Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 22: The Present

Copyright ©2012 by T. Pavlidis

The Wrong Question: "What Went Wrong?"

A thousand years ago the Middle East was ahead of Western Europe in civilization by most measures while the opposite is true today. What has kept the Middle Eastern states back? This question has been asked and answered by several authors and all seem to focus on the role of Islam. In my opinion the best (being both concise and precise) exposure of this view is the book "What Went Wrong?" by Bernard Lewis [BL02b], published soon after the 9/11 attacks (although it was written before them).

I like to present here a different explanation that focuses not on religion but on the political powers of the region. The key argument for blaming Islam is that Islam does not recognize separation of church and state while Christianity does. In my opinion this a very weak argument. While, some parts of the Gospels do seem to support such a separation, they have been usually ignored and state and religion have been integrated during most of European history (see Chapter 4). Christianity was already a "state within a state" by the time the Roman emperor Constantine decided to rely on it as a way of holding his empire together. The Roman Catholic church maintained a privileged position in Italy and, especially, in Spain well into the 20th century. The concept of separation of church and state does not appear until the American Revolution and even today, it is the subject of controversy in the United States. In this context, it is worth remembering that when it first appeared Islam was a more liberal religion than the Christianity of that era (Chapter 6). The Arab Golden Age demonstrates that Islam encouraged both economic and cultural development much more than Christianity did (Chapter 8).

The use of religion or ideology to enforce thought control has been popular amongst autocratic regimes starting with the Persian empire whose state religion was Zoroastrianism (Chapter 5). The 20th century has seen autocratic states using ideology: Nazism in Hitler's Germany, Marxism in the Soviet Union, and "Mao's Thought" in China. Both Christianity and Islam have been used by rulers for their similar ends. Thus instead of focusing on the particular religion or ideology we should look for the conditions that allow the emergence and perpetuation of autocratic regimes.

Rather than asking what "went wrong" in the Middle East, the proper question to ask is what "went right" in Western Europe. That region moved not only ahead of the Middle East but also ahead of China that until the 15th century was more advanced than Western Europe. The short answer is that in contrast to China and the Middle East, Western Europe consisted of several warring states.

What Went Right for Western Europe

The idea that the warring states of Europe can be credited for the advancement of European Civilization has been put forth by, among others, the historian Niall Ferguson [1]. In general rulers do not like any change because it may undermine their authority. Thus an autocratic state is likely to be conservative. This holds true not only about states about about companies as well.

However, a state (or a company) may embrace change if that change is going to give it an edge over another, hostile, state (or a competitor). It is essentially a trade-off between defeating external enemies (using the products of change) and encouraging internal enemies (as a result of the change). In the Middle East the mighty Ottoman empire faced no external threats until late in the 17th century, thus it paid for its rulers to be conservative. By the time the Ottoman rulers thought of importing new ways from the West (Chapter 18) the course had been set and it was difficult to alter it.

Absolute rulers are detrimental to progress in another way. They discourage activities such as manufacture and commerce because they may enrich some of their subjects who then may pause a challenge to the rulers. It is no coincidence that in the Ottoman empire commerce was in the hands of religious minorities rather than Muslims (Chapter 18). Wealthy Christians or Jews were posing less of a threat to the sultan then wealthy Muslims because the former were handicapped by their "infidel" status.

In Western Europe the Crusades had the effect of weakening the local rulers who had no choice but to allow activities of their subjects that contributed to creation of wealth (Chapter 12). Ironically, the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans encouraged another European development, the search for an alternative route to India.

