-state alliance to Syria and Egypt. In later centuries, the Ottoman Empire institutionalized this alliance in Anatolia and the Balkans, while the Safavid Empire built a Shii version of the ulema-state alliance.

In the twentieth century, the secularist rulers dominated most Muslim countries. Yet, these authoritarian secularist rulers could not solve their countries’ problems. So, versions of the ulema-state alliance re-emerged in many parts of the Muslim world. Consequently, the intellectuals and economic entrepreneurs remained marginal. This is the main reason for the scientific stagnation, authoritarianism, and socioeconomic underdevelopment in many Muslim countries.

Q: Contrary to the view that the main reason for the underdevelopment of Muslims is “Western colonialism”, you believe that the main problem of Muslims has been the union of “ulema-state”. This alliance, which existed and continued centuries ago, has left a legacy of authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment in the Islamic world of the twentieth century.

A: Very important question. You are right that my book criticizes both of the two dominant explanations of problems in the Muslim world. One explanation singles out Islam as the culprit. Throughout my book, I show that Islam was historically perfectly compatible with development, and contemporary problems are created by class relations (the dominance of the ulema-state alliance and the marginalization of intellectuals/bourgeoise), rather than Islam.

The second explanation singles out Western colonialism as the main source of problems in the Muslim world. On the one hand, my book has elaborated negative impacts of foreign invasions on Muslim countries, from the Mongols and Crusaders to modern European colonization. Western colonizers destroyed institutions and exploited resources in many Muslim countries.

“Another dimension of the problem (in Muslim countries) is oil-based rentier economic systems. Many Muslim countries are oil-rich and this means a curse for their long-term economic growth.”On the other hand, I criticize this explanation because it focuses on foreign attacks by ignoring Muslims’ domestic problems. If Muslims keep blaming Western imperialism, they will not solve their own ideational and institutional problems. Moreover, despite Western colonization many East Asian countries have achieved economic development, which shows that colonization does not have a deterministic impact.

Q: Why do we see underdevelopment in Islamic countries where religion and government are not linked at the moment and the government is secular?

A: This question deserves a pages-long answer. Let me briefly explain. Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington argued that the main reason for the lack of democracy in most Muslim countries was the lack of secular state. Nonetheless, Chapter 2 of my book analyzes 49 Muslim countries and shows that 22 of them have constitutionally secular states. Most of these secular states have problems of authoritarianism and underdevelopment. Hence, Lewis and Huntington were wrong.

Secular states in the Muslim world were generally founded and ruled by authoritarian rulers, who imposed top-down modernization projects. Many of these rulers had military background. They were not different from the ulema-state alliance in terms of being anti-intellectual and anti-bourgeois. So, intellectuals and economic entrepreneurs were marginalized in both countries ruled by secular autocrats and countries ruled by ulema-state alliances. As a result, the problem of underdevelopment persisted in all Muslim countries.

Q: Do you believe that “violence”, “authoritarianism” and “underdevelopment”, which have formed a vicious cycle in Islamic countries, are currently related to each other? What is the reason for this connection?

A: Another important question. Again, I will briefly answer. Violence, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment constitute a vicious circle is not only the Muslim world but also all around the world. For example, in his famous book, Robert Putnam examines how Southern Italy has a vicious circle of conflict, corruption, distrust, and economic inefficiency. In early Islamic history, Muslims had a virtuous circle—they had self-confidence and thus were not afraid of embracing sciences of Greeks, Sasanians, Egyptians, and others; intellectual dynamism helped Muslims develop economic institutions; economic wealth further strengthened Muslims’ self-confidence, and all these processes supported each other. Today, unfortunately, most Muslim countries experience a vicious circle, rather than a virtuous circle.

In the future, the depletion of oil or the emergence of alternative energy resources may limit the influence of oil.Q: You believe that Muslim countries need creative intellectuals and productive bourgeoisie in order to solve these root problems. On the other hand, in many Muslim countries, the class of artisans and merchants appeared, but they were somewhat oppressed and limited inside the country, and therefore, they could not form an independent bourgeoisie. What are the reasons for the problem and what is the solution to this problem?

A: One dimension of the problem is historically rooted ideas and institutions, which should be challenged and changed. Another dimension of the problem is oil-based rentier economic systems. Many Muslim countries are oil-rich and this means a curse for their long-term economic growth. In these countries, governments control the economy by monopolizing oil revenues. This hinders the rise of an independent bourgeois class. In the future, the depletion of oil or the emergence of alternative energy resources may limit the influence of oil. This may make the rise of bourgeois possible in these countries.

Q: You believe that the main problem of Muslims has been the union of “religion and state”. This unity means overcoming the political and jurisprudential interpretation of Islam. At the same time, in the age of globalization, we are witnessing the spread of democratic interpretations of Islam. How do you evaluate this process? That is, interpretations of Islam that consider political development. Can these interpretations prevail and enter political structures?

A: Thanks for asking this timely question. In many Muslim countries, the young generation seems to be supporting new, prodemocratic interpretations of Islam. They want to see their religion and their aspirations about freedom to be compatible. A certain level of separation between such various spheres of life as religion, politics, science, economy, arts, and sports is important for each of these spheres to be productive, to follow its own principles autonomously, and to maintain justice. If some of these spheres dominate the others the result is generally stagnation, corruption, and injustice. I hope the new generation will build more democratic and just systems so that Muslims can revive intellectual and economic dynamism they had between the ninth and eleventh centuries.


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