Compared to whom?

From Martin Kramer, “Arabic Panic,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 88-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

One of the great debates launched after September 11 turns on the relationship between terrorism and poverty. True, Usama bin Ladin was born with a silver spoon; he has been eating with his fingers in Afghanistan by choice. But the possible relationship between terrorism and poverty is a worthy subject of debate.29 It often leads also to a more important debate over the reasons for the Arab world’s economic failure, as compared to much of the developing world. At least that’s where it should lead, unless you are the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History at Harvard.

Roger Owen, the economic historian who occupies the chair, doesn’t like it when outsiders highlight the economic underperformance of the Arab world. “Their ostensible purpose is to explain to a Western audience how it is that poverty contributes to violence,” he writes. “But it is difficult not to see them as also part of the age-old polemic against the religion of Islam itself.” In other words, pointing to Arab economic failure is orientalism, or even worse, the dreaded anti-Islamic bias.

Owen especially disapproves when analysts compare Arab economic performance to that of East Asia. “Economic league tables are produced to show that the recent economic performance of the Arab countries, or the Muslim countries, lags not only behind the West but also behind what Bernard Lewis described in a recent New Yorker article as the ‘more recent recruits to Western-style modernity such as Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.'” Once Bernard Lewis has been invoked, we know what is coming.

And here it is: how dare he compare? “What, for example, does Egypt have in common with South Korea in terms of economic structure, institutions or resources that make them comparable in any way? And why is the Middle East never compared with regions than which it has performed much better in recent decades, like sub-Saharan Africa, or at least as well, like South Asia? They are its closest non-European neighbors after all.” And is it not unfair to compare the Arabs without even consulting them? Surely they should have a say in all this. “I imagine that few governments and peoples of the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region would see much point in a comparison with Singapore or South Korea. But Syria could well find advantages in being compared with Egypt, which it aspires to emulate.”30

Of course, no one likes unflattering comparisons. What Owen’s exercise demonstrates is how difficult it has become to find comparisons that do flatter the Arab Middle East. It is not just the West that is out of the question; so is East Asia; so is Latin America; so is Eastern Europe. What is left are South Asia (which is bypassing the Middle East, perhaps because India does have democracy); and the AIDS-ridden, strife-torn continent of Africa, a comparison that the Arabs themselves would find demeaning. So the Harvard professor finally gives us the solution some Arabs (and he) would prefer: just compare them to themselves.

There may be some value in comparing Egypt and Syria. But Egypt and Syria haven’t looked to one another for models since Owen was a Nasser-struck student in Cairo forty long years ago – that is, since the days of their failed union in the United Arab Republic. In a world that is becoming globalized to the hilt, it is development relative to the rest of humankind that matters. Leading Arab development experts, who aren’t stuck in a “pro-Arab” groove, don’t flinch from comparing the Arab world to South Korea and Taiwan – and to Israel. It does the Arabs no great favor to spare them such comparisons, and it is patronizing to boot.

29 For example, Daniel Pipes, “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?” National Interest, Winter 2002, pp. 14-21.
30 Roger Owen, “The Uses and Abuses of Comparison,” Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 27, 2001 – Jan. 2, 2002.