Table 1: Some Noteworthy Events and People in Western Europe
1291Founding of Swiss Republic
circa 1300 Painter Giotto (1266-1337) ushers the Renaissance by breaking away from Byzantine style.
circa 1450 Invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (1398-1450)
1492 First voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
1497 First voyage of Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) who circumnavigated Africa.
1450-1516 Life of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch
1452-1519 Life of Leonardo da Vinci
1483-1546 Life of religious reformer Martin Luther
1509-1564 Life of religious reformer John Calvin
1564-1642 Life of Galileo
1571-1630 Life of Kepler
1606-1669 Life of Dutch painter Rembrandt
1687 Isaac Newton (1642-1727) publishes his major work Principia Mathematica.
1581-1795Dutch Republic

Table 1 lists some noteworthy events and people in Western Europe during the four centuries after the Crusades. It starts around the same time as the founding of the Ottoman empire and ends around the time of the first major Ottoman defeat in Vienna. There was an artistic revolution, a religious revolution, a scientific revolution, the start of geographical exploration, the foundation of two republics, one of whom still exists. Nothing like that happened elsewhere in the world.

It was only under sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730) that the Ottomans made an effort to learn from the advances of the West (Chapter 17) but by that time had missed four centuries of development. Even then, there was opposition to "copying the ways of the infidels" and it was only in 1922 that the new Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk took modernization seriously (Chapter 21). By that time the Middle East had missed six centuries of development.

Even more important than the specific advances in Western Europe there was a change in attitude in the 17th century that is encapsulated by the word Enlightenment. Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of our Nature [2] credits the Enlightenment with ushering a Humanitarian Revolution. The following is a quote from his book (page 143).

The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus for moral values was helped by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny the difference between life and death ..., but it takes indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after it has parted company from the body. The 17th century is called the Age of Reason, an age when writers began to insist that beliefs be justified by experience and logic. That undermines dogmas about souls and salvation ...

It is beyond the scope of these notes to search for all the reasons, besides competition, that all these advances happened in Western Europe and not elsewhere in the world. The key point is that Western Europe broke away from many ancient restrictions and moved ahead while the rest of the counties of the world remained behind. It was not the West that kept these countries back. By the time "western imperialism" manifested itself in the late 15th century there have been two hundred years of development.

We may also note that Northwestern Europe moved even farther ahead than countries in Southern Europe such as Italy and Spain. The defeat of the Spanish fleet by the English in 1588 may be seen as a cause of the Spanish decline although some historians argue that the decline had already occurred and the defeat was a consequence rather than a cause of the decline. The advanced development of Northwestern Europe has been shared by countries that started as colonies of the region, namely the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. For convenience we shall refer to them as "the English speaking world."

The Byzantine-Ottoman Legacy

We discussed earlier how the Ottomans adopted many of the Byzantine customs (Chapter 13) so that it makes sense to talk about a Byzantine-Ottoman legacy. The Byzantine traditions are particularly relevant to the Orthodox Christian subjects of the empire, the members of the Rum MIllet.

Greece and the other Balkan countries broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century but while there was a political change, social attitudes could not be changed overnight and continued to be bedevil these countries till the present times. There were several articles in the press during the Greek debt crises that pointed out to the Ottoman past of the country as responsible for its present problems [3, 4], The following two paragraphs are from [4].

Here’s the problem: Even though it’s the birthplace of democracy, Greece has a poorly developed sense of civic responsibility. If you volunteer for something, you’re a sucker. If you pick up your garbage, or, god forbid, anyone else’s, you’re a fool. With few exceptions, ..., the culture embraces the view that you take care of your immediate family and the rest of society be damned.

The real ancestor of today’s Greece is not some Athenian holding a scroll of philosophical wisdom. It’s Karagiozis, the main character in the traditional shadow theater that’s performed in Athens even now. Karagiozis is a poor Greek man living under the rule of an Ottoman Vizir. He has a long left arm, the better to slip into people’s pockets with. He’s always trying to outwit the Vizir, and he’s always being beaten for his pains. Karagiozis — conniving, downtrodden, miserable — is the model for Greece. And the fact that Greeks themselves embrace this tells us that Greece’s troubles are both larger and more essential than the press and the politicians have understood.

The fact Greece is still suffering from the Byzantine-Ottoman legacy shows how serious is the problem for the Arab countries. These countries were freed from Ottoman rule at the end of World War I but they did not become independent. Instead they became possessions of England and France. They did not gain full independence until after World War II, less than 70 years ago.

