Turkish academic offers an intriguing but controversial view of the Muslim world

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Turkish academic Ahmet Kuru presents an intriguing and sure to be a controversial thesis in his latest book Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison. It is based on an analysis of political history and contemporary political institutions and policies. However, in Kuru’s latest volume, the scope of analysis and the conclusions he draws are much broader and more ambitious than his previous work.

In the book, Kuru tries to answer one of the most hotly debated and politicised questions of political science and global economics: “Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit such high levels of authoritarianism and such low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages?” Kuru dismisses the two most common arguments of the political right and left – that either Islam or Western colonialism are entirely to blame for the contemporary problems of Muslim-majority countries – as based on a cherry-picked reading of history.

For example, Kuru traces back the adage used by both Islamists and Islamophobes that in Islam, “religion and royal authority are twins” to the pre-Islamic Sasanian political tradition. He argues that the comparatively advanced development of Muslim-ruled territories between the eighth and twelfth centuries proves that Islam is indeed compatible with intellectual, technological, and economic progress and innovation and that the subsequent stagnation and decline these same territories experienced in the late middle ages predates the ascendance of European colonial rule.

Instead, Kuru postulates that domestic political relations between rulers and the intellectual, economic, and religious classes, and the rearrangement thereof, explains the ascendance of Muslim-ruled areas in the eighth to twelfth centuries, their subsequent decline and the simultaneous dominance of Western Europe beginning in the early modern period. According to Kuru, “In early Islamic history, Islamic scholars’ independence from the state and the economic influence of merchants” created a space for philosophical and intellectual freedom outside of state control.

Later political authorities, most notably the Seljuks, would bring the Islamic religious establishment, the ulema, under state control. The Seljuks would also introduce land and tax reforms that curtailed the economic and political influence of the merchant class. Western Europe, in contrast, underwent the opposite political and economic process in the early modern period: political and religious authorities fought and gradually disentangled from one another, universities fostered intellectual growth, and a merchant class emerged and wielded increasing political and economic power.

At different periods in their history, both the “Muslim world” and predominantly Christian western Europe have suffered from the religion-state entanglement that Kuru sees as the primary force hampering intellectual progress and innovation. There is nothing essential in either Islam or Christianity that encourages or impedes philosophical exploration or scientific experimentation. Each has the potential to stunt and stop the intellectual flourishing of its adherents when it becomes dominated political interests. Kuru contends that this tradition of political domination of religion has continued even in secular Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey and Egypt.

The book is broken into two sections. The first addresses the contemporary problems of authoritarianism, underdevelopment, and violence in the forty-nine countries with majority Muslim populations. Kuru begins with the provocative, and seemingly tangential, question of “what explains the recent surge of Muslim involvement in political violence?” Kuru uses this question to explore his major claims – that Islam can be interpreted to support many different political, social, and economic projects, that neither colonial rule nor Islam fully explains the political and social conditions of Muslim-majority countries, and, most crucially, that the ulema’s conservatism and political co-option has made it difficult to counter extreme interpretations of Islamic theology and social organisation.

The second section of the book lays out the historical evidence for Kuru’s thesis that the entanglement of political, religious, intellectual, and economic actors is the primary cause of Western Europe’s dominance, and the decline of Muslim empires, since the early modern period. In detail, he lays out the political history of the Muslim empires that dominated western Asia, northern Africa and southern Europe for over a thousand years.

Kuru draws on studies of primary sources ranging from biographies of Islamic scholars, to theological works and administrative manuals to mark the changing relationship between state and religion and the decline of the merchant class in this region over the period of approximately 700 years. He also addresses why efforts at political and social reform by a number of 19th-century Muslim leaders ultimately failed.

Kuru anticipates that his thesis and the evidence he uses to support it will inevitably draw criticism. Toward the end of the book, he directly addresses alternative explanations for both the rise of Western Europe and the decline of Muslim-ruled empires. Kuru also discusses critiques he received while writing this book, namely that he was in danger of glossing over the violent and destructive forces unleashed by Western colonialism.

Kuru readily acknowledges the overall horrific legacy of colonialism and slavery. However, he contends that a lengthy examination of the carnage of colonialism is outside the scope of this book, as he is interested in what turned Western Europe into a colonial power in the first place. Kuru also raises the point that Muslim-rules empires, throughout their history, also engaged in cultural and ethnic cleansing, slavery, and discrimination of native populations.

Certainly, these attempts to head off critics will only go so far. Kuru blames the ulema not just for the historic decline of the Muslim-majority world, but also for the pervasiveness of violent interpretations of Islam. This contention is sure to raise controversy, not least among members of the ulema itself. Kuru’s dismissal of colonialism as central to both the state and non-state violence that is pervasive in many Muslim-majority countries is likely to receive significant pushback as well.

There are no doubt several aspects in Kuru’s work that can and should be interrogated. However, his central point concerning the damage caused by the entanglement of religious and political actors is a fresh and convincing perspective in a debate that has become circular and stale.

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