Hot on the heels of the pro-secular movement in Turkey over the past few weeks comes news of a less tolerant variation in the case of Malaysia, where a court this week struck down the request of a Muslim woman to convert to Christianity, ruling that her only option is to appeal to the sharia (Islamic law) courts. The incident occurred barely two weeks after a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man was forcibly separated from him and jailed. In both cases, the courts have played to the galleries of the Islamic bumiputera (ethnic Malay) contingent.

Anyone wishing to dismiss the importance of the above news must bear in mind that Malaysia is a role model for most developing Muslim countries, especially given its record of generating employment for millions of Muslims in areas far removed from oil extraction – a feat that deserves closer inspection, but we will come to that later.

In light of Malaysia’s rejection of the religious rights of its own citizens in a supposedly democratic society, the incident raises broader questions with respect to the assimilation of Muslims, as well as the right socioeconomic model that underpins development. In a previous article, I wrote about the economic reasons for the Taliban’s failure in Afghanistan. [1] This article explores the subject in greater detail, albeit within a broader context.

Deja vu

From time immemorial, nations have been founded on principles akin to unity against diversity. As I wrote in the aforementioned article, economic structures have always played a big part in constructing social organizations, which in turn dictated the most appropriate political form for the state. The structure of ancient Greek states, for example, shows the difference between states with poor resources that necessitated pyramidal societies organized on military lines (Sparta) and the freewheeling societies formed by the plenty provided by trading (Athens).

Western scholars have been habitually critical of Islam as a political movement, criticizing the cohabitation of state and religion. I reject woolly notions of Islamic backwardness that are based on a false understanding of secularism, but do recognize the points made by the likes of John Gray [2] that dwell more wholesomely on the subject. To study this in more detail, though, perhaps a diversion away from weighty religious matters to more mundane matters of economics is called for.

For most people in Asia, perhaps the epitome of such differentiation as a matter of history is the Japanese nation, albeit for reasons more negative than positive if you happen to live outside Japan. As a country faced with an economic decline due mainly to its inability to adjust its social organization to new realities, Japan appears perennially drawn toward nostalgia, as the recent success of books exhorting the precepts of nihonjinron [3] elucidate.

Does the notion of an Islamic Nation merit more than a casual examination? The most commonly used word to describe the notion is ummah, an Arabic word meaning “community” or “nation”. The Arabic origin of the word underscores the notion that Islam has been abused for many decades as an extension of Arab nationalism, and consequently failed to absorb the essence of other modern societies that it seeks to overrun.

The notion of radical Islam being a modern movement that attempts to organize the state on authoritarian lines makes both historical and economic sense. This is why the first thing apologists for tyrannical Arab regimes do is repeat the saying that a year of anarchy is worse than a hundred in a tyranny. However, that is not the central problem with the arrangement. Rather, it is the potential disconnect with the underlying economy, which presents greater potential for discord over the medium term. In other words, secular societies “work” because underlying economic organization allows them – indeed, forces them – to separate religion from state.

It is here that radical Islam fails to make the case. When removed from its agrarian or military origins and plonked into the modern world requiring frequent interactions with other communities, competitive industries and innovative thinking, it is secular countries that outrun their unilateralist counterparts. The difference between the economic performance of South Asian states highlights this view, and emphatically so. As an example, Wahhabi notions of restricting the economic participation of women simply do not work in resource-poor states [4] and thus cause the maternalistic societies of Bangladesh significantly to outperform Talibanized parts of Afghanistan.

Going back to Arab societies, we can see the rampant failure of such countries in generating employment for their citizens, despite billions of dollars secured in oil revenues. Because of the disconnect between economic realities and political organization, Arab states have had to focus on keeping alive external threats purely for their own sustenance. Thus a system that may have worked well before has failed to stand the test of time in its countries of origin. Instead of responding positively to the problem, Arab states have largely chosen to go down the Luddite path, ie, to disengage from the rest of the world.

That context is useful in examining the most recent events with which I started the article, in Malaysia. That country’s politics are increasingly characterized by discord, as economic realities have cast gloom on assertive-action programs. As I wrote previously, [5] the national car companies in Malaysia are economic failures, but the government’s decision to award plum management jobs and dealerships to ethnic Malays has perversely concentrated the adverse impact of the failure on the very people who were supposed to benefit from its success. With similar stories abounding, the country needs to recognize the value of its minority groups if it is to achieve economic progress. That is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone brought up on a steady jinron diet, which explains the most recent backlash against social “contamination” of the Malay dreams.

Sticky end to nihonjinron

Muslims who still hanker after the Islam-jinron school of thought must stop and think about how their intellectual forebear fared. nihonjinron was stopped dead in its tracks twice, first by an external conflict that saw two of Japan’s biggest cities being nuked, and the second time by a rapid decline in stock and property markets during the 1990s that spelled the end of the country’s economic miracle.

Today’s multifarious movements such as al-Qaeda point the way to the first outcome, namely a military conflagration that threatens to wipe out millions of Muslims in years to come. The failures of Malaysia’s economic system of favoritism toward its Muslim majority portend exactly the same kind of market decline that the Japanese confronted 20 years ago due to the inefficient organizations that they created as showcases of how Japan worked differently.

Perhaps another way exists, as shown by the 1868 Meiji Restoration that saw an end to the code of the Samurai and in turn unleashed the forces of modernization. That it was centrally directed with an objective to prevent a takeover of Japan by colonial forces is almost beside the point for today’s Muslims. That it ended the wasteful ways of the Samurai and brought in its wake rapid industrialization that helped to lift millions of Japanese from servitude and poverty is the main point.

As with all good deeds, though, it also carried its own punishment, namely the increasing militarization that was necessitated by Western responses to Japan’s search for resources, in turn leading to the participation of the country in World War II. Muslims fearing that outcome can, however, rest assured in the knowledge that other countries, including China and India, stand before them in the development queue, and would bear the brunt of Western “retaliation” – and perhaps do so with greater success than the Japanese managed.

1. It’s the money, honey, Asia Times Online, December 22, 2006.
2. Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern by John Gray, 2003.
3. Eg The Dignity of a State by Masahiko Fujiwara, 2005. Simply put, nihonjinron is a theory based on the uniqueness and homogeneity of Japanese culture and society. For a more detailed explanation, click here.
4. See Love your children, those little terrors, ATol, November 4, 2006.
5. Lifting the hood on the car industry, ATol, May 19.