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Islam at the Crossroads a Decade After 9/11: Democratic Revolutions Rock the Muslim World

It seemed unimaginable in 2001 that an insurgency would engulf Muslim nations less than a decade later, not with a cry for militant political Islam but for personal freedom.

On Sept. 18, 2001, I landed in Cairo on an extended assignment in the Islamic world. It was nearly impossible to find an Egyptian who believed foreign news accounts of the events that had rocked America one week earlier.

Very few would unequivocally condemn the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Almost no one conceded that Muslims had been involved in planning them.

It seemed unimaginable in 2001 that an immense insurgency would engulf Muslim nations less than a decade later, not with a cry for militant political Islam but for Western-style personal freedom and democratic reform.

As much as the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling into ruins, the Muslim reaction to September 11 -- not only Egypt, but around the globe -- shocked the West and raised fears of outright war with Islam, a "clash of civilizations" in the words of Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.

Strident Denials, Painful Doubts

But strident denial, in nations as well as individuals, is often a tacit expression of doubts that are too painful to confront directly.

Behind the rage that exploded on September 11, and the wall of denial erected around it, was a profound internal crisis, bred by centuries of stagnation in what was once the most advanced civilization on Earth.

"We learn every day, in our homes and our schools and our mosques, that we stand at the apex of history, that almost all of modern science and mathematics is based on discoveries by Muslim thinkers a thousand years ago," a Saudi official told me in 2003. "What no one wants to talk about is the thousand years that followed," he admitted. "What we seldom ask out loud is where we are today."

In 2011, that silence was broken as never before.

An unprecedented popular revolt, seeded in 2009's mass protests in Iran, led to enormous demonstrations last winter and spring that toppled presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. By March, it had provoked a full-fledged civil war in Libya that eventually overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. The movement now threatens the leaders of Yemen and Syria, and has spread to points as distant as Morocco, the Gulf oil states, Sudan, Iraq and Malaysia.

Together, Teheran's Green Wave and the Arab Spring have focused attention directly on volatile frustrations – and modern aspirations – inside the Muslim bloc itself.

A crossroads lies ahead for one-fourth of the Earth's population--1.6 billion people comprising the Islamic Ummah, the international community of believers.

The Chasm

By almost any measure, an overview of the Muslim community in 2011 makes for grim reading.

Only two of the world's 40 Muslim-majority nations -- excluding the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Southeast Asian mini-state of Brunei -- have per capita Gross Domestic Products above the global median, according to the International Monetary Fund. Turkey, a rising power, is one. In the second, Malaysia, the economy is controlled by non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.

The figures for 17 Muslim nations are less half the world median.

Explosive economic growth and modernization in East Asia, Latin America and India has opened a yawning chasm between Muslim economies and those of their former peers in the developing world.

In 2010, Islam's four largest states -- Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, with a total of 640 million people, half the population of China -- had a combined annual GDP of $2.2 trillion. China's alone was $10.1 trillion, almost two-and-a-half times bigger in per-capita terms.

Brazil's GDP stands at more than $2 trillion, nearly equal to the four Islamic giants -- but generated by a population less than one-third their size.

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