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Religion, Politics, and Development: Lessons from the Lands of Islam

Jean-Philippe Platteau ()

No 434, Working Papers from Economic Research Forum

Abstract: 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.

Date: 2008-01-09, Revised 2008-01-09
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Published by The Economic Research Forum (ERF)

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