AFRICANGLOBE – At the root of many Islamist and so-called Islamist modernist movements was a recognition that the ‘world of Islam’ had fallen behind the West in terms of power, access to technology, and economy. This was hard to rectify with the theological belief that Muslims had received the perfect and last revelation, one meant to supplant what Jews and Christians let alone peoples from other faiths embraced.
As late as the middle of the twentieth century if not well into the 1960s, many Arab countries were poor and relatively underdeveloped, but they weren’t much worse off than some countries in East Asia, the Pacific, or Central and South America. In 1960, for example, Egypt had a higher GDP than either Columbia or South Korea, and Morocco had a higher GDP than Ireland, let alone Hong Kong. African countries populated the bottom of such charts.
By 2012, Egypt trailed behind Columbia and South Korea, and Morocco was well behind Ireland. Many African countries were still in the basement, but economies in African powerhouses like South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, and Ghana had taken off. Of course, GDP isn’t the only or even best measure of success. The Middle East and North Africa were dead last in terms of per capita GDP growth over the last few decades. Figure 1 in this paper shows how Asian countries and Latin America and the Caribbean have overtaken the Middle East in real GDP per capita. And the Arab Human Development Report presents a number of indicators in which Africa beats or is closing the gap on Arab states.
Whereas once Africa was synonymous in the public mind with wars, AIDS, corruption and starvation, failed states like Somalia have begun to turn around and, instability in the Sahel and Nigeria notwithstanding, recent economic growth seems more the rule than the exception. Indeed, as Bloomberg observed this past summer:
A two-decade surge in growth in Africa suggests the poorest continent is starting to come to grips with its challenges and has raised the prospect of the “African lions” emulating the “Asian tiger” economies in the 21st century. Africa’s advantages include vast untapped resources, a youthful population and an expanding middle-class.
Success is not certain. As Bloomberg continued, “Offsetting these are rampant poverty and inequality, a rise in Islamist militant violence and appalling infrastructure.” Nevertheless, Africa is booming. Meanwhile, the core challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa remain. The decline in the price of oil may hurt some countries in Africa, but it will be devastating to the Middle East.
Despite declarations to the contrary by those that say Islam creates a color-blind brotherhood, the Middle East can be quite racist—far more than anything most Americans experience. To be overtaken or beat by Africa will be a hard blow to many in the region who might still harbor supremacist attitudes. For those who look toward the golden age of Islam, it will be a hard blow not only to be behind the West but, indeed, the entire globe.
The question for those in the region will be whether in response, many who have blindly embraced a more orthodox interpretation of religion will double down, or whether some may recognize that Islamism does not present any panacea. Will they realize that the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism, Al Qaeda, and Erdoğan-style Islamist authoritarianism is less an answer than the problem. I won’t hold my breath—it is always easier to blame outsiders for the ills of the Middle East than look internally at local culture—but it does seem that falling into the basement of the world while still years off might do as much to shake-up the region as other watersheds: Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and subsequent colonialism. With Al Qaeda spreading and the rise of the Islamic State, it might seem that radical Islamism is out-of-control. It is. And while such challenges cannot be ignored, perhaps the Middle East’s descent relative to other geographical groupings will have a silver lining.
By: Michael Rubin