The Real Reason for Muslim Decline

A fascinating article published by Husain Haqqani, a professor at Boston University. [Editorial note: I have deleted my side comment I had included here about Prof. Haqqani’s views on Pakistani politics which only served as a distraction from his work here. I will come back to them again in a separate post]. This time he has written a great article on some of the reasons for the Muslim decline. He speaks about the rumor-mongering that grips us so, and our inability to apply some perspective before resorting to emotional outbursts. The article was published in the Gulf News, The Nation (Pakistan), Oman Tribune, Indian Express, The Brunei Times, The Star (Bangladesh) on April 25.

The Real Reason for Muslim Decline

By Husain Haqqani

The Muslim world seems to be in the grip of all kinds of rumours. The willingness of large numbers of Muslims to believe some outrageous assertions reflects pervasive insecurity coupled with widespread ignorance. The contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories limits the capacity for rational discussion of international affairs. For example, a recent poll indicates that only 3 percent of Pakistanis believe that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the United States, notwithstanding Osama bin Laden and his deputies have taken credit for the attacks on more than one occasion. Ironically, many America haters express admiration for bin Laden on grounds of his willingness to attack American civilians while at the same time refusing to accept that Al-Qaeda’s biggest attack was, in fact, the work of Al-Qaeda.

The acceptance of rumours and the readiness to embrace the notion of a conspiracy does not apply exclusively to the realm of politics. Villagers in rural Nigeria are refusing to administer the polio vaccine to their infant children out of fear that the vaccine will make their offspring sterile. Some religious leaders in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have also voiced concerns about a “Western-Zionist conspiracy” to sterilize the next generation of Muslims as part of what they allege is an “ongoing war against Islam.”


Mobile phones and internet, the pervasiveness of which is often cited as a measure of a society’s progress and modernity, have become a means of spreading fear in the Muslim world. Text messages, originating from the Pakistani city of Sialkot recently warned people of a virus if people answered phone calls from certain numbers. The virus would not hurt the phone, the messages said, but would rather kill the recipient. In mid-April, these messages swamped Pakistani cell phone users, causing many to turn off their phones, according to wire service reports.

The rumor was embellished with supposed first person accounts. One report cited a 45-year old man, who talked to a friend who said he saw it in the newspaper — that a man dropped dead just after answering his mobile phone. “When he got the call, he died like he was poisoned,” he said. The panic caused by the rumors forced the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to issue a denial. Phone companies sent out text messages urging people to be calm. A newspaper rejected the rumor but featured the headline, “Killer Mobile Virus.”

A text message widely circulated in an Arab country claimed that trucks carrying a million melons had been smuggled across the country’s northern border and the melons were contaminated with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. The text message accused Israel of smuggling the contaminated melons as part of a “biological warfare campaign.” The Customs director on the northern border had to rebut the rumour with the explanation that no trucks full of melons had crossed the border in the preceding two days.

 

The Muslim world seems to be in the grip of all kinds of rumours. The willingness of large numbers of Muslims to believe some outrageous assertions reflects pervasive insecurity coupled with widespread ignorance. The contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories limits the capacity for rational discussion of international affairs. For example, a recent poll indicates that only 3 percent of Pakistanis believe that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the United States, notwithstanding Osama bin Laden and his deputies have taken credit for the attacks on more than one occasion. Ironically, many America haters express admiration for bin Laden on grounds of his willingness to attack American civilians while at the same time refusing to accept that Al-Qaeda’s biggest attack was, in fact, the work of Al-Qaeda.

The acceptance of rumours and the readiness to embrace the notion of a conspiracy does not apply exclusively to the realm of politics. Villagers in rural Nigeria are refusing to administer the polio vaccine to their infant children out of fear that the vaccine will make their offspring sterile. Some religious leaders in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have also voiced concerns about a “Western-Zionist conspiracy” to sterilize the next generation of Muslims as part of what they allege is an “ongoing war against Islam.”

Mobile phones and internet, the pervasiveness of which is often cited as a measure of a society’s progress and modernity, have become a means of spreading fear in the Muslim world. Text messages, originating from the Pakistani city of Sialkot recently warned people of a virus if people answered phone calls from certain numbers. The virus would not hurt the phone, the messages said, but would rather kill the recipient. In mid-April, these messages swamped Pakistani cell phone users, causing many to turn off their phones, according to wire service reports.

