SUMMARY:This "author meets critics" roundtable focuses on a recently published book, "Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison" (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Using the book as a basis, the roundtable participants will discuss the problems of authoritarianism and underdevelopment in 49 Muslim-majority countries from history to present. The participants will both engage with the book and express their own explanations to these problems.
This book asks, Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and low levels of socio-economic development in comparison to world averages? According to Freedom House's list of electoral democracies, out of 49 Muslim-majority countries in the world, only 14 percent are democracies, whereas more than 60 percent of all countries in the world are democracies. Muslim-majority countries' average literacy rate (73%), years of schooling (5.8), and life expectancy (66) are also lower than the world averages (84%, 7.5, and 69, respectively).
Contemporary problems of Muslim-majority countries appear to be truly puzzling given the socio-economic and intellectual achievements of their predecessors, particularly from the eight to the eleventh century. During that period, Muslims played a pivotal role in intercontinental trade and produced leading philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians.
This book criticizes explanations which point to Islam as the cause of Muslims' contemporary problems, because Muslims were philosophically and socio-economically more developed than Western Europeans between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Nor was Western colonialism the cause: Muslims had already suffered political and socio-economic problems when colonization began. Instead, the book argues that the alliance between the ulema (Islamic scholars) and the state has been the main reason for contemporary and historical problems in Muslim-majority countries.
From the eight to the eleventh century, Muslims achieved outstanding socio-economic and intellectual progress, when the merchants had pivotal roles in the economy, the ulema did not have an intellectual monopoly, and many Islamic scholars refused to become state servants.
However, in the eleventh century, a public madrasa system was institutionalized to turn the ulema into state servants and to establish political control over intellectual life. As a result, the ulema-state alliance began to emerge. This alliance gradually hindered economic and intellectual creativity by marginalizing intellectual and economic classes in the Muslim world.
In the early twentieth century, secularists dominated many Muslim-majority countries and temporarily sidelined the ulema. Yet, the marginalization of intellectuals and the bourgeoisie continued due to the secularists' state-centric authoritarian policies.