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Religion, politics, and development: Lessons from the lands of Islam

  • Platteau, Jean-Philippe

The question as to whether religion can block economic development and institutional change, or is a purely endogenous factor, assumes particular importance today because of the rise of Islamist movements and the disappointing economic performances in the lands of Islam. This paper starts from a critical examination of the thesis of Bernard Lewis according to which the lack of separation between religion and politics creates particular difficulties on the way to modern economic growth in these lands. It will be argued that (1) Lewis' thesis conceals the critical fact that, even when political and religious functions appear to be merged, religion is the handmaiden rather than the master of politics; (2) the influence of religion increases when the state falls into crisis, owing to its impotence or excessive absolutism; (3) because the Islamic frame of reference provides political rulers with a cheap default option when they are contested, they rarely undertake the much-needed reforms of the country's institutions; (4) this way of escape is all the more attractive to contested rulers as Islamist movements, born of the internal situation as well as of the international environment, accuse them of un-Islamic behaviour; (5) as argued by Timur Kuran, by creating an "institutional trap", the legacy of the Islamic classical system also makes institutional reforms more difficult to achieve.

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Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Volume (Year): 68 (2008)
Issue (Month): 2 (November)
Pages: 329-351

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Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:68:y:2008:i:2:p:329-351
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  1. Timur Kuran, 2004. "Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 18(3), pages 71-90, Summer.
  2. Timur Kuran, 1997. "Islam and Underdevelopment: An Old Puzzle Revisited," Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE), Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, vol. 153(1), pages 41-, March.
  3. Noland, Marcus, 2005. "Religion and economic performance," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 33(8), pages 1215-1232, August.
  4. La Porta, Rafael, et al, 1997. "Trust in Large Organizations," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(2), pages 333-38, May.
  5. Noland Marcus, 2008. "Explaining Middle Eastern Political Authoritarianism I: The Level of Democracy," Review of Middle East Economics and Finance, De Gruyter, vol. 4(1), pages 1-30, January.
  6. Kuran, Timur, 2003. "The Islamic Commercial Crisis: Institutional Roots of Economic Underdevelopment in the Middle East," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 63(02), pages 414-446, June.
  7. Badawi, Ibrahim El & Makdisi, Samir, 2007. "Explaining the democracy deficit in the Arab world," The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, Elsevier, vol. 46(5), pages 813-831, February.
  8. North, Douglass C. & Weingast, Barry R., 1989. "Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 49(04), pages 803-832, December.
  9. Douglass C. North, 2005. "Introduction to Understanding the Process of Economic Change
    [Understanding the Process of Economic Change]
    ," Introductory Chapters, Princeton University Press.
  10. McCleary, Rachel & Barro, Robert, 2003. "Religion and Economic Growth across Countries," Scholarly Articles 3708464, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  11. Kuran, Timur, 2005. "The logic of financial westernization in the Middle East," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 56(4), pages 593-615, April.
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