The rumor was embellished with supposed first person accounts. One report cited a 45-year old man, who talked to a friend who said he saw it in the newspaper — that a man dropped dead just after answering his mobile phone. “When he got the call, he died like he was poisoned,” he said. The panic caused by the rumors forced the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to issue a denial. Phone companies sent out text messages urging people to be calm. A newspaper rejected the rumor but featured the headline, “Killer Mobile Virus.”

A text message widely circulated in an Arab country claimed that trucks carrying a million melons had been smuggled across the country’s northern border and the melons were contaminated with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. The text message accused Israel of smuggling the contaminated melons as part of a “biological warfare campaign.” The Customs director on the northern border had to rebut the rumour with the explanation that no trucks full of melons had crossed the border in the preceding two days.

No one paid any attention to the fact that the HIV virus cannot be transmitted by eating melons or that Israelis have not been engaged in a biological warfare campaign against any Arab or Muslim country. An American-Muslim friend of mine also pointed out that it would take more than a hundred trucks to haul a million melons. “Why ship melons if you can ship an army?” he asked.

Rumours can sometimes have serious consequences. In 1979, Pakistanis students burned down the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, killing several people, on the basis of a rumour. Islamist extremists had taken over Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba in Makkah, and rumour-mongers claimed that the outrage had been committed by the United States. Those spreading the rumour, and those acting on it, showed no remorse over the loss of life caused by their actions.

The Muslim world has a high rate of illiteracy but ignorance reflected by the readiness to believe unverified (and sometimes totally outrageous) claims is not just a function of illiteracy. It is a function of bigotry and fear. Literate Muslims, such as those involved in the text message rumour-mongering, are as vulnerable to ignorant behaviour as illiterate ones. Conspiracy theories have been popular among Muslims since the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire as a way of explaining the powerlessness of a community that was at one time the world’s economic, scientific, political and military leader.

The erosion of the leadership position of Muslims coincided with the west’s gradual technological ascendancy. Soon after the Ottomans took over Constantinople, Johann Gutenberg printed a Bible using metal plates. Printing was introduced into the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Bayazid II (1481-1512) only to be virtually banned for use by Muslims in 1485. In Europe, a full grown book industry evolved, facilitating wide dissemination of ideas and knowledge. By 1501, more than a thousand printing presses had produced approximately 35,000 titles with ten million copies. But in the Ottoman Empire, only Christians and Jews used printing technology.

Muslim use of the printing press did not start until 1727, causing the Muslims to lose more than 270 years in the greatest explosion of knowledge. The Persian, Mughal and Ottoman Empires controlled vast lands and resources but many important scientific discoveries and inventions since the fifteenth century came about in Europe and not in the Muslim lands.

Ignorance is an attitude and the world’s Muslims have to analyze, debate and face it before they can deal with it. The 57 member countries of the Organisation of

Islamic Conference (OIC) have around 500 Universities compared with more than five thousand universities in the United States and more than eight thousand in India. In 2004, Shanghai Jiao Tong University compiled an ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’, and none of the universities from Muslim-majority states was included in the top 500.

There is only one university for every three million Muslims and the Muslim-majority countries have 230 scientists per one million Muslims. The U.S. has 4,000 scientists per million and Japan has 5,000 per million. The Muslim world spends 0.2 per cent of its GDP on research and development, while the western nations spend around five per cent of GDP on producing knowledge.

The tendency of Muslim masses to accept rumours as fact and the readiness to believe anything that suggests a non-Muslim conspiracy to weaken or undermine the Muslims is the result of the overall feeling of helplessness and decline that permeates the Muslim world. Most Muslim scholars and leaders try to explain Muslim decline through the prism of the injustices of colonialism and the subsequent ebb and flow of global distribution of power. But Muslims are not weak only because they were colonized. They were colonized because they had become weak.

Conspiracy theories paper over the knowledge deficit and the general attitude of ignorance in the Muslim world. It is time for a discussion of the Ummah’s decline in the context of failure to produce and consume knowledge and absorb verifiable facts.

