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Are Islam and ‘Islamic Law’ the cause of authoritarianism and economic failure in Muslim world?

Is there a cause and effect relation between the level of economic development or political regime of nations and their religion? Is it Islam in general or Fiqh (Islamic law) in particular that caused authoritarian governments in Muslim world and their economic backwardness?

The widespread economic underdevelopment and abundance of oppressive regimes in current Muslim world could easily lead one conclude that the situation is actually related with Islam or Islamic Law with a narrow perspective. As a matter of fact, this was the exact opinion of the Modernists, who have been trying to explain the underdevelopment of the Muslim world which succumbed to the strengthening West in the last 2-3 centuries. For them, the problem was Islam, and Islamic Law and other religious notions. The solution was to suppress religion and exclude it as much as possible from the state and social sphere for the sake of development. They thought that if Europe was able to get out of the darkness and gained the current strength, it was an obvious result the same approach.

In fact, selective defaming is as wrong as broad generalizations. Do the problem of underdevelopment and oppressive regimes exist only in Islamic world today? If the problem is religion, Islam or Fıqh, which religion or fqih tradition the dictatorships of Maduro, leader of Venezuela, and Kim, leader of North Korea, adhere to?

If religion is the source of the problem in terms of development-underdevelopment, and democracy-dictatorship dichotomy, how is it possible to explain the differences between North and South America or between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, which are all ‘Christian’ countries?

Aside from the differences in the West, how it would be possible to explain the fact that the advance of Muslim communities to the top in science and civilization during the era when Fiqh was the most important part of jurisprudence from the Umayyads to Abbasids, Andalusia to Ottomans.

The fundamental hypothesis of Turkish Republic’s founding ideology which was developed by a group of Modernists whose ideas were shaped mostly by the positivist ideology argued and assumed that: “The reason for the Ottomans and the Islamic world to fall behind the West is Islam, ulama(Muslim clerics) and fiqh. If we remove the influence of Islam, sideline clerics and translate French, German or Swiss laws exactly as they are and start practicing them, all of the problems will go away.”

This ideology was put into practice in Turkey as an official recipe for all illnesses. Not only Fiqh, from the alphabet to clothing, from the calendar to the units of measurement, everything evocating the past was deserted. Civil Code was imported from Switzerland, Penal Code from Italy, and Administrative Code from France, and they were incorporated to the justice system as they were. So what is the result? Could Turkey manage to be a Switzerland, France, or Italy in terms of economic development and level of democracy? The same approach put into practice in countries like Tunisia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran during the reign of the Shah, and Egypt during the reign of Nasser. However, the results over there were not bright neither.

Actually, the reason for the rise of Political Islamism, which is an attempt of turning religion into an ideology, is the reaction to the mistakes and failures of the modernist experience. If the modernist and secularist approach (as very different from the concepts of modern and secular) would turn the Muslim countries into Germany, France, or Switzerland, the parties and movements following the Political Islamism could not have showed up as alternatives or hope for salvation. Even if such parties or perspectives could exist, they wouldn’t have received such huge interest in Muslim societies.

Meanwhile it has been possible to see bankruptcy of Political Islamist policies too. They used to sloganize their ideology as “Islam is the Solution” in reaction to modernist and secularist ideas, however, in terms of development and democratic criteria, the current situation of Turkey under Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) proves that their approach has failed badly not only in justice and democracy, but also in fields like economy, education, foreign policy, human rights and transparency. If anybody has an idea such as “AKP is not following completely the policies of Political Islamism because of the secular structure of Turkey. If they could have, the results would be better”, they can look at miserable outcome of the same ideology in the examples of Sudan and Iran in terms of their record in economy, democracy, religion and international respectability.

To be more precise, after seeing the outcome of both the modernist and the Islamist approaches as the anti-thesis of the former, it is not reasonable to suggest any of them as a recipe for the problems of Muslim world in terms of democracy and economic development.

Even though it might look attractive to the people who have superficial or biased point of views, actually these ideas are not new and not scientific. Hence, they do not have much value since they were already proven wrong out of multiple experiences.

