Selected lyrics of the song “Russians” by Sting: [1]

… We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too …

Max Weber designated sovereignty to be a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In Muslim societies across Asia, [2] this maxim has been perverted with the use of force being legitimized by the establishment of sovereignty. Rather than far-fetched notions of holy wars and the ultimate battle between good and evil, this trend merely marks the transition of power between the youth of Islam and the older generation – put simply, being unable to participate in economic growth forces Arab and other Islamic youth to focus on regime change, with unfortunate consequences for the rest of the world.

The singer Sting wrote the lyrics I quote above many years ago, at a time when the Cold War was still peaking. In the current environment, it’s perhaps appropriate to replace “Russian” with “Muslims” – and equally for Muslims to replace the term with any phrase of their liking such as “Indians” or “Americans”.

That unforgiving environment for mistakes, China, has its act together in terms of ushering in prosperity for millions of people using aggressive industrialization. The Indian private sector has a long way to go before it overcomes the limitations posed by the country’s government and a competitive China, but it does have the luxury of a strong workforce to fall back on. Assuming that India does continue its recent strong economic-growth trajectory, the competitive landscape away from natural resources for Islamic societies is dire.

Confronted with the competitive dynamos of China and an emerging India, Islamic societies have to run many times as fast just to catch up with these juggernauts. Failure to do so will only produce more disaffected youth, which is a prime ingredient in the recipe for global terrorism.

That many of these societies have not even peaked demographically yet adds a layer of both opportunity and urgency to this issue. Countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan are not expected to reach their demographic peaks in the foreseeable future, which means the production of young people with precious little to do will be a structural rather than transitional problem for these societies. This is very different from the experience of China, which has already peaked, and India, which will peak in the next 10 years.

WDR, and its implications

The World Development Report for 2007 [3] makes for gripping reading. Okay, so I lied; it’s actually one of the usual statistics-heavy-but-ideas-light publications that multilateral agencies so often produce. Away from the insomnia-curing potential of the WDR, its most important implication may lie in understanding the risks posed to world society by the underdevelopment of Muslim youth across Asia.

Fortunately for the uninterested reader, in which category I include every single head of state from New Delhi to Riyadh, the basic premise is formed quite early – to wit, the interplay of three “lenses”, viz Opportunities, Capabilities and Second Chances, to the sustenance of youth-friendly policies.

Where Islamic societies falter

The unemployment rate for younger people is always higher than that for older people, but we can also note that many Islamic societies provide very few opportunities for this situation to change. First, the quality of opportunities provided to youth is more limited in many Islamic societies as compared with those of South and East Asia, simply because of the differences in the quality of education.

Thus while India may well have a lower literacy rate than a typical Islamic society in the Middle East, its educated are more likely to have employable skills, where the products of Islamic education systems are often overly reliant on religious studies. This makes them useful for employment in religious schools, but not IT (information technology) companies. The subject of education is an important one for Islamic societies to ponder, particularly given their opposition to the teaching of many modern scientific theories such as Darwin’s theory of evolution/natural selection.

Second, too often Islamic societies do not provide the right means for people in general, and youth in particular, to communicate with their governments. The absence of democracy in Islamic societies is well documented; existing autocracies run by military-religious leaders all too often do not have the foresight or the moral courage to implement educational reforms, nor provide the scope for social reforms that could provide the basis for improving education.


The above two issues transcend immediately into the world of Capabilities, which is WDR-speak for decision-making and civic participation. Within feudal societies, both Islamic and Confucian, the power of the patriarch encompasses all important decisions from education and work to marriage. This reduces the participation of youth in their own families, and being unable to express rebellion within the confines of four walls of their homes usually pushes youth toward extremism. Osama bin Laden was the product of one such family, as were many of his key lieutenants.

The subject of Capabilities also covers many other topics, including access to information and quality control of education. Its key point, though, is access to resources, which is where Arab societies fail grandly. I wrote briefly on this subject in a previous post, [4] wherein I argued that the venality of the ruling Saudi family and the absence of a financial infrastructure prevented the development of any innovative enterprises in Saudi Arabia. The same observation holds true for the rest of the Middle East, as well as other Islamic societies such as Pakistan. The key exceptions to this trend, such as Iran and Bangladesh, have specific infrastructure in place to obviate the ills of feudal systems, although the system of micro-credit [5] provides a growth edge compared with the social-revolution approach of the Iranians.

Second Chance Saloon

By far the most important framework discussed in the WDR that I find lacking in Islamic societies is the question of providing second chances. Given that not enough youth are educated in the useful subjects, and too few have access to financial and human capital, the question of second chances becomes all too important. Without optimal economic growth (by which I mean increases in per capita income without the Gini coefficient widening) to serve as a tide that lifts all boats, disaffected youth are left with few options but to consider leaving society altogether.

Heart-rending stories from such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq talk of families discovering the transition of individuals from unemployed youths to terrorists all too late. Given the absence of democratic institutions, and feudal cultures where the scope for dissent within families is too limited, it comes as little surprise that many middle-class Muslims opt to join global terrorist networks. [5]

What can be done

Kamal Ataturk earned near-universal opprobrium from his countrymen when he banned the fez (then-traditional headgear) on ascending to power in Turkey in 1925. As a master of social symbolism, Ataturk’s motive was not accidental, but rather to emphasize the need for modernity in Turkey. Confronted with the economic demons of China and India, Islamic societies have no option but to adopt radical changes to their development economics.

Any change will have to start with the dismantling of religious schools that provide incomplete education in the modern economic context. The second big change will have to be social, in allowing a greater flow of information from the apparently decadent West as well as East and South Asia. The last change will be in the area of government, with greater direct participation seen as the key cure for engaging new generations.

Many Muslim scholars cite the backwardness of the West during the Dark Ages, when Islamic culture flourished and Europe was reduced to a series of vassal states. They proclaim themselves as the carriers of Asian civilization to Europe, as the people from whom the Europeans learned everything they now hold dear about the sciences and the arts. The biggest point for such scholars to remember now is that the Europeans did.

1. Sometimes even the most hard-boiled among us have to use mushy pop lyrics to get a point across.
2. And a few non-Muslim ones, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.
3. World Development Report 2007, “Development and the Next Generation”, published September 2006.
4. In-Sen!, Asia Times Online, September 16.
5. A capital alternative to terror, Asia Times Online, October 21; the WDR makes a positive reference to the micro-credit movement.