Husain Haqqani is Director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, and Co-Chair of the Islam and Democracy Project at Hudson Institute, Washington D.C. He is author of the book ‘Pakistan between Mosque and Military’

Husain Haqqani
Director
Center for International Relations
Boston University
E-mail: haqqani@bu.edu

 

29 Responses to The Real Reason for Muslim Decline

  1. Arisha says:

    Read this article on Gulf News – Haqqani’s columns are synidcated there. I, as a Pakistani, actually agree with Haqqani’s views both on Pakistan and the Muslim world. I dont think he apologizes for Bhutto or anyone else – he is just speaking the truth and asking us to be realistic.

  2. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Arisha: I do beg to differ though. Husain Haqqani is an insightful academic and I read his articles with interest. However, he is also quite political, and never mind that even in his personal interactions with me, he has been a bit too open about trying to defend Benazir’s actions. And guess where I met him: at a party in honor of Benazir Bhutto:).

  3. Wasiq says:

    Actually, Bilal, there is nothing contradictory in an academic being political and being intellectually sound.

    The problem stems from our drawing room class’s definition of thoughtful people not having strong positions –just opinions but no inclinations.

    Your remarks on the pro-Bhutto stance has take away the focus from the main point of this article, which you clearly appreciated. As Prof. Haqqani would have said if this had happened in his classroom, “Even highly educated Muslims fail to keep their eye on the ball while conducting discussion on social and political phenomenon. Education in the sciences does not prepare people well for social science discussions.”

    In a recent TV appearance on one Pakistani TV channel, Prof. Haqqani openly acknowledged his sympathy for Banazir Bhutto. So you need not refer to it as some little secret you know just from your interaction at some party. It is something open, public and proudly acknowledged by the man. (Incidentally, what were you doing at a party in honor of Benazir Bhutto, considering that you do not seem to honor her?)

    If Kissinger can be partial to Nixon, Brzezinski to Carter and Rice to Bush why do we have a problem with one of ours having sympathy for a politician we do not admire? Why not learn from and reflect on what he is writing about? I don’t think his political sympathies take away from his reasoning or his arguments.

    As a former student of Prof. Haqqani’s I understand his position quite well. He fits in better in the American mode of intellectual than the Pakistani version. He is a political man, in theory and in practice. He studies the subject, reflects on it, teaches it and writes about it. he also argues that politics is by definition an imperfect sphere.In fact, one of his strongest critiques of Pakistani (and Muslim) society is the unwillingness of the intelligentsia to be political. According to him, in intellectual debate Muslims seek purity and, therefore, gloss over reality.

    On Benazir, his stance fits in with his overall analytical framework, which focuses on social and political processes and attitudes. The way he sees it, the matter of Benazir’s alleged “looting” can be dealt with in only two ways. One, punish her through courts (which has not happened) or, Two, let her run in an election and let the people decide. Personally, I do not think that is an intellectually unsound stance. But then, admittedly, I am partial to my former teacher.

    Prof. Haqqani is not alone in arguing that corruption is not the fundamental issue it is made out to be in emerging democracies. The editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, Moises Naim, also wrote recently that charges of corruption are more often used in third world countries to thwart democracy rather than to cleanse politics.

  4. Wasiq says:

    One more thing:

    Prof. Haqqani has written extensively on the Islamic world and his courses at BU also are not about Pakistan. So you are not correct in saying he writes mainly about Pakistani politics. It is just that you read mainly the stuff he writes about Pakistani politics.

    Please check out http://www.futureofmuslimworld.com

    Prof Haqqani is Co-Chairman of the Hudson Institute’s project on Islam and Democracy and I suspect this article is part of the outcome of his research there. The rest of the stuff from that project can be found on the above website.

  5. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Wasiq: I can totally agree with your pont. I feel bad that my side comment about his politics distracted from the main article. I am going to edit the article to reflect that. The focus should be his view on the decline of the Muslim world.

  6. Wasiq says:

    Thank you, Bilal. That is the right spirit and I admire you for it.

    The article speaks for itself. While Muslims have genuine complaints against the west for the crusades, colonialism and U.S. foreign policy, these are not the reasons for Muslims being behind in economic and technological output.

    In another article in the International Herald Tribune

    http://www.iht.com/articles/2004/10/15/news/edhaqqani.php

    Prof. Haqqani spoke of economic backwardness. (Most of us do not realize that the combined GDP of 57 Muslim-majority countries, including the oil-rich states, is less than the GDP of France alone.)

