Let’s examine a key problem hampering the Muslim world


The writer is an associate professor of political science at University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of “Alien Citizens: The State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France.”

Why are authoritarianism and underdevelopment so pervasive in the Muslim world? Both Muslims and others have asked this question for more than a century. Answers have abounded, but two ideologically laden answers stand out.

On the one hand, some blame Islam for authoritarianism and underdevelopment. To them, it is the “outdated religious values” that hindered Muslims from progress, and only secularization of the Muslim world can yield democracy and progress.

On the other hand, others blame the West for Muslims’ failure to develop democratic regimes and wealthy societies. It is Western colonialism and post-colonial dependency that held Muslims from thriving, and only the liberation of Muslims from Western influence can help them develop.

In his book “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison,” political scientist Ahmet T. Kuru from San Diego State University critically engages with these two arguments. He rejects both arguments and draws a historical narrative that gives the reasons behind authoritarianism and underdevelopment in the Muslim world.

Simply, Kuru argues that the alliance between Muslim rulers and religious scholars held back the Muslim world from freedom and progress. Because of this alliance, the rulers were able to get approval from the religious class even when they were involved in atrocities and economic failures. In contrast, Kuru argues, it was the prominence of intellectuals and the merchant class that helped Europe thrive in political and economic fields.

The support of religious scholars for the state is built on a tradition in the Muslim world that puts religion under the firm control of the state. From the time of the Muslim empires of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals to the contemporary era, the Muslim rulers took religion under their control. Today, from Saudi Arabia to Tunisia, the mosques are controlled by the states, and the imams of those mosques are under the state payrolls.

Many Muslim scholars call Muslims to obey the political leaders as a sacred duty even when rulers are excessively corrupt. They justify their support for the state with the motivation to prevent disturbance and sedition. Religious scholars bring evidence from the Quran, the prophet’s life and Islamic history to back up their state-friendly religious opinions.

Here are some contemporary examples of how religious scholars justified unjust policies by their rulers. On Oct. 19, 2018, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, delivered a sermon and declared the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman as a renewer of religion whom all Muslims should obey. This move was in reaction to the accusations against the crown prince for his involvement in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In Egypt, when General Abdulfattah al-Sisi staged a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Mursi, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar University — the highest religious authority in the country — quickly backed him and kept his support even after the regime brutally killed hundreds and imprisoned tens of thousands.

Even in Muslim countries with secular and sometimes anti-religious rulers, the religious clergy encouraged their followers to gather around the rulers. Ramadan al-Bouti of Syria, a world-known and highly respected religious scholar, for example, supported the Assad regime until al-Bouti’s death in March 2013. He justified his support with the conviction that “disobeying may lead to strife, and strife would lead to a cycle of more disorder.”

Has this always been the case? In other words, is this relationship stem from the very nature of the religion of Islam? To Kuru, the simple answer is “no.”

In the very first centuries of Islam, Islamic knowledge was diverse and vivid. Most of the major philosophical and legal schools emerged between the seventh and tenth centuries. The rulers at the time also attempted to monopolize the production of religious knowledge with the goal of putting religion under their service, but the state could never take the monopoly of religious knowledge production. Muslims produced immense philosophical and scientific products in this period.

After the eleventh century, the Muslim states took control of the production of religious education and left little room for the private entities to play a role in this area. The military and religious elite built a hegemony at the expense of independent intellectuals and merchants. The intellectual debates slowed down after the twelfth century, and the Muslim world entered into inertia after the fourteenth century.

If you want to hear more about Ahmet Kuru’s argument and how the state-religious scholars’ alliance consolidated over time, come and listen to his book talk on Thursday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at UNO’s Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center. There will also be a book signing event on the same day at 5:30 pm at the UNO Criss Library.

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