The problem of Islamic culture

Harold Rhode, a Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, has written a provocative article about the cultural shortcomings of the Muslim World. Rhode knows whereof he speaks. He is an expert on Islam and the Middle East, and has a PhD from Columbia in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern history. Rhode is fluent in Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish. He formerly worked for the Pentagon in the Office of Net Assessment, an internal Defense Department think-tank. And, most importantly for purposes of his article, Rhode has spent considerable time sitting in coffee or tea houses in the Islamic world, spending time with Muslims, and asking them questions in their own surroundings and in their own languages.

Rhode begins his piece this way:

Many parts of the world, such as Korea, China, and India — basically medieval kingdoms fifty or sixty years ago – are now among the pacesetters of the modern world, both producing, and improving on, existing inventions. The Muslim world, however, often better off than these countries just half a century ago, has remained as it was, or has even, in many instances, deteriorated.

This inertia in the Islamic world seems to stem not from any genetic limitations, or even religious ones, but purely from Islamic culture.

What are these cultural limitations? Sadly, Rhode’s list is long. It includes, but is not limited to, deficiencies in: the ability to question, the ability to admit failure and learn from it, the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions, the ability to compromise, and so forth.

Rhode concludes:

Ironically, all genetic analyses of the many ancient Muslim Palestinian families indicate that they are largely from the same genetic stock as Ashkenazi Jewry ( See minutes 5:00 to 6:16, and So what is the difference here?

The Jewish culture encourages questioning and thinking from an early age, whereas the Palestinian Muslim culture does not. What is encouraged instead is the unexamined acceptance of whatever is set before one, whether on government-run television or in government-written textbooks. Religion has nothing to do with this situation; Islam therefore is not the problem: Islamic culture is. Only when Muslims address their culture head-on can there be any real hope for their world to overcome its self-imposed limitations and start fully contributing to the wonders of the 21st century.

Having myself been encouraged to question from an early age, I wonder about Rhode’s claim that “religion has nothing to do with it.” Be that as it may, Rhode’s overall analysis is well worth considering.

Readers with a strong interest might consider Rhode’s analysis in conjunction with this brief review I wrote of Michael Curtis’ book Orientalism and Islam, and with Curtis’ book itself.