by Abu Daoud
I was recently asked to comment on this topic, and here is what I wrote
There is a complex web of reasons, but I think overall here are the main reasons:
1. The failure to achieve success by copying European models, including capitalism and communism. Capitalism cannot work in the ME because it requires a) rule of law, and b) freedom to form new businesses and c) creativity to invent new products. All of these are lacking because of deeply ingrained traditions of favoring one's own religion or family or tribe. I do trace this back to Islam (a lot of people don't), where the dhimmi system forces people to discriminate against non-Muslims, and where the shari'a is clear that women are worth less than men, and of course the Arabo-centric facet of Islam, which more or less implies that God is an Arab, because his book is in Arabic and cannot be translated, and thus Arabs are (in reality, not in theory) better than non-Arabs. (This last reason is why lots of Berbers and Pakistanis and Iranians have left Islam, by the way.)
2. Regarding creativity, I feel that Islam clearly suppresses it because when you cannot ask basic questions about God and his prophet and book, then at a basic level you are taught not to be critical and analytical. This then overflows from the area of religion into other areas like commerce and computer science and so on. I trace this back historically to the victory of asharites over the mu'atazila and the affirmation of bila kayf--that certain doctrines must be affirmed but without asking why. The doctrine of al insan al kamil (the ideal or perfect man) comes up here too, because a quick glance at Muhammad's life shows he is clearly not perfect.
3. A related, but minor, point: commerce was hindered in the Ottoman Empire because the formation of corporations was legally impossible. So there was no incentive to form large international businesses, because upon the owner's death it had to pass on to his sons, whether they were good or bad. This has been remedied, but centuries too late.
4. This rise of independent nation states and authoritarian governments. One of the most unfortunate aspects of society in the ME is the tendency to always blame others for any problem that takes place, rather than to try to address problems as far as on can. Anyway, with the end of European hegemony countries were formed and to a real degree free to govern themselves. It is true they were never entirely free to do as they please, but this does not matter--no country (or person) is entirely free to do as they please. So authoritarian governments arose and they did not prosper, at least not to the extent that some people thought they should. I too attribute this to the very DNA of Islam. When Muhammad died there was right away a great struggle between the Shi'a and the Sunni, and we also see this principle operating in the wars of apostasy or hurub al ridda. Historically one finds that Islamic societies over the long term alternate between authoritarian governments and anarchy/tribalism. The period of European colonialism artificially enforced Western practices of government and business that were foreign to Islam. And when Europe left, these traditions started to deteriorate. Authoritarian governments silenced public discourse, but they could not or would not silence the discourse of Islam, including Islamic reforms which we in the West call radicalism or extremism, but which are really just reformed Islam.
5. The problem of natural resources. Egypt's population in 1900 was about five million, today it is about 80 million. Many of the countries in the Middle East do not have the natural resources to feed their enormous populations. Right now Egypt imports over 50% of its wheat. That is an amazing number. This naturally results is large numbers of unemployed young men, many cannot get married because they don't have a job. With the reformed Islamic militant ideology (a more accurate term than fundamentalist, I think) present, the opportunity to be part of something new and good and powerful (like the Caliphate) is attractive. This is not so much a reason for the Islamic reformation (to radicalism) but is a key reason that right now it is easily able to get recruits. The Middle East has a demographic profile that makes economic prosperity almost impossible in many countries, coupled with the non-critical education (mentioned above) and the lack of rule of law
6. One often hears that the Arab-Israel problem is at the heart of the problems in the region. I think that even if all Israel-Palestine was again ruled by Muslims and the Jews who arrived by Aliyah were made to leave and then a lot of European and American Jews would leave voluntarily this would not solve anything at all. Indeed, even if every Jew left and every Palestinian refugee returned and all those apartments in Tel Aviv and Haifa were given to them, it would not decisively change the dynamic described above. I do believe, as unpopular as it is to say so, that many of the problems we see in the ME today can be traced to the very heart of Islam--the life and practice of Muhammad.
More than you wanted to hear I think! Why do you ask? I liked the book Sandcastles: Arabs in search of the Modern World by Milton Viorst on this topic. They have it at the library at St George's College in Jerusalem. I still think that reading Qutb's Milestones is the best intro for people who want to know more. His writings are like those of Martin Luther, sometimes brilliant, sometimes with gaping holes of logic.