Why is the Middle East Backward?

Published on NYTimes’ The Opinion Page /Blog: On the Ground, by Nicholas Kristof, March 5, 2011.

… Many Westerners think the basic problem is Islam’s inherent incompatibility with capitalism. And many Arabs and other Muslims think the basic problem is Western colonialism and exploitation. I argue, based on a fascinating new book and the research it discusses, that the best answer is: none of the above. And I hope the upheavals in the Middle East will be able to move beyond this paralyzing debate. Instead of just talking about why development hasn’t happened, let’s see if we can make it happen. 

I think there’s a bit of a parallel with China. For centuries, China stagnated — it’s per capita income was actually lower at the time of the Communist revolution in 1949 than it had been at the end of the Song Dynasty in 1290. Many Westerners and Chinese alike blamed Confucianism in part for China’s problems, and there were indeed some reasons why this was a plausible judgment. But then since 1978 China boomed, and now it’s common to hear that a Confucian heritage is one reason East Asia has done so well economically. Again, there are Confucian elements (such as an emphasis on education) why that is a plausible judgment. And with Turkey and Indonesia doing so well economically, it seems to me hard to argue that Islam is an inherent obstacle to capitalist success and modernization … (full text).


The Women’s Crusade, on NYTimes’ The Opinion Page /Blog: On the Ground, by Nicholas Kristof, August 17, 2009;

A School Bus for Shamsia, on NYTimes / Magazine, by DEXTER FILKINS, August 17, 2009.

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