Ignoring existence of many underdeveloped and authoritarian countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds such as China, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba, claiming that “Muslims cannot develop, nor can they be democrats due to their religion is not only quite inconsistent but also very biased. As a matter of fact, this type of approach is called Orientalism. Indeed, Islamophobic people in the US and Europe put the blame on religion with a similar reasoning. Don’t they think that the essence of Islam, Quran, hadiths, and the Fiqh are the sources of all the problems in the Muslim world?

If people who identify themselves as Muslims suggest those opinions, it could not be the result of an academic analysis but an emotional reaction against fatal errors of leaders, parties, groups or regimes in the name of Islam.

People who are curious about the historical and socio-economic reasons of the developmental and political differences of among nations which have the same religion, race, geography and climate can benefit enormously from James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu’s book “Why Nations Fail”. Two academics who review the history of human kind since the old ages in order to find the answer to the title of the book and they reach the following conclusion in a nutshell:

‘The reason for some of the nations and countries to be more prosperous and democratic than others is not actually the religious, cultural or geographic differences, but rather inclusiveness of economic and political institutions. Institutions are “inclusive” when many people have a say in political decision-making, as opposed to cases where a small group of people control political institutions and are unwilling to change. They argue that a functioning democratic and pluralistic state guarantees the rule of law and create a level playing field both of which promote economic prosperity by providing incentive structure that allows talents and creative ideas to be rewarded.

More specifically, many researches were carried out on the role of religion for the reasons of underdevelopment and the authoritarian regimes in Muslim world. One of the most recent studies about the subject is Michael Ross’ book “The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations” (Princeton University Press, 2012)

In an effort to find an answer for abundance of the authoritarian regimes in Middle East, Ross does not focus on religion or fiqh, but on socio-economic structures, especially the impact of oil. He states that the authoritarian governments reduce taxes thanks to the oil wealth, thus survive by buying off the loyalty of the people.

However, what is the reason for those Islamic countries which still have authoritarian regimes despite the fact that they are not rich in oil? Another study which especially researches the reasons for emergence of many autocracies in the Muslim world, might actually help finding the answer for the question. Ahmet Kuru’s study “Authoritarianism and Democracy in Muslim Countries” (2014) argues strongly that the source of the problem is actually not religion, but the rentier nature of regimes. The study underlines that the source of money to buy off the loyalty of society can change from one country to another. One regime may use oil money, while some other can use foreign aid for the same purpose.

Although Kuru emphasizes a lot on the role of religion, Fiqh, kalam, and even Sufism on the current social, economic and political problems of Muslim world at his articles outside the academic field, at his scientific study he concludes the following about his research over 57 Muslim countries: “If we focus on financial conditions beyond opinions, we observe that the main source of authoritarianism is oil income in most of the Muslim countries, especially in Middle East and Central Asia. The authoritarian regimes, which were established thanks to the financial conditions, use religion and secular opinions in order to legitimize their rule. This means that; Islam as a religion or Fiqh do not generate authoritarianism. The leaders or regimes that tend towards dictatorship as a result of social, economic and political reasons , use or rather misuse/abuse Islam or Fıqh to legitimize their drift from justice and democracy.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I need to underline once again that attributing underdevelopment and the lack of democracy to religion and Fiqh is not correct and not scientific even though these views are voiced by scientists. Otherwise, I do not state that the Fiqh, which was one of the values in making the Islamic civilization superior than their contemporaries in the past, does not have any problem today or it does not need an innovation or it is not being abused by the zealots and the leaders, who are “Islamist” but immoral and mired in corruption.

As a matter of fact, just like how the Western civilization fell into the hallow in the Medieval Age after the glorious Greek and Roman eras, Islamic civilization is experiencing the same problem for a couple of last centuries. Hence, it is impossible for the Muslims to get rid of this morbid situation without a renaissance similar to what happened in Europe since 14th century.

In this context, Muslims fell behind in the fields such as science, industry, morals, art, economy and philosophy. The situation for the Fiqh is nothing different from other fields. While the reality is this, blaming the Fiqh as the responsible for all the problems of Muslims and making it the scapegoat is not only wrong but also simplifies a more complicated picture.

