Lack of Modernization in the Middle East

I see huge parallels between current stagnation in the Middle East and a much older model of Spanish colonial stasis. In its time Spain desperately tried to “out-Catholic” the Vatican regarding fundamentalist adherence to church doctrine. The Spanish Inquisition is an excruciating example of this. The comparisons go even farther. While Spain regarded the lending of money with interest as a form of usury, Reformation based societies in northern Europe were accelerating the pace of industrial development through such capital investment houses as the Lloyds Register, the Dutch East India Company and other consortiums.

One rather consistent artifact of Spanish colonial influence was a conspicuous dearth of industrialization. The extraction of existing wealth or raw materials more often proved to be the major goal. The legacy of Spanish colonialism has more often proved to be a residual looting mentality. Witness the continuing devastation brought by economic corruption in Mexico, South America and the Philippines. The lasting after effects still haunt the economies of these regions to this day.

There exist many common elements within modern Islamic societies and those of colonial Spain. The loaning of money with interest is still viewed as a violation of Islamic law. Similarly repressive measures against women remain in place. The ability to freely question religious dictates is almost nonexistent. Sexual repression is rife and social interaction is delimited by stringent behavioral codes. I will refer to a New York Times article that I used as a cite in another thread. It indicates that there are still significant internal issues which continue to keep the Middle East mired in its past. Some excerpts:[


Until the time comes where government and clergy are no longer in wholesale collusion, I cannot foresee how the region will successfully unshackle itself from such prevailing stagnation. Is the Spanish colonial model sufficient to outline many of the socioeconomic deficiencies found in the Middle East? Religious rituals aside, what other components need to be introduced in order to fully clarify this comparison? This is not an attempt at oversimplification. Rather, if historical parallels do indeed apply, then past lessons may more easily find utility in solving the moribund issues surround this troubled area.


Very interesting thesis. I was actually think of a thread along the lines of this, but more focused on the relative backwardness of all the former Spanish colonies.

But to your point, I think it is more generally the linkage of church and state. The West really only started to advance scientifically when various regious (Northern Italy, Protestant Europe) began to break free for the rule of the Christian church. So, yes, as long as the Moslem M.E. gives inordinate government authority to religion, it will struggle to advance with the technological west.

I meant to add:

It is intersting to note that in the European “Dark Ages”, the world of Islam was the center of learning and scientific achievment (aside from China, of course). And surely that world had a fairly tight cooperation between Mosque and State. But the Islam of the Middle Ages was much more tolerant of other religions than many of the Islamic states today. Valudable energy and intellectual effort did not get spent on the pursuit of religious orthodoxy.

It will be interesting to see what our buddy, Aldebaran, has to add to this discussion. He has recently resurfaced.

Eh, I see some superficial similarities, but not huge parallels I’m afraid.

Hrrmmm…I might like to see a cite for that being a major stumbling block. It certainly was stigmatized, but the result of that is that Spain just looked to outsiders ( Jews, Italians, and Germans ) for banking in the 16th and early 17th century, just like most everyone else. Charles V certainly took plenty of loans from the Fuggers :slight_smile: ( his and his succesors defaults contributed to that houses decline, but that was nothing new - Richard III of England’s defaults broke the Bardi and Peruzzi houses in Florence ). For that matter remember all those Low Countries banking institutions started out in part under Hapsburg auspices.

Banking concentrated in the same areas as early industrial/craft booms, especially textile manufacturing, northern Italy and the Low Countries being notable in that respect. Spain per se never had an industrial boom and part of the reason for this was the sudden discovery and exploitation of so much liquid wealth, which effectively retarded and compromised economic growth in the home country. But Spanish-controlled teritories like Antwerp were financial centers, with a thriving banking system ( i.e. the Mendes house, among others ). Anyway the condemnation on usury was hardly overwhelming or universal:

“If I deliver 10,000 to the banker, he will repay me 12 or perhaps 15 thousand, because it is very profitable for a banker to have cash available. There is no evil in this.”

From Domingo De Soto, a 16th century Spanish religious writer.

The problem I have here is that as you might imagine based on my comments above, I don’t see the lack of industrialization in Spain and its colonies as being due to religious conservatism. It had far more to do with a) the relative economic backwardness of Spain prior to its estsblishment of empire ( nothing crippling, but like eastern Europe it was primarily an agricultural state ) and b) the highly unusual poisoned pill of New World wealth, which both financed Hapsburg greatness and destroyed the Spanish economy.

All true ( though perhaps not quite so unqualifiedly so as you put it - religious dictates can be questioned in some places, the usury problem has had workarounds for centuries, sexual repression varies ). However, again, I don’t think the parallel, at least in the economic sphere, is more apparent than real, if you will.