    One extract:

    “While the Muslim world’s obsession with military power encourages violent attempts to “restore” Muslim honor, the real reasons for Muslim humiliation and backwardness continue to multiply. In the year 2000, according to the World Bank, the average income in the advanced countries (at purchasing price parity) was $27,450, with the U.S. income averaging $34,260 and Israel’s income averaging $19, 320.

    “The average income in the Muslim world, however, stood at $3,700. Pakistan’s per capita income in 2003 was a meager $2,060. Excluding the oil-exporting countries, none of the Muslim countries of the world had per capita incomes above the world average of $7,350.

    “National pride in the Muslim world is derived not from economic productivity, technological innovation or intellectual output but from the rhetoric of “destroying the enemy” and “making the nation invulnerable.” Such rhetoric sets the stage for the clash of civilizations as much as specific Western policies.

    “Ironically, Western governments have consistently tried to deal with one manifestation of the cult of the warrior -terrorism – by building up Muslim strongmen who are just another manifestation of the same phenomenon.”

    Very important points, I think.

  7. Arisha says:

    Hi,
    Agree with Wasiq that there is a need to focus on politics and political issues and not people.

  8. observer says:

    There is nothing in the article we dont already know.

    There are also no simple or even complex solutions, except what we can get out of the lament that we don’t know how to produce or consume verifiable knowledge – rather than conspiracy theories and rumours based on bigotry and fear.

    The insight we require would be to answer the question whether this is a symptom or a cause. I rather think this is the symptom, not the cause. Causes ‘the real reason’ we will find in the multi-factored historical reasons of instabilty of politics and culture – the realted failure to patronize learning and its environment whenever and wherever it existed.

  9. Questioning Mind says:

    I think Observer is being too dismissive of facts, figures and analysis. I don’s think most Muslims know, or realize, their knowledge decline. Also, the instability of politics and culture has to be the product of something. It does not exist in a vacuum.

    The fact that we do not value studying politics and culture methodically probably explains why we are unable to address the problems in that area.

    All discussion of politics in our culture is about who is good or bad, never about what is the correct process of politics.

    All debate about culture is also superficial. Some people blame religion and the mullahs but there are few alternative apprcoahes to faithon offer. The few Muslims who can be called thinkers are constantly under attack for one thing or another, taking away from serious discussion of their thoughts.

    Look at the Iraq war debate in the U.S. Dozens of books have been written in favor and against the war. In the Muslim world, there is only discussion in homes (or more recently on blogs) or protest demonstartions in the street.

    Where is the analysis? Where is the research? Where are the books?

  10. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Some of you may be interested in the discussion on the post at Pakistaniat on the International Mystic Music Festival: http://pakistaniat.com/2007/05/04/international-mystic-music-sufi-festival-in-karachi/

  11. maxxpup says:

    Spain translates as many books into Spanish in a single year as have been translated into Arabic since the ninth century by the entire Arab world.
    This, according to a 2002 United Nations Arab Human Development Report. That statistic alone is a staggeringly powerful indictment of Islam and its negative impact on Arab culture.

  12. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Hi imaxxpupp, while your statistics are probably true, just wanted to remind you that greater than 70% of muslims are not Arabs and have no use of books translated in Arabic. Additionally, educational systems in many countries, esp the science curricula, are now developing in English, unlike some European countries, and hence more important than translation may the simple availability of and registration of kids in the school system.

  13. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Hi maxxpupp, while your statistics are probably true, just wanted to remind you that greater than 70% of muslims are not Arabs and have no use of books translated in Arabic. Additionally, educational systems in many countries, esp the science curricula, are now developing in English, unlike some European countries, and hence more important than translation may the simple availability of and registration of kids in the school system.

  14. […] The Real Reason for Muslim Decline [image] A fascinating article published by Husain Haqqani, a professor at Boston University. [Editorial note: I have […] […]

  15. maxxpup says:

    Bilal,
    you make an excellent point. I only meant to point out my personal belief that Islam has a very negative impact on a culture vis a’ vis learning and education. I do not believe Arabs or any ethnicity are less adept at intellectual pursuits.
    This same negative impact towards learning and science can be attributed to the Catholic Church during the “dark ages” or present day Christian Evangelicals. I have some first hand experience with English and American curriculums in Muslim countries, I also have experience with Muslim educators and their abilities to effectively undermine those curriculums citing religious principals.

  16. Mario Marroquin says:

    As a non-Muslim I want to voice my concern about your radicals in the Muslim world. I cannot understand how you can condone the slaughter going on in your world and it appears that as long as Muslims kill Muslims it’s ok. It appears that there is no gray area in your world. It is black or white. How sad to live life like that.

