Why Has the Muslim World Lagged Behind? Old Question, New Answers

Policy Forum
March 31, 2020 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM EDT

Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute

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Featuring Ahmet Kuru, Professor of Political Science, San Diego State University; Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science, Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University and Visiting Professor, Yale Law School; Timothy Shah, Vice President for Strategy and International Research, Religious Freedom Institute; moderated by Mustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute.

Why are Muslim‐​majority countries in the contemporary world remarkably less developed and less free compared with the West and even the global average? Is there a problem with Islam?

Muslims and many others have been discussing this since the 19th century. Some have found the answer in rejecting the question itself, arguing that it is Orientalist or even Islamophobic to think that something may be wrong in the Muslim world. Others have found the answer by denigrating Islam as a “backward” religion. But they fail to explain why the same religion built an enlightened civilization between the 7th and 12th centuries, which was more creative, tolerant, and free than medieval Christendom.

Disagreeing with both of these sweeping narratives, political scientist Ahmet Kuru and economic historian Timur Kuran offer new and nuanced answers to the old question. In his new book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, Kuru argues that the “problem” is real yet that it is not rooted in the core of the faith but rather in the suppression of independent thought and business by an alliance of conservative clerics and political authorities. Kuran, author of The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East and the forthcoming Freedoms Delayed: Political Legacies of Islamic Law, shows how Islamic law, which had initially helped create a dynamic economy and tolerant culture, later became an obstacle to capitalist growth and liberal values.

These historical perspectives are not only intellectually stimulating but also politically relevant, because only with the correct assessment of the “problem” can appropriate policies be devised.

This event is cosponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute under the Freedom of Religious Institutions in Society Project, a three‐​year initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

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