Assessing the Islamic World, Post-9/11

The United States has spent much of the month commemorating the horrific 9/11 attacks of a decade ago, and monitoring the progress of the ensuing wars abroad and homeland security efforts at home. This is all appropriate and necessary.

But one question remains to be asked: How well has the broader Islamic world done over the past decade? This is not just an academic or humanitarian question. Countries with large numbers of unemployed, angry, hopeless individuals subject to extremist propaganda are prime breeding grounds for the kinds of movements that gave us al-Qaeda. Countries creating jobs; conveying a sense of purpose, dignity and freedom to most of their citizens; and offering a positive vision for their country’s place in the world tend to produce far fewer extremists.

Though the verdict is of course mixed in the 57 countries making up the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, we would offer an encouraging overall assessment. There are huge problems, most notably in Pakistan and Iran, where the witches’ brew of nuclear weapons programs, extremist politics, terrorism and economic challenges casts a pall over the future. And high population growth in several key Muslim countries will continue to create “youth bulges” that will make it hard to create enough jobs for current and future generations.

Even though the wars of the past decade have obviously focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, we do not dwell on these countries here — partly because there is already ample coverage of them, and partly because with the exception of the first they are not really at the heart of the Islamic world or among its major powers.

Alas, America remains unpopular from Turkey to Egypt to Pakistan, even in the Obama era. But in most places, the overall story about how these countries are doing is somewhere between acceptable and good.

Bangladesh. A large country with nearly 10% of the world’s approximately 1.5 billion Muslims, Bangladesh used to be a basket case and the butt of jokes. It is still poor, vulnerable to monsoons and somewhat unsettled politically. Even so, it has an early form of democracy and a recent economic growth rate averaging over 5% a year. Transnational extremists are almost absent from its territory. As evidence of some degree of moderation and progressivity, its prime minister is a woman.

Egypt. It is too soon to know where this country’s fascinating revolution is headed, and real worries persist. But what a 2011 it has been; the Tahrir Square protests and ouster of former presidentHosni Mubarak have to count as the most inspiring international event of the year.

India. More Muslims live in India than in Bangladesh, so it too is a major center of Islam. Despite ongoing tensions within their society and occasional outbursts of violence by or against this group, Muslims in India have shared their nation’s successes over the past decade, as that country finally joins the ranks of the world’s fast-growing and forward-looking democracies.

Indonesia. This nation, childhood home of President Obama, has the world’s largest Muslim population. And overall, in the past 10 years, Indonesia has moved in the right direction. Its economy has been growing at 6% a year, translating among other things into robust job creation. It remains accepting of diversity within its own population and open to visitors. It is a huge success story that we don’t talk about enough.

Nigeria. Half of this country’s 155 million people are Muslims. There are religious tensions in this land, and even though oil production has boosted economic growth, it has been a skewed kind of fiscal success with relatively modest benefits to the working classes. Alas, this country will have to be watched carefully and cannot really be placed in the same successful class as the