The Western rule of the Arab countries in the three decades after World War I had the pernicious effect of associating Western Europe with oppression and thus raised one more obstacle to the adoption of Western ideas in that part of the world.

Turkey moved ahead right after World War I because of the leadership of Kemal Ataturk who instituted a secular state (Chapter 21). Either as a result of earlier start or of inspired leadership Turkey, Greece, and the other Balkan countries have achieved a degree of modernity that is lacking from the Arab countries that have stayed even closer to their Byzantine-Ottoman past. The first group of these countries have been holding parliamentary elections, have reasonably free press, and equal rights for men and women, at least in the urban areas. The Arab countries tend to be one party states without a free press and lagging in human rights.

Some Statistics

The World Bank publishes a ranking of countries by gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity per capita [5]. Fifteen of the top 20 countries were in Northwest or Central Europe or the English speaking world. (The other five were very small countries that have high income either because of oil or because of banking.) France, Spain, and Italy were ranked 24, 25, and 26.

Greece and Slovenia were ranked 31 and 32, Turkey was ranked 54 and with one exception the rest of the Balkan countries were in the 47-72 range. The exception was Albania that was ranked 84. If we exclude the major oil producers, the highest ranked Arab country was Lebanon ranked 62 followed by Tunisia ranked 87. The next highest non oil producer was Egypt, ranked 100.

The United Nations computes a Human Development Index (HDI) [6] and the top eleven countries in 2011 were either in Western Europe or the English speaking world. France was ranked 20, Spain 23, and Italy 24. Slovenia was ranked 21, Greece 29, and most of the other Balkan countries (including Albania) were in the 50-70 range. Turkey was ranked 100, Egypt 113, and Syria 128.

A third relevant statistic is the Corruption Perceptions index (CPI) [7] published by Transparency International (TI), a non-governmental organization. For 2011 sixteen of the top countries were from Western Europe or the English speaking world. Interestingly, the United States ranked only 24. France was 25, Spain 31, and Italy 69! Slovenia was 35 but Greece was 80. Turkey was 61 and most of the other Balkan countries were in the 60-90 range. Jordan was 56, Tunisia 73, Egypt and Algeria (as well as several other countries) were tied at 112. Syria was 129 and Iraq 175 (no doubt because of the upheaval of the war).

While Slovenia is considered part of the Balkans (it was part of the former Yugoslavia), it was never part of the Ottoman Empire and in the rankings occupies a place between the other Balkan countries and Western Europe. Tunisia became part of the Ottoman empire in 1574, later than the other Arab countries and was taken over by France in 1881. In the ranking occupies a place well ahead of most other Arab countries and it is probably no coincidence that the Arab Spring revolt of 2011 started there.

One can argue about the reliability of such rankings but they tend to agree with each other and indicate that the longer a country was under Ottoman rule the worse off is today. The rankings on corruption also suggest that a particular religion is not a significant factor. Christian Greece and Italy are well below Muslim Turkey and Muslim Tunisia is ahead of Greece.

We can try now a rather unscientific way of lumping these results together by simply adding the three rankings for each country and ranking them according to the sum as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Ranking of Certain Countries by Sums of Rankings in GDP/C, HDI, and CPI
(GDP per capital, Human Development Index, and Corruption Perception Index)

1 Switzerland
8+11+8 = 27
3+26+5 = 34
United States
7+4+24 = 35
17+9+14 = 40
23+12+14 = 49
30+17+36 = 83
Korea (South)
29+15+43 = 87
32+21+35 = 88
26+24+69 = 119
31+29+80 = 140
54+92+61 = 207
75+84+73 = 232
87+94+73 = 254
95+101+75 = 271
100+113+112 = 325
138+156+143 = 437

In spite of the ad-hoc way that we used to construct Table 2 the results seem to fit popular perceptions about the quality of life of the average citizen in each country. Few people will argue with the result that Switzerland is first and Nigeria last in this group of countries. Also the relative rankings of Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt do not seem controversial. The relatively low ranking of Italy may reflect the backwardness of its southern part that was part of the Byzantine empire for a long time.

