is a truism understood among the more astute foreign policy
analysts in Washington regarding America's comprehension of
the Middle East region: Whatever happens, whether it is the
victory of Hamas, the downfall of the reformist movement in
Iran, or most glaringly, the monumental humanitarian catastrophe
in Iraq, you can count on a misreading of such events for
at least three or four years after they have occurred before
realism sets in.
There is also another truism: when it comes to nuance in Muslim
behaviour, not even time can produce US understanding.
should not have been surprising when The New York Times on
February 17 published a front-page article about economically-strapped
Egyptian youth, which claimed: "In their frustration, the
young are turning to religion for solace and purpose, pulling
their parents and their governments along with them. With
60 per cent of the region's population under the age of 25,
this youthful religious fervour has enormous implications
for the Middle East. More than ever, Islam has become the
cornerstone of identity, replacing other, failed ideologies:
Arabism, socialism, nationalism."
years after the American body politic was first exposed to
Islamism, Islamic revivalism, Islamic identity and all the
buzzwords used to explain societal transformation in the Arab
world, the same flawed rationale is apparently just as valid
today as it was then. Religiosity among Muslims is intensifying,
the theory goes, because other ideologies have failed and
economies are on the skids. Eighteen years ago, the same newspaper
published a similar story about Algeria with the headline,
"Militant Muslims grow stronger as Algeria's economy weakens."
is a school of thought which believes that Islam's surge
could be mitigated with economic development, which
would include easy access to apartments and houses for
the young, and an increase in leisure time and entertainment.
cause-and-effect relation between economic despair and religiosity
is used as an explanation for everything from the increase
in proportion of women who wear the hijab in countries like
Egypt to the high-rate of mosque attendance in some Arab countries
and the overwhelming escalation of hostility to and contempt
for the United States in Muslim societies. This school of
thought believes that Islam's surge could be mitigated with
economic development, which would include easy access to apartments
and houses for the young, and an increase in leisure time
To put it differently, the discussion and proposed solution
are framed around the age-old contrast between Islam and modernity
to be advanced by columnists and intellectuals, such as Francis
Fukuyama, who predicted in The End of History and the Last
Man that consumerism would be the death knell to radical Islamist
ideology. The argument rests upon the belief that globalisation
and political Islam are at odds.
9/11, the explanation that poverty in the Arab world contributes
to extremism and Islamism was particularly rampant. In a column
in The New York Times in December 2001, headlined, "Getting
at the roots of Arab poverty," Yale University Professor Alan
Schwartz made the following argument: "Since the terrorist
attacks, Americans have learned that in many Arab and Muslim
nations there are large numbers of angry young men with time
on their hands, unable to find jobs - or jobs that make use
of their education - because of their countries' poverty.
We've also learned that many Muslims blame us for their poverty.
But in fact they are not poor because we are rich; they are
poor because of the policies their countries pursue."
Schwartz, at the time a professor of law and management, ended
his column with the following warning: "September 11 has taught
us anew how important it is for the United States to take
this kind of active interest. If we do not promote economic
growth in Muslim nations, we will by default promote
growth in the supply of potential terrorists." This general
presumption continues to be repeated in the media, at think
tanks in Washington, and inside the US government.
the terrorist attacks, Americans have learned that in
many Arab and Muslim nations there are large numbers
of angry young men with time on their hands, unable
to find jobs - or jobs that make use of their education
- because of their countries' poverty. We've also learned
that many Muslims blame us for their poverty. But in
fact they are not poor because we are rich; they are
poor because of the policies their countries pursue."
- Yale University Professor
much truth lies in this theory, especially when there is overwhelming
evidence that the divide between the haves and have-nots is
not a religious one?
One only need look at Turkey, where the Justice and Development
Party has risen to power on the heels of unprecedented economic
development in that country. In the past five years, growth
in GDP exceeded seven per cent annually, and exports more
than tripled to more than US$95 billion for the year that
ended in June 2007. Unemployment, however, has remained high
for that country, but not as high as in many Arab states.
In Turkey, unemployment is about 10 per cent, compared with
six per cent in 2000.
the economy has been strapped for decades. Educated Egyptians
are still earning, at times, only $200 per month. According
to some statistics, approximately 600,000 to one million jobs
must be generated each year but only 500,000 are created.
This gap affects youth the most.
is this the reason an elevator operator prays before he pushes
the down button, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman
once observed while visiting Cairo? Is this the reason a majority
of Egyptian women wear the hijab? Or the reason the influence
within society of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee has increased?
Or why religious programming on Egyptian television has grown
over the last 20 years? And most puzzling to the American
mind, if poverty can't possibly be the reason a rich, former
Egyptian actress opened a beauty salon in Heliopolis for veiled
women, then what is?
cliché that Muslims turn to Islam out of desperation,
poverty and discontent is still alive and well in America.
perpetual search to find a reason - one that can be detected
and addressed neatly through foreign policy approaches - America
longs for an answer to Islam's surge. Underdeveloped economies
provide a reasonable, plausible explanation, and can be addressed
with foreign aid and new policies. This is one reason this
theory is embraced by the media and the US government.
more accurate and truthful illustrations of the importance
of Islam can be found across the Arab world. Islam has become
an important force and moral compass in the lives of Muslims,
whether they are unemployed and living without running water
in Imbaba, or whether they are wealthy movie stars who left
the big screen.
Even in the United States, second-generation Muslim-Americans,
who are college-educated and come from affluent families,
have begun attending mosques with greater frequency, wearing
headscarves, and joining Muslim Students' Associations on
college campuses to become better educated about their faith
and to form a community with other young Muslims. They are
finding that their comfort zone lies more in Islam, rather
than in secular, mainstream American society.
might assume that after years of scholarship about Islamic
societies, public and policy debates, and the US government's
direct intervention in the Middle East, clichés would
have been replaced by facts on the ground. But the cliché
that Muslims turn to Islam out of desperation, poverty and
discontent is still alive and well in America.
The above article appeared in the Al-Ahram Weekly and circulated
by Information Clearing House. The writer is a foreign policy
analyst at The Century Foundation in Washington, DC, and author
of No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.