  17. sheepoo says:

    This is definitely a very thought provoking and to-the-point article.
    I personally have had experiences where I had to take detailed mesaures while trying to refute some news which was forwarded by email chains to me. Issues like Pepsi or Coke using Haraam ingredients, Israelis trying to wage biological warfare, cell phone viruses, pictures of Prohet(PBUH)’s grave etc. are much too common happenings in the Islamic technological sphere and leave me wondering whether those who forward these messages should have something else and better to spend their time on.

    According to one hadith of Prohet(PBUH), it is enough for a person to be a liar if he/she spreads news which have they just heard, and not verified, from other sources.

  18. Michael D says:

    I would like to say, as a morally and politically disenchanted citizen of the U.S. I am pleased to witness this discussion. I feel out of my league on the subject so I will observe and learn from all of you but I am pleased that it is taking place.

  19. Bangladesh says:

    Well – i wouldnt really agree on all that. Its not as you are thinking it is ;s

  20. Rana Ammar Yasir says:

    Westernized Education System
    Westernization in lifestyle of people
    Globalization and war of cultures
    Lack of awareness of real essence of Islamic knowledge
    Lack of unity among Muslim Ummah
    Imperialism and Social differences among rich and poor
    Materialism

  21. Fery says:

    Hi Mr.Bilal, I came from Indonesia, I just want you to know about Indonesian map which is all green, may be it’s representing amount of moslems in Indonesia. Well, we agree that Indonesia is the largest moslems citizen, but only on Java, Sumatera & Sulawesi island and some small islands like Sumbawa and others.There are other island that mostly non muslim citizen, like Bali (Hindu) and NTT (Catholic) near the East Timor.

    But in Sumatera, in North Sumatera province (Tapanuli) mostly Christian, middle Borneo (Dayak People) mostly Christian and traditional believes, Midle and North Sulawesi mostly Christian and also Maluku island and Papua island mostly Christian, Catholic and Traditional believes.

    There are also small groups of ethnics that have different religion like christian Sundanese in Kuningan West Java, and hundreds of little ethnics groups that dont want to be included as moslem. They have their own traditional believes.

    We always notice this problem: that most moslem included those island to be incuded as mostly moslem. The reality is they’re not.

    This made very painful to us, because we dont want to be known as moslem. I came from North Sumatera and i want to be known as christian indonesian. And many many of other indonesian to be known like that. Hindus, budhists, christians, etc.

    I just want you to know this.

  22. […] dogmas were a factor in that failure to adapt. Here's a more detailed and thoughtful take on it: The Real Reason for Muslim Decline BZNotes! <12Similar Threads6Conservative ideology is in decline by Avro | Aug 31st, 200841Britain in […]

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  25. yangdaoyu says:

    Atheist:
    key to new knowlege is not learning but critical.
    Being eager to learn is good for absorb knowlege of others, which is soon out-of-date after original creators created new knowlege. learner is always at passive and place after others
    Being critical is vital to make improvement on knowleges created by yourself and others.
    Being critical, one will not look at glorious past but better future.
    Being critical and so sceptical will stop you from following rumor.
    Critial spirital can only thrive when gods can be challenged and thrown out of power. Darwin did that for western society.
    The cause of Islam fall is lslam itself. Trust god without reason and evidence is the warm bed to grow irrational and unsceptical mob.

  26. Hyder Ali Bhayo says:

    Hyder Ali Bhayo.
    What ever has written about rumours by Hussain is true. Once a friend of mine sent me a sms to me that a figure of Prophet Mohammad has been made on a road in America. When I asked my friend did u see this ur self. He replied no. Some body sent men and I sent it to you. So I deleted the sms and told him too not to send any on again.

  27. Hello. magnificent job. I did not expect this.

    This is a fantastic story. Thanks!

  28. 3m says:

    What is really going on in the Muslim world.I don’t know killing each other,raping women………….In India Muslim girls are seen married at the age of 15 just to increase population,pathetic situation women are facing through their entire life.Islams real ‘enemies’ are not Jews , Christians,Hindus or America but women.Just imagine what changes could happen to these radical Islamists if women could ‘regain’ their status.The more you suppress womanhood the more they are going to achieve just not now but in the future.

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