‘Wholesale collusion’, is again, a bit of an overstatement ;). Get outside of Saudi Arabia or Iran and the relationship between clergy and government becomes increasingly grey. Egypt isn’t backward solely or even primarily because of collusion with the “clergy” ( which it occasionally oppresses, rather than colludes with ) - there are a whole laundry list of reasons it is fucked up. Pandering to religious conservatives ( which certainly occurs on occasion, though just as often the government resists them ) is just one.

Economically? No, I don’t think so :). Sociological? Perhaps, a bit. But I wouldn’t want to overstate it.

Again, I think it is less that governmental authority is granted to religion. More profound perhaps is that religion is far more thoroughly interpenetrated into popular culture than it is in the west.

Yes, to considerable extent, but also no. It was different ( and it varied - the medieval Almohades were tremendously intolerant ). For example there is no dhimmi institution in effect anywhere today, certainly a liberalization, whereas it was pretty universal in the Middle Ages. But it is true that the more the Islamic world declined, the more defensive and insular it became in other ways. As a counter-example to the above, true anti-Semitism, virtually a non-factor among Muslims pre-19th century, is now far too pervasive.

Well, it did, actually. Perhaps the difference is that there were far more resources to spend back then and more effective philosophical opposition ;).

  • Tamerlane

If I can just very briefly expound further, most of Latin America languished because they were, indeed, exploitation colonies ( with places like Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile being partial exceptions in certain ways ). They were ill-prepared for independence for the most part.

In contrast the Arab and Persian MENA, at least, were never “resource colonies” ( well, Iran and Bahrain were perhaps very partial exceptions ). Rather they are heir to a long history of economic backwardness as either the backwaters of the slow-declining Ottoman Empire or hapless Qajar Iran, both “victims” of the overwhelming European economic and political dominance of the 18th-20th centuries, as well as their own backwards political culture. Their economies stalled on lack of compeititiveness and internal political disarray. Their culture didn’t so much stagnate, as respond to loss of influence in both reactionary and modernizing directions, the competing results of which were at times paralysis.

The parallel is that both regions were long-term backwaters. But they became so through different historical forces. As one example, enforced isolation by a colonial power was not a huge issue in the MENA and tribalism as a confounding factor in government was not much of an issue in Latin America.

  • Tamerlane


Proposed theory: Many Muslim countries have “self-colonized” themselves, turning their own territories into the economic equivalent of “exploitation colonies”. The wealth gets concentrated away from the people and production spots just as well as under the Spanish colonial exploitation system. Trickle-down economics at its highest expression. The people get whatever accidentally trickles down through the cracks in the masters’ coffers.

I read a history of the middle east a few years ago which pointed out a contrast between the development of that part fo the world and the west. It suggested that the “divine rule” of monarchs was never sufficiently challenged in the middle east. There was never an uprising of the barons to create a Magnacarta. Therefore the Ottoman Empire languised in this backward, almost pre fuedal state, right throught to its end.

The surprising thing is not that this coupling of religion and the state contributed to “backwardness”, but that resistance to progressivness is so widespread. It is not difficult to understand why imams in the 12th century did not want to adopt western ideas about individual rights. Just as priests from the 10th century might not have wanted to adopt “moorish” ideas about medicine. But it is almost incomprehensible that the backlash against modernization is so virulent today.

Well. There is a non-Moslem M.E. country that also gives an inordinate authority to religion, but it is technologically as advanced, if not more advanced, than many countries in the west.

As you know, Israel has neither a written constitution nor a written bill of rights because the Jewish religion cannot accept a severance between religion and state. With resentment about what is seen as the corrupting influence of European culture, the religious wing of the Israeli polity has an inordinately strong influence over the government.

So, how do you explain that the Moslem M.E. countries give inordinate authority to religion and struggle to advance with the technological west, and yet, another non-Moslem M.E. country that also gives inordinate authority to religion, has no problem being as advanced as the technological west?

Is that merely an exception that proves the rule? Or do you have another explanation.

“Or do you have another explanation?”

Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid from one certian country in the west may be a starting point for one of about a hundred reasons why Israel is more “advanced” than many of its neighbors.

That is more than compensated for by the fact that many Arab nations have a lot of oil.

Here’s a better comparison: Israel is a democracy, Arab nations are dictatorships.

Look at South Korea vs. North Korea, or Western Europe vs. Eastern Europe for other stark comparisons of democracy to dictatorship.

eyeranian, your explanation doesn’t explain Egypt, which ALSO gets Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid from one certain country in the west (and isn’t even terribly religious), yet seems to be struggling technologically as well.

I think adaher got it on the money - Israel is an (albeit flawed) democracy. It is inherently democratic, not cosmetically so, in that the vast majority of the population don’t even have the experience of not being able to voice their opinion and act on it.

And yes, vast majority != 100%. But the main point stands.

Dan Abarbanel