If Islam was a religion which did not value wisdom, science, freedom, logic, justice and respect towards all human beings as its core values, Muslims wouldn’t have been able to build a civilization, which was looked at with admiration by their contemporaries. Muslim scientists not only contributed to the universal knowledge in the fields from mathematics to medicine and astronomy, but also managed to develop a methodology called “Jarh and Ta’dil” within Hadith discipline to question authenticity of words of even Hz. Muhammad (PBUH), who is their most sacred after God.

Abu Hanifa, who is one of the most important founders of Fiqh, was criticized in the strictest manner by his own student Abu Yusuf. And followers of that madhhab continued to respect both of them for centuries. Al Shafi’i, who is another great name in history of Fiqh who wrote the methodology of fiqh called “Risalah: Usul al Fiqh”. He was the founder of another madhhab in his name despite the fact that he was a student of Imam Malik, another madhhab’s leader. Being Imam Malik’s student did not prevent Al Shafi’i to develop his oqn ideas and to form even his own madhhab.

If this is the legacy of Islam, could any person, group, party, leader or opinion be in a situation where they cannot be criticized or surpassed? However, with fairness, modesty, and respect. Not with emotions of like or dislike, but for the sake of reality and science.

Is history of Islam free of problematic practices or periods? Of course not. Didn’t the groups such as Taliban and ISIL carry out barbarism in the name of Islam and Fiqh? Today in Turkey, aren’t the people who govern Turkey legitimizing their errors, even their corruption and injustices by using Fiqh and some of the scholars of the Fiqh? Yes, they do.

However, which nation or civilization has a garden free of thorns? “Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen” is a very historic document, which pledges freedom and equality for all mankind and is the most important fruit of the French Revolution, which is accepted as one of the milestones for freedom and democracy. However, France is also the same country which did not see African people as human beings and exploited their lands by creating concepts such as “No man’s land” or “White man’s burden” during brutal colonization of the continent.

Similarly, three centuries ago, it was America which created the constitution, which is still an enviable document with regards to building the democracy on a solid basis. However, despite all of the supreme principle written in that document, it took centuries to recognize black people as equal human beings. According to the highest office for justice and “Fiqh” of America, the decision of the Constitutional Court dated 1896 for Plessy v. Ferguson dictated that the black people must be educated separately and not mixed with the white people.

Thanks to the huge struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, Constitutional Court decided that the black children may be educated under the same roof with the white children in 1954. (Brown v. Board of Education verdict).
Only with this decision the black people gained the rights to use the same public schools, same buses and other public facilities equally. Implementation of the Supreme Court decision did not happen easy too. Federal government in Washington had to send soldiers in front of the schools in order to break the resistance of some of the states. So, what is the date for this decision? The dare is not middle ages, it was 1954. The problem of racism that Islam and Fiqh solved 1400 years ago.

Despite all of these terrible mistakes, nobody suggests to abolish the Constitution, to shut down the Supreme Court, or to import laws from Switzerland. Instead they look at whole history with its ups and downs and they evaluate all values, both positive and negative ones.

More importantly, they take lessons from their own mistakes. They do not only teach how big principles the Constitution carries, but also the inhumane and racist practices, and the negative decisions of the same court. As French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledges in “Democracy in America”: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to learn and repair her faults.”

The same analytic and unflustered approach is needed when evaluating the Islamic civilization and Fiqh as one of its disciplines. While it contained such advanced principles that its contemporaries were not even able to imagine. But it also has some aspects that need to be improved. There has been very positive practices but also wrong ones through centuries.

In evaluating Fiqh, Sufism, Tafseer and other Islamic fields and values, unflustered and comparative analysis is required, which would make it possible to see both positive and negative sides at the same time without being mistaken by affirmation or defamation. A critical approach is healthy and needed but without being unfair to values of our civilization in reaction to wrongdoings of individuals or groups, and without getting under the influence of the conjuncture.

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Abdulhamit Bilici is a journalist and former Editor-in-Chief of Turkish Daily Zaman.


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