At a conference in Kuala Lumpur on Muslim economics, I was given a vision of a burgeoning "Islamic Calvinism"by David Goodhart / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Malaysia wants to be a beacon to the Muslim world. It wants to show that a marriage of Islamic piety and liberal modernity—and in particular economic growth—is possible. To hear how it plans to lead Islam out of economic sloth (Islamic countries account for almost 20 per cent of the world’s population but only 6 per cent of income) I flew to Kuala Lumpur a couple of weeks ago to attend a conference with the unpromising title of “Implementing the economic agenda of the Muslim world.”
Can there be a specifically Muslim economic agenda? Surely the problems of Muslim sub-Saharan Africa, of Pakistan and of Indonesia are all so different as to make a nonsense of the idea of a specifically Muslim economic agenda?
Listening to Muslim grandees quoting the Koran at each other on the platform at Hotel Nikko did little to ease my scepticism. But a leading French academic, a veteran of these events, explained to me that at a conference dominated by Muslim norms and concerns it is harder for officials and politicians to spend the whole time blaming the west instead of facing up to their own failings. He also said that between the lines, some very important things were being said from the platform. There was certainly a robust discussion of Islamic patriarchy and women’s rights led by some indignant Muslim women. And our self-effacing host, Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, coined the no-nonsense epithet: “A lazy Muslim cannot be a good Muslim.”
So is a new Islamic Calvinism possible? Surely the tradition-bound Koranic literalism of so much of the Muslim world is a powerful restraint on both science/technology and on entrepreneurialism, two of the key drivers of development. And yet a fundamentalist belief in the literal truth of the Bible did not prevent the Calvinists acting as the European capitalist avant-garde four centuries ago. And if authoritarianism itself were an obstacle to growth, neither China nor most of the Asian tigers would ever have taken off.
Islam, I discovered, may have stumbled upon a new economic motor in the shape of Islamic finance. I used to think that Islamic finance was a slightly absurd game—a means to respect the Koranic prohibition on usury by dressing up interest payments as something else, usually fees. It turns it out that it is rather more than that; in fact, it has spawned a big and…