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Blaming Islam is Too Easy

The terrorist attacks in America and the war against the Taliban have incited wide speculation about the relationship between culture and economic development. Most pointedly, is the Islamic world thwarted from modernizing because its culture is trapped in the Middle Ages? Is poor economic development in much of the Middle East and Central Asia the result of cultural practices that are hostile to economic growth?

The usual charge is that the Islamic world missed the advances of the European Enlightenment, when the state and religion were separated, modern scientific ideas were adopted, and cultural attitudes towards women modernized. As a result, it is alleged, the Islamic world cannot cope with the demands of modernization, either in technology or in cultural practices, such as the granting of rights to women, which is necessary for economic success in the modern world.

As always with crude generalizations, elements of truth are intermixed with a mass of confusion. The truth is that certain cultural practices support economic modernization. These include a tendency towards greater equality between men and women and their roles in society; a culture that rewards educational attainment with high social status; the secularization of many aspects of modern life, including the preeminence of modern science; and cultural practices that favor social mobility in the choice of occupations. The falsehood is to believe that some cultures are static and inimical to change, while others are somehow uniquely modern.

In all parts of the world, cultures have had to adjust to the changes in economic organization, technology, and scientific knowledge of the past two hundred years. In Western Europe and the US, for example, the cultural acceptance of social and economic equality between men and women has involved a long process of political struggle and evolving social norms. The pace of change has varied markedly within regions and across cultural sub-groups.