West and the Muslim world

Published: August 28, 2016
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Religion is one, but not the only reason, why the Muslim world is so unsettled at this time. Demography, the quality of governance, memory of past Western involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia are as important, perhaps even more important than religion.
Past rapid rates of population growth mean that most large Muslim states have very young populations. Three South Asian nations – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – have large Muslim majorities while India, by the far the most populous country, has a large Muslim minority. The median age of the Muslim population in the western part of the Islamic world is about 24 years, which means that half of the 1.2 billion people who live here are below that age. A significant proportion of these is in the area’s large cities and have aspirations for leading productive lives most system of governance are unable – or not willing – to provide. Several decades ago, Albert O. Hirschman of Harvard University published a powerful book titled Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Alienated populations choose from the three options listed in the title of the book: many Muslim youth have gone for the option of “exit” from the system. They tried to stage the Arab Spring to bring about systemic change and move their part of the world towards more inclusive political, social and economic structures.

As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written in their book, Why Nations Fail, exclusive systems that keep out large segments of the population are essentially unstable. But the Arab Spring mostly failed.

There are some other demographic trends in South Asia that need to be noted. They could impact not only the region but the world at large. In the 40-year period between 2010 and 2050, South Asia’s Muslim population is expected to increase by almost 65 per cent, from 513 million to 845 million. Of the area’s three largest communities, the size of the one living in India will increase by 76 per cent, 12 percentage points more than the regional average. By 2050, India, with 311 million people belonging to the Islamic faith, will have the world’s largest Muslim population. Sociologist Riaz Hasan points out in his recent book that unless a fundamental change occurs in the way the government takes care of the Muslim minority, this group would get increasingly alienated. “Unlike other religious minorities, Indian Muslims carry double burden of being labeled ‘anti-nationalist’ and being appeased simultaneously,” he writes. While the Indian Constitution is a powerful political instrument aimed at rectifying political, economic, and cultural inequities in the country, in practice, the Muslim community has been left behind. India and the world cannot afford to have such a large body of disgruntled and alienated body of people. The lingering Kashmir dispute in which Indian security forces have used considerable force to bring peace to the area has not worked but alienated a large segment of the Indian Muslim population.

There is also the unhappy memory of what the West did in the area that has been used by several dissident groups to produce popular sentiment against not only the United States but also Europe. The West was heavily involved in supporting the rule of a narrow elite in many parts of the Muslim world. This support was provided as a part of a “grand bargain” in which the West, in particular, the United States, wanted uninterrupted supply of oil, open sea lanes and tolerance of the Jewish state of Israel in return for helping narrow elites retain power. Most of the rulers did little for their citizenry, looking mostly after their own economic interests or those of their close associates. First, the Arab Spring and then a dramatic change in the economics of oil led to the collapse of the bargain. Regimes fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and chaos prevailed.

I will conclude this article by asking a number of questions: How should the United States deal with its relative decline in its mass and the steady rise in the weight of China and of late, also that of India? Such adjustments in the past were made through open conflict; will that be the case this time around as well? What should be the response to the rise of the Islamic State and how should its influence over some segments of the Muslim society be managed? Could the rise of ISIS be handled purely by the use of force? Is there a way of constructing political orders in the western part of the Islamic world that are inclusive and participatory? What is the likelihood that the tribal cultures in large parts of the Muslim world, in which power flows from the top to the bottom, could grow over time into liberal political and economic orders? How should the United States engage itself with the world of Islam so that it provides encouragement to those in these societies, who would leave the past behind and move towards inclusive systems? How should Washington wind down its war in Afghanistan that would ensure that the country does not provide home to the Muslim world’s extremists? And, the final question, is there a place for a relationship of the United States and Pakistan in the answers to these questions?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • pk
    Aug 29, 2016 - 1:05AM

    The word Islamic world is itself a highly racist word. If we consider our national identity as first and religious identity way below then all the problem the author states become irrelevant. If only they see Indian Muslims as Indian’s first then their approach will be different. How come such highly intellectual author digest an idea of exclusive religious country where one particular religion is supreme and others are inferior. When beliefs become more important then reality the eventual path an individual or country takes is only downward. Recommend

