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A Tale of Muslim Divergence

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"Reaching independence is easier than building a nation. While we can blame time bombs left by the colonists, we cannot [and should not] blame them forever." Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad spoke these words last week to an enthused collection of policymakers, researchers, and businessmen at the Dubai School of Government. He continued in his remarks castigating Muslims for "falling back" since the 15th century, and ignoring science and mathematics in education programs. When asked by a student (via webcam) from the American University in Cairo why he as a popular leader stepped down, he mentioned that it was only natural - obviously not for the audience he was speaking to - and that his mother had taught him "never overstay your welcome."

The discussion was a frank reminder of the divergent paths of development that have come to define Muslim countries. On one hand there are economic success stories such as Malaysia and modernizing societies such as Turkey. All too often, however, you have a Muslim country characterized by a mismanaged economy and dysfunctional political system.

Take the case of incompetent terrorist Faisal Shahzad's country of birth - Pakistan. The founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a modernizer and erudite secular politician, who remarked about his new country in 1948: "Islam and its idealism have taught us democracy. It has taught equality of man, justice and fairplay to everybody. We are the inheritors of these glorious traditions and are fully alive to our responsibilities and obligations as framers of the future constitution of Pakistan. In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims --Hindus, Christians, and Parsis --but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan." Jinnah died several months later, and unfortunately Pakistan never recovered.

What about Jinnah's vision of religious tolerance? That has of course fallen by the wayside. In fact, even to apply for a Pakistani passport a citizen has to declare one religious group called Ahmadis non-Muslims. The Ahmadis - a group who consider themselves Muslims but are viewed by some as having wayward theological teachings - are in fact barred from saying the traditional Muslim greeting 'assalaam alaikum' under Pakistani law. Yet these are the peculiarities of a country which spends only 0.6% of GDP on the health sector (according to WHO) despite having horrific levels of maternal mortality. The country has a per capita income that ranks 139th in the world (CIA Factbook). While today its GDP (nominal) is dwarfed by Malaysia, in 1960 Pakistan's economy was 1.5 times the size of Malaysia's. Reading the newspaper in Pakistan is akin to reviewing coverage from three different war zones - it is maddeningly depressing. It may seem unfair to hail a barrage of negativity upon Pakistan as it is dually hit by another public relations disaster in addition to the missiles daily from predator drones. Yet, Pakistanis - and many other citizens of Muslim countries - deserve better.

Turkey and Malaysia are not perfect examples by any means. Malaysia is still trying to come to terms with its mélange of multiple ethnicities. Turkey has yet to resolve the situation with its Kurdish population and continues to balance a fine line between religion and secularism. Nevertheless, simply walking around Istanbul is instructive. I was in the middle of the May Day rally ten days ago held in Taksim Square for the first time since 1977, when 36 people were brutally killed. This demonstration passed peacefully, and was simply another example of democratic expression in the country. Malaysia without petrodollars has managed to turn the tide on economic inequality while growing into a regional economic center, and a global hub for Islamic finance.

Malaysia and Turkey are instructive for other Muslim countries because they have had leaders who have taken a keen interest in modernizing their societies and developing their economies. Too often this very simple notion is lacking. While throwing development aid at Muslim countries may be a convenient option it is by no means a solution. What will be far more transformative is honest self-reflection within the Muslim world and indigenous leadership that demonstrates a real commitment to improve conditions. Unfortunately, as we wait, time is ticking.