Whenever Muslims look at their economic, political and cultural decline, they are prone to see the hidden hand of western imperialists and Zionist expansionists. This is easier than looking at our own failings when seeking answers.
But recently, a group of Arab intellectuals have put their own world under an unsparing microscope and have raised some deeply troubling issues to explain why the Arab world is where it is. Many of the answers to these questions apply equally to Pakistan, so their findings contained in "Arab Human Development Report 2002", published recently by the United Nations Development Programme, deserves serious study by all those who would like to do something to change the status quo, rather than just whinge about it.
Consider, for instance, the fact that the combined exports of the entire Arab world minus oil revenues are less than tiny Finland's. The combined GDP of the countries comprising the Arab League is 531 billion dollars or less than Spain's. Despite their oil wealth, Arab countries have not fared well economically: over the last two decades, income per capita has grown at 0.5 per cent per year. 12 million people, or 15 per cent of the working population, are unemployed.
But more than economics, it is the prevailing attitudes and the quality of governance that are holding back much of the Muslim world. According to the conclusion reached by the authors of the report (and quoted by the Economist), "The barrier to better Arab performance is not a lack of resources ... but the lamentable shortage of three essentials: freedom, knowledge and womanpower."
In the first respect, Pakistan is better placed than most Arab states as we do have sporadic, albeit often unreliable, recourse to the ballot. True, the army has generally interfered in the democratic process by subverting the popular mandate in one way or another, but despite all its failings, the demand for democracy in Pakistan has continued to reassert itself time after time.
However, in the two other aspects of Muslim underdevelopment, we are worse off than our Arab brethren: not only is our knowledge base very shaky, but our treatment of women is disgraceful by any standards. With a claimed literacy rate of around 40 per cent, Pakistan is near the bottom of the educational tables. But in fact, functional literacy is far less: hardly a fraction of our graduates (1.32 per cent of the population) can string together a coherent sentence in any known language. This makes the new condition that only graduates can contest the elections in October all the more puzzling since there is an underlying assumption that graduation means education.
With all the noise we make about Urdu being the national language, our efforts at translating foreign books are pitiful. To put things in a larger context, the authors of the report inform us: "... in the 1,000 years since the reign of Caliph Mamoun, ... the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year". In his ground-breaking book "Muslims and Science", Dr Pervez Hoodhboy rubs our noses further in the dust when he tells us that the collective output of scientific papers written in the entire Muslim world each year is a small fraction of Israel's.
Perhaps it is this lack of creativity and intellectual stagnation that today defines the Muslim world. When we can hound and harass Professor Abdus Salam, the only Muslim to have won the Nobel Prize in physics, it is clear that our only interest in knowledge is the weapons, the luxury cars and the amenities of life it can produce for us. Curiosity and the desire to seek knowledge for its own sake do not seem to motivate us: only 0.6 per cent of the Arab world uses the Internet, and 1.2 per cent have computers. No doubt the statistics for Pakistan are even more depressing.
But it is the treatment of our women that differentiates us from the rest of the world. Quite apart from the sheer unfairness of sequestering half our population, we have deprived ourselves of the creativity and productivity of millions of Muslims simply because of their gender. Under the garb of 'modesty' and 'protection', we have imprisoned women, making them serve life sentences without any right to appeal.
And under the rubric of 'honour', we routinely subject them to vicious punishments like gangrape, murder and chopping off their noses. The recent gangrape of an 18-year old girl to avenge her brother's alleged amorous liaison, sanctioned by the council of village elders, shows yet again how barbaric we still are despite our nuclear status.
In the name of religion, we have made women second class citizens: in last year's local body elections in many parts of the NWFP and Balochistan, women were neither allowed to contest the polls nor even to vote by their husbands and fathers. Their contribution on the farms and in the homes is unquantified and unappreciated. The handful of women who have made it to the top have done so by dint of hard work and talent, and have made it despite opposition at every level.
There is a casual assumption of macho superiority in Muslim societies that is supported by male-dictated social mores and religious dogma, although it has rightfully been rejected elsewhere in the world. Empowering women means taking power from men, and this is seldom achieved without a struggle. Unfortunately, even our educated elites resist this transformation and as a result, we remain backward and barbaric.
One of the major factors holding Muslim societies back is that we are taught from an early age that truth should be sought in religious texts and not in experience and abstract knowledge. According to a Syrian intellectual quoted by the Economist: "The role of thought is to explain and transmit ... and not to search and question." These attitudes had not hardened to their present-day rigidity when Muslim scientists, philosophers and historians led the world in virtually every area of knowledge. But at the start of the new millennium, we have yet to emerge from our dark ages.
This debate between tradition and modernity is not just an intellectual one: at stake is nothing less than the soul of the Islamic world. Population trends project an ever-younger populace in most Muslim countries where economic stagnation is not generating enough jobs to absorb them even when they get a smattering of education. Frustrated and aimless, they are marginalized and angry, willing recruits for any band of extremists who offer them a direction and a purpose in life. If we are to emerge from our long torpor, we will need to address the issues the authors of the UNDP report have raised.