The Kapali Carsi

Why Muslims fell behind economically

I really do not know if Muslims were in the Americas three centuries before Christopher Columbus, as President Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first claimed, and then vehemently defended, last week.

They may well have been. After all, before falling behind, Islamic civilization was at least as advanced as Christian medieval Europe. Economist Angus Maddison has calculated the Middle East’s share of the world gross domestic product to be 10 percent in the year 1000, compared to Europe’s 9 percent. In 1700, the Middle East’s share had fallen to 2 percent and Europe’s had risen to 22 percent. What happened?

That’s the question I try to answer in my latest Hurriyet Daily News (HDN) column. You can read the whole thing at the HDN website. I have a couple of additional points to make, but before that, I shoudl tell you that the motivation comes from fellow HDN columnist Mustafa Akyol’s most recent Al-Monitor op-ed, where he writes: “…the re-discovery of the golden age of the Islamic civilization (7th-13th centuries), when Muslims indeed had many advances and inventions in science, philosophy and medicine, is indeed valuable and important. But even more crucial is to question why this brilliant era was followed by stagnation — as dogmatism replaced reason and insularity replaced cosmopolitanism. Unless the “why we declined” question is seriously addressed, boasting of past glory will not help Muslims much.” Reading through this, I suddenly remembered that Kuran’s book was in my to-read list for three years, and I decided to read it over the weekend for the column.

Please note that Kuran’s explanation for why Muslims fell behind is not the only one. Some emphasize the role of climate and geography. Daron Acemoglu, another Turkish economist, and his co-author for “Why Nations Fail” James Robinson would argue it is extractive vs. inclusive political institutions, as summarized by Martin Wolf in his review of their book. I am not saying because they are Turkish:), but IMHO the Kuran and Acemoglu explanations are the most plausible ones on why Muslims fell behind. It was probably a combination of both. An anti-development legal system followed by extractive institutions in the Ottoman times- and there goes Erdogan’s claim that the Middle East was such a wonderful place to live in under the Ottomans down the drain:)

Last but not the least, I have a surprise for anyone who managed to read this post all the way here: There is a wordplay at the last sentence of the column, and I have a surprise present for anyone who can tell me what that wordplay is. Hint: You would need to speak both English and Turkish rather fluently as well as be somewhat knowledgeable in ornithology- even though effective use of Google might work as well:). And I planted another clue somewhere in this post as well…

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