  • Observer
    Aug 29, 2016 - 3:59AM

    The western world seems to be reaching a tipping point soon on the issue of the Muslim population in their societies and the cultural tension that comes with it. The recent phenomenon of Islamic terrorism adds another ominous dimension to this issue. Patience of the people is running out fast. When the very culture of these societies are under threat of alien invasion, it will soon force them to first stop allowing Muslim immigration altogether, and secondly give an option to those Muslims already in, to either adopt the local culture, or pack the bags … !! Recommend

  • ajeet
    Aug 29, 2016 - 4:39AM

    For the Muslims to remain in India, Kashmir too should remain. Indian Muslims are an insurance to make Pakistan behave.Recommend

  • Rahul
    Aug 29, 2016 - 6:10AM

    Among high class and professional Indians, Intermarriage with the bride and groom from different religions is common, this will spread to all Indians and make religious differences a thing of the past. Indians all celebrate Eid, Diwali and Christmas anyway. In time Hindus will not remain Hindus and Muslims will not remain Muslims just as India’s constitution framers intended.Recommend

  • IndianDude
    Aug 29, 2016 - 7:08AM

    ..The lingering Kashmir dispute in which Indian security forces have used considerable force to bring peace to the area has not worked but alienated a large segment of the Indian Muslim population…

    LOL!! Majority of Muslims in India are Indians first and muslims later. Kashmir is rarely on mind of Indian muslims because they know that their army is in Kashmir, not the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Chrisitian army, their army. Also the majority of Indian muslims know that Kashmir is not a muslim religious issue as Shias, Ismaili, Agha Khani and Ahmadis are equal citizens along with sunnis!!Recommend

  • Salma
    Aug 29, 2016 - 7:52AM

    With all due respect, this article looks like a threat. India better take care of its Muslims because they are a large fraction of the population. Does not put us Muslims in good light at all. As if we are trouble makers who need to be kept in good humour. As if we are spoilt brats. Recommend

  • Rajeev Nidumolu
    Aug 29, 2016 - 9:59AM

    No religion is monolithic. Beyond any centralized intervention, People have to improve themselves . Government does not and will not have resources to take care of every individual. Nor can it ensure that each individual will have western standard of living .Main impediment for development is not government but culture. We now have huge young population in third world countries who aspire to have western standard of living. It will need resources of three equivalent earths to satisfy themRecommend

  • Rarun
    Aug 29, 2016 - 10:16AM

    Even in advanced western countries the Islamics are increasingly lagging educationally and economically. Is it the collective responsibility of the rest of the world to indulge the Islamics?Recommend

  • R Subramanian
    Aug 29, 2016 - 10:59AM

    As usual Tribune has blocked my comment about minorities condition in Islamic world, as long as Muslims are not willing to discuss these important matter with open heart there can’t real peaceRecommend

  • Insaaf
    Aug 29, 2016 - 5:08PM

    The author labels “Muslim world” as though it is one country. There are several countries where a lot of people practice Islam. They are all sovereign independent countries. Thats about it. As a Pakistani, can I walk into any country of the “Muslim world” without a passport or visa? Calling South America as Christian world, Nepal and India as Hindu world and so on is absurd.Recommend

  • Rao
    Aug 29, 2016 - 6:42PM

    @pk: This author is no doubt an intellectual but remember he is Muslim and a patriotic Pakistani. So don’t expect a colomn untainted or biased by the ideas, ” we were once ruled a large number of countries kind of of exaggerated notion of imagined great past….”. Recommend

  • Indian
    Aug 29, 2016 - 8:40PM

    Indian Muslims don’t even sing our National Anthem or Nation Song, why should we help them out? They just want benefits from Kafirs without contributing anything back to the society. Recommend

  • Devendra K Sood
    Aug 29, 2016 - 9:41PM

    That will be a great day for India and all humanity.Recommend

  • truthbetold
    Aug 30, 2016 - 7:41AM


    You are spot on. The aim of this article seems to be to instigate Indian Muslims.

    Read this sentence by the author: “The lingering Kashmir dispute in which Indian security forces have used considerable force to bring peace to the area has not worked but alienated a large segment of the Indian Muslim population.”

    The author insinuates indirectly and mischivously that Indian Muslims are not patriotic and thus don’t support India’s position ion Kashmir. The facts are far from this lie. Indian Muslims don’t support Kashmiri separatism instigated by Pakistan. They fully support Indian Kashmir policy and the Indian security forces in Kashmir.Recommend

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