Estimated to cost as much as $200 billion, the plan for rebuilding post-war Iraq is astounding in its scope–from repairing roads and sewer systems to revamping the Iraqi government payroll system and printing school textbooks. Yet no one is paying attention to the deepest foundations needed to support a free and prosperous society. What the Arab world really needs is not a transfusion of foreign money, but a transfusion of crucial Western ideas.
Although the Middle East has abundant supplies of oil and other resources, its people are shockingly poor. This is true not only of Iraq, but also of most of its neighbors. In Muslim countries from Morocco to Bangladesh, the average annual income is only half that of the world average.
Tyranny by monarchs, clerics, or dictators is the norm. Censorship of the press is flagrant, even in so-called moderate countries like Egypt. There is no rule of law, and in the few places that claim to have representative government, it is mere window dressing. Syria’s laws, for instance, guarantee the fascist Baath party two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
The plight of the Middle East is not an accident. It is born of and reinforced by certain ideas: the precepts of Islam, which subordinate reason to faith and the individual to the collective.
In Islam piety demands the total surrender of one’s life to Allah–and to those claiming to be His representatives on earth. In practice a Muslim has no right to his own life. Whatever he earns from his effort is his only in trust and by permission; all wealth belongs to Allah. To purify himself from the supposedly base activity of earning a living, a Muslim is required by Islamic law to pay “zakat,” an alms tax owed to his community. Property rights are anathema to Islam. The individual’s life and values may be sacrificed to the needs and claims of his family, clan, tribe–or ruler.
Most fundamentally, however, it is his mind–his rational judgment–that a Muslim must surrender in order to demonstrate his faith in his religion’s key tenets. Muslims may eat at McDonald’s, listen to rock-and-roll, and wear Western fashions; but these are only superficial changes masking a deep-seated hostility to any idea that contradicts the dictates of traditional Muslim faith–to “Westoxification,” as they call it.
But to subordinate reason to faith is to chain the individual’s mind, allowing only repetition of dogma and obedience to authority. Two statistics capture both the extent of the Arab world’s self-enforced insularity and its consequences. Since the 9th century the Arab world has translated about 100,000 books from other languages–slightly fewer than are translated into Spanish in a single year. The result: in 1999 the combined Gross Domestic Product of all Arab countries, even counting the vast wealth generated by oil, was $531 billion–slightly less than the wealth generated by Spain alone.
While life in the West has become longer and safer thanks to galloping advances in science, science and technology in the Arab-Islamic world have stagnated. Though Egypt has nearly 70 million inhabitants, it has only 3,782 active research scientists–while Israel, the lone Western state in the region, has fewer than 6 million people but more than 11,000 research scientists, and is noted for its high-tech industries.
The pitiful state of Arab science, the tyrannies, the economic misery–these all stem from the Muslims’ rejection of a cardinal Western value: reason. Rationality means a dedication to basing one’s conclusions only on evidence and logic–and respect for reason entails respect for the individual’s mind and thus for his freedom to think and to control his own life.
Respect for reason reached its height in the West during America’s founding era, the 18th-century Enlightenment. After centuries of struggle the Enlightenment thinkers sidelined religion and allowed science and reason to flourish. The West made room for the self-assertion and rational confidence of a scientist whose discovery contradicts received opinions, or a businessman whose practices turn his industry on its head. The result was the Industrial Revolution and a culture still propelled by a torrent of innovations that have raised our standard of living to glorious new heights–from the horse-drawn buggy to routine air travel to the ability to land a man on the moon.
If it is to enjoy prosperity and freedom–and if it is to be a long-term ally of the United States–the new Iraq needs to share in this intellectual legacy and learn the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s respect for reason.