Two Far Eastern countries, Singapore and Japan, are at roughly the same level as Western European countries and one, South Korea, lags only slightly. Again, few people would argue about Japan although there may be disagreement about the other two countries.

What the Far East tells us about Middle East

I believe it was Bernard Lewis who first compared Aden and Singapore. Both were bases for the British navy and after the British left Singapore thrives while Aden languishes. What is special about the Far Eastern countries that have emulated the West? Japan was the first one to modernize and its society was characterized by adherence to honor codes that prescribed the behavior of all individuals, including the rulers. The rule of law, as opposed to the whim of the ruler, was also characteristic of Western Europe in the period of development. (The Magna Carta was granted in 1215.) Both Northern Europe and Japan had been seen as places of barbarians compared to the Roman/Byzantine and Chinese empires. Gibbon has observed that barbarian kings while absolute they were also accountable and could be deposed when things went wrong.

In short, Northern Europe and Japan, as a result of their "primitive" status held their rulers to accountability while the Middle Eastern and Chinese empires enforced no such limits. The historian Ian Morris [8] has argued about the advantages of the "laggards". For example, he writes (p. 500).

Eighteenth-century western Europe was better placed than any earlier society ... (to advance) ...; within western Europe, the northwest — with its weaker kings and freer merchants — was better placed than the southwest ...

(Emphasis added.)

There is another difference between the Far East and Europe. The Far East never had official religions. The idea that a person can have a religious identity (Christian, Muslim, etc) is alien to them. A person may worship in the temple of a different deity on different dates. In modern Japan, people prefer to have a Buddhist funeral and a Shinto wedding. State imposed religious orthodoxies may include rules that defy logic and as a result force people to do unreasonable things. Of course the same is true about about state imposed political ideologies and the devastating effects of Marxism are well known.

Ultimately, the key obstacle to progress is arbitrary rulers who may or may not use an ideology or religion to justify their whims. The lack of responsibility on the part of the ruler propagates to the rest of the society and we have the sorry state of affairs described in the section on the Byzantine-Ottoman legacy.

Note that this argument does not require a country to have democracy in order to progress. The key requirement is the rule of law. There are many nominal democracies that are quite backward.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Arab-Israeli conflict is often cited as the main of cause of problems in the Middle East. I find this argument absurd. Israel is a very small country, having only a tiny fraction of the area and population of the region. At worse, one can say that Israel has mistreated and/or is mistreating the Arabs in its territory and the region it occupies. But why would this interfere with the development of countries such as Libya or Algeria or Iraq?

While many Arabs left Israel in 1949, that country absorbed Jews from Arab countries so what happened was, in effect, a population exchange not unlike the one between Greece and Turkey 25 years earlier. Greek and Turkish leaders tried to put the 1919-22 war behind them and move on towards meeting the many challenges both countries faced while the Arab countries of the region decided to keep the issue alive as an excuse for not facing the real challenges of development and modernization.

Table 2 suggests another reason for the reaction of the Arab governments. Israel is a modern country, on par with many countries of western Europe. Its presence may remind the citizens of other countries of the region that there is another way of life. By demonizing Israel, Arab governments are essentially demonizing modernity.

The current situation in the Middle East with its focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict reminds me of the poem Waiting for the Barbarians [9] by the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy. The poem was published in 1904 and here are a few of its lines (emphasis added):

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.
Why don't the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
Why all of a sudden this unrest and confusion?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Of course, the use of made up issues by politicians to avoid tackling real problems is not limited to the Middle East. One has to witness only the 2012 presidential debates in the United States.


  1. Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Penguin, 2011.
  2. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, Viking, 2011.
  3. Commentary on Radio Boston Feb. 15, 2012 by Henriette Lazaridis Power.
    article by Harris Mylonas.
  8. Ian Morris, Why the West Rules - For Now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
  9. You can find the full text of the English translation of Waiting for the Barbarians in several web sites including the following: (this site presents the poem in the context of the modern political crises). This is part of the official archive of the poet's work:
First Posted: April 2, 2012. Latest Revision: April 7, 2012.

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