How the Muslim world is being left behind

Why each new terror attack only further marginalizes the Muslim world

July 2013: Damaged buildings in front of the Khaled bin Walid mosque in the central Syrian city of Homs. (Sam Skaine, Getty)

July 2013: Damaged buildings in front of the Khaled bin Walid mosque in the central Syrian city of Homs. (Sam Skaine, Getty)

On the morning of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Maclean’s contributor Scott Gilmore filed this column. In the Jan. 29 issue of the magazine, he expands on his argument: 

On Jan. 7, Islamist gunmen ran through the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo screaming “The Prophet is avenged!” By coincidence, at the very moment they were killing the journalists, the International Space Station passed silently over Paris.

Consider that for a moment.

As terrorists committed a primitive act of tribal savagery in the name of a prophet who lived 1,400 years ago, right above them, orbiting through space, was the most sophisticated expression of mankind’s ability to transcend ignorance and fear with hope and reason.

Twenty-five nations from around the world have come together to build the space station. They include old enemies who fought each other for centuries over God and gold, Cold War rivals, small countries and large. But none are Islamic nations.

It has become a cliché to point out that science and reason once flourished in the Islamic world. Nonetheless, it is true. While Europe stumbled through the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars made dramatic advances in every field of science including mathematics, optics and experimental physics. Our modern world was built on the scientific breakthroughs of Islam. From the eighth century, mathematicians such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who helped develop algebra, there is a direct line of progress that ends with the space station itself. But we no longer associate Islam with progress. In fact, a Muslim astronaut would surprise us as much as a non-Muslim terrorist (although there are many examples of each).

When the Parisian police siege ended on the blood-smeared floor of a kosher supermarket, the Prophet had not been avenged. He was diminished. This terrorist attack, and the others before it, merely isolated the Islamic world further from the global mainstream. In its aftermath, we and our leaders repeat, again and again, “Not all Muslims”—and yet we collectively treat Muslim nations as a threat that must be contained. Equal members of the global community? No. Partners in the space program? Impossible.

Related reading: 10 essential reads on the Paris shooting

The Islamic world is in relative decline. Or, more precisely, a large number of countries with a Muslim majority are not developing as rapidly as the rest of the world, and in some cases, like Syria, they are even regressing.

This is a golden age for most. In the last 100 years life expectancy has more than doubled. In the last 50 years the poverty rate has fallen by 80 per cent. During that same time, the number of wars fell by a similar figure and the number of nations governed democratically tripled.

But, while the global community leapt forward, Islamic nations (as defined as members of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation) have progressed at a much slower pace. This is the case across a wide variety of metrics.

MAC03-chartsThe Social Progress Index, a comprehensive measurement of a nation’s well-being, which includes everything from access to water to freedom of movement, ranks Islamic countries behind every other region in the world, including non-Muslim African countries. The Muslim world does even worse on Transparency International’s Perceptions of Corruption Index. Life expectancy numbers are among the world’s lowest, more than 15 years fewer than North America. And, not surprisingly, on a per capita basis, Muslim nations publish scientific papers at less than one-tenth the frequency of Europeans.

If we are surprised by these numbers, Najmuddin Shaikh is not. The former foreign secretary of Pakistan recently lamented, “The Islamic world is in disarray and decline and that Muslim communities find themselves under siege-like conditions in the West and elsewhere is perhaps an understatement.”

Why has the Muslim world been unable to keep pace? Why is it besieged? The easiest response is to say they did this to themselves. The evidence of this is so pervasive it is hard to refute. For example, just last week alone, while the world was focused on France, there were dozens of other terrorist attacks where Muslims killed Muslims.

In Yemen, a large group of young men were applying for entry into the police academy. They were queued up along a stone wall, which intensified the blast of a car bomb—33 died.

In Iraq, a wholesale market is held every Saturday morning in Baghdad’s western district of Baiyaa. There a bomb killed five. Later that morning another blast killed three more people in the nearby town of Madian.

In Lebanon, on the same day, a suicide bomber walked up to the crowded Omran Café in Tripoli and triggered his vest. Bloodied survivors were pulling themselves out of the rubble when a second bomber stepped in amongst them. There were nine dead and 37 injured.

In Pakistan, as people gathered to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday by distributing alms at a mosque in Rawalpindi, a bomber pushed his way in. The blast shattered all the nearby windows and killed seven.

In Nigeria, militants wrapped explosives around the midriff of a small 10-year old girl, and told her to walk into the market. When she reached the stalls where the chickens are sold, it went off, killing 19.

This is an incomplete list, from just last week, but it illustrates the broader story well. Internecine conflict in the Islamic world is endemic. The unrelenting Shia and Sunni schism dominates it, but it also includes tribal and ethnic divides. In 2013, there were 12 Western victims of terror attacks compared to 22,000 non-Western fatalities. These do not include those killed by the barrel bombs that Syrian President Assad dropped on his own people, or civilians killed by warfare in Afghanistan or Iraq. From the jungles of Sulawesi to the deserts of Libya, Muslims are killing Muslims at a rate that dwarfs the more highly publicized conflict with the West. In that light, it is hard to subscribe to the theory this is a clash of civilizations. Rather, it is one culture turning on itself.

The self-inflicted wounds are not always violent. The Taliban banned girls from being educated. In Syria, Islamic State closed all schools. In 2013, militants in Mali burned the fabled and ancient libraries of Timbuktu. In a speech just days before the Paris attacks, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pleaded for an end to this self-destruction: “The Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.”

Focusing just on the violence does not take into account the broader context, the economic and geographic circumstances in which these countries find themselves. The Maghreb (northwest Africa), the Arabian Peninsula, the Central Asia steppes, the Gulf of Guinea, the Indus valley, the Indonesian archipelago: each of these presents different but equally daunting barriers to building modern economies and functioning states. Whether it is drought or monsoons, a lack of harbours or impassible mountain ranges, the Islamic world was not dealt the best geographic hand.

It has faced economic hurdles, too. The international demand for heroin has created a lucrative but destructive poppy trade that the United States and all its allies could not even slow. Similarly, but perhaps less dramatically, the oil reserves of the Middle East and West Africa have been both a blessing and a curse, fuelling building booms, corruption and instability.

There are also the historical circumstances that must be acknowledged. The legacy of disastrous foreign intervention is everywhere. For hundreds of years the Dutch treated Indonesia as a warehouse, merely to be raided for its wealth, forestalling the evolution of local institutions. When independence came, dictators Sukarno and Suharto merely perfected what the Dutch had begun.

Bangladesh faced a similar colonial legacy, but one that was followed by partition and a brutal civil war. The elites who emerged redefined corruption, and it is difficult to judge which has done more damage: the typhoons or the politicians.

Related reading by Scott Gilmore: Heightened security only increases our fears

Further west, the arbitrarily drawn Durand Line was established in the 19th century to separate Pakistan and Afghanistan by cutting right through the Pashtun homeland. This colonial relic has remained a festering wound that makes both countries virtually ungovernable.

A similar exercise produced a comparable result in the Middle East. The secretly negotiated Sykes-Picot Agreement, creating spheres of influence for the Great Powers during the First World War, produced fractious borders and lit a bonfire of ethnic and sectarian violence that this week burned the Baiyaa market and the Omran Café.

Even recent history has been unkind to the Islamic world. The U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan exploded into regional instability. repeated conflicts with Israel have drained meagre budgets from militaries who spend most of their time blaming Zionist conspiracies for the repressive chaos they themselves create at home.

When one considers the heavy weight of these extenuating circumstances, it is easier to see that the terrorism of the last 20 years is not the reason the Islamic world has been left behind. But it is perhaps the reason it is staying there.

Lockerbie. Embassies in Africa. Sept. 11. Subways in London. A memorial in Ottawa. A café in Sydney. A magazine in Paris. We have witnessed a steady series of attacks against the West. Some of these were large and well-organized conspiracies, others lone-wolf attacks by mentally unstable men with tenuous connections to Islam. But they had the same effect: to provoke a fear in the West that Islam is a threat, and the impression that the Muslim world is not a partner, but a challenge to be managed.

We, and our governments, don’t say this. In fact, we do all we can to make it appear otherwise. We talk about engagement and launch various initiatives to build “constructive dialogue.” These are just euphemisms.

President Barack Obama wanted to use the space program as a tool to engage the Islamic world. He instructed NASA to help Muslim nations “feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.” In Canada, we reached out by, among other things, naming a special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) and by sending its member countries over $12 billion in aid since 2002. During that same period, the United States sent $137 billion.

These efforts were not about expanding mutually beneficial relations with peers to create new opportunities. They were about preventing problems and neutralizing a threat. Most of our energy has gone into isolating, not engaging, the Islamic world. Compare, for example, what has been spent on intelligence, homeland security and military operations. Since 9/11, Canada tripled its spy budget and spent $18 billion sending troops to Afghanistan. The United States spent between $4 trillion and $6 trillion on military campaigns (including Iraq)—over 25 times more than they spent on engaging through aid.

With every act of terror, we push the Muslim world farther way. We launch more drones. We deploy more troops. We fortify more embassies. We watch more mosques. We accept fewer refugees. We issue fewer visas.

A passport from an Islamic nation is less welcome than one from any other region of the world. Citizens of the OIC enjoy visa-free travel to fewer countries than anyone else. This small fact tells a much larger story about the lack of interpersonal contact between Islamic nations and the rest of the world. It illustrates the fear that some of us feel when we see that the man boarding the flight ahead of us is wearing a shalwar kameez. It highlights the difficulty any of us have had bringing Muslim colleagues to international conferences, or transferring money to business partners in the Middle East. It makes us realize we can’t remember the last time someone talked about going to Egypt to see the pyramids. And it explains why last year less than two per cent of the visitors to Canada were from the Islamic world, despite those countries comprising 25 per cent of the world’s population.

Photo by Haim Zach/REX

Photo by Haim Zach/REX

It is not just the West. Russia, China, India: all the global powers have developed similar postures toward the Islamic world. Occasionally, although less frequently than the West, they talk about engagement. But really, like us, their strategy is primarily focused on containment.

The isolation also exists at the multilateral level. Only 19 per cent of global economies are not members of the World Trade Organization, but that short list is dominated by Islamic nations. The centrally important Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has only one Islamic member: Turkey. Canada belongs to 207 international organizations. The average Islamic nation belongs to about half that, making them less connected and included than are European, Latin American, Caribbean and Asian countries.

Of course, it is not all containment. The international community does engage more constructively with some Islamic countries than with others. For example, while Malaysia is not a member of the International Space Station partnership, it did second an astronaut to Russia, who then sent him to the space station. Turkey is not only a member of the OECD, it is also part of NATO. (But is hard to imagine it being invited to join today, given that just this week the United States cancelled the transfer of two frigates to the Turkish navy, due to growing concerns about its Islamist tendencies.)

The United States and Canada are negotiating with Indonesia so that we can enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And Western oil companies are deeply entrenched in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. But these exceptions prove the rule. Unless you are among the most moderate members of the OIC, or drowning in oil, the international community is not interested.

Ironically, this isolation may be what the extremists actually want. Many of the terrorist attacks were meant to drive a wedge between the Muslim world and the West, to eliminate the degenerate influences of the outside. They want to be left behind, or at least left alone.

Can we change this dynamic? Will we continue to pull back from the Muslim world? It is difficult to find signs that this pattern can be broken. Our economies now depend on trillion-dollar industries whose sole purpose is to protect us from the Islamist threat by building better body scanners and faster cruise missiles. Our own governments have restructured themselves as vigilant watchdogs, safeguarding us from terror. Even as the Paris attacks were still unfolding, the Canadian government was announcing even more anti-terror legislation. And our political institutions have been rewired, dramatically shifting the balance between our personal freedom and our collective security. All of this is intended to build blast-proof walls between us and them.

But perhaps, if we realize that with every terrorist attack our collective instincts to contain the Muslim world grows stronger, we can change this. It would take some patience and courage on our part, and a few leaps of faith, to increase the free flow of our peoples and in their wake, perhaps ideas and values. Of course, it would also require an effort on the part of Islamic nations to reach out, too. We can’t drag them into the OECD.

Terrorists like those who captured our attention in France are not responsible for the relative decline of the Islamic world, but they are prolonging its isolation. This attack and all the others before it have compelled the international community to instinctively respond by containing the threat. But this is merely palliative. As the Muslim world is further contained, it becomes further alienated from the global community, and it falls further behind. This trend must change. We must recognize that as mankind moves further into space, some of us are being left behind.

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