Stephen Glain, a former Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, joins a long list of journalists, pundits, and think-tank analysts who have endeavored, since the World Trade Center attacks, to help America understand the Arab world.  In his first (and, so far, only) book, he argues that the relationship between economics and political stability in the region has been neglected for too long in Washington.  He blames the “Beltway Biosphere,” which is too pro-Israeli in sentiment and too neoimperial in outlook to realize that the biggest problem facing the Middle East is not Islam or autocracy but the looming economic and political collapse that will breed yet more despair and terrorism.

This is an interesting thesis well worth developing into a book, but its complexity demands much methodological rigor and a wealth of reliable data.  Glain’s book fails on both scores.

The author’s ideological assumptions are neoliberal/Marxist: “A direct line leads from low volume on the Palestinian Securities Exchange to a young boy throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.”  His repeated insistence that Muslim extremism cannot be explained in isolation from the issues of inequality and lack of opportunity reflects a mind-set hell-bent on placing economics, rather than culture and morals, at the top of the hierarchy of causes in human affairs.

That Glain’s knowledge of history is shallow is not surprising in a “mainstream” journalist, but his account of the early Islamic empire veers into the farcical, as when he asserts that “there never was a fundamentalist Muslim empire” but that the early caliphs developed “a realm that was largely secular in spirit, tolerant and congenial to foreign ideas, cultures, and religions.”  Muhammad allegedly saw that “his young faith would appeal only through conciliation,” and his “capture of Mecca was followed by only a few executions.”  Jews and Christians “were generally left alone in exchange for a small tax,” and, on the whole, “it was subtle diplomacy rather than the sword that established the Muslim empire.”  We are told that the “appeal of Islam spread throughout the Middle East” and that it “promoted tolerance,” which “was perhaps the Islamic world’s greatest achievement.”  This spirit of tolerance, the comparatively peaceful mingling of faiths and races, continued “until the end of the Ottoman rule in 1918.”  It all changed when two European imperial powers, Britain and France, carved up the region in the aftermath of World War I.

This caricature of history is unworthy of detailed refutation, and, on such flawed foundations, no solid edifice can be built.  To Glain’s unwitting credit, he does not attempt to develop a coherent argument about the nature of Arabia’s economic and social malaise but offers instead a collage of edited interviews with some two-dozen Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt.  While these people are not representative of their communities, Wall Street Journal readers can relate to them.  All share an entrepreneurial spirit and a self-professed sympathy for the West and its ways, while remaining sharply critical of Western, and especially American, policies in the region.  Those sketches are interesting insofar as they illustrate the mind-set of a frustrated and yet potentially promising segment of the Arab body politic, but they are no substitute for a unifying narrative.  The reader receives the impression that Glain made use of his leftover notes by inserting them into an ill-fitting preconceived framework.  The technique is familiar: For instance, it has, over the past decade, yielded a score of bad books about the Balkans.

The true causes of today’s squalor and corruption in the Arab world are primarily moral and cultural.  After the brief flourishing that happened in spite of Islam (rather than because of it), the region’s history has been that of a long decline without a fall.  Always reliant on the plunder of its neighbors and robbery of its non-Muslim subjects, Islam was unable to create new wealth once the conquerors had run out of steam and reduced the vanquished to utter penury.  Pre-Islamic Egypt, like the pre-Bolshevik Ukraine, was the granary of Europe; now, both must import food.  Pre-Islamic Syria and Asia Minor suffered under Caliph Umar a fate similar to that of highly developed and prosperous East Germany and Czechoslovakia after 1945.  In both cases, the dominant ideology—Islam or communism—opposed the preconditions for successful economic development in principle as well as in practice.

Not even a prime location at the crossroads of the world could counter the slow poison of obscurantism.  The nature of the problem has always been spiritual.  Like all totalitarian ideologies, Islam has an inherent tendency to the closing of the mind.  The spirit of critical inquiry essential to the growth of knowledge is completely alien to it.  When, in the 19th century, the Muslim world realized that something was seriously wrong, its view of knowledge remained nevertheless that of a commodity to be imported and used.  Western engineers, military officers, and doctors could train their Muslim students, but the latter never managed to give more than what was imparted to them.

The problem remains insoluble to this day: Glain’s Arab interlocutors want some of the fruits of Western culture—stock markets, efficient bureaucracies, reliable banks—but they cannot import the culture itself, even if they wished to do so.  The developed world’s discipline, cohesion, ingenuity, and prosperity are rooted in those aspects of the Western psyche that cannot be easily transplanted.  Instant gratification—inherent to the Muslim mind-set ever since Muhammad resorted to divine intervention in his lust for his daughter-in-law—is odious to the European and Oriental psyche alike; hence, Asian “tigers” prosper, whereas Arabs do not.

There are symphony orchestras in Singapore, Seoul, and Beijing, but none in Amman, Ramallah, or Beirut.  If and when Stephen Glain grasps the significance of that fact, he may be ready to write a useful book about the causes and cures for Arab economic, social, political, and cultural failures.

[Mullahs, Merchants and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World, by Stephen Glain (New York: Thomas Dunne Books) 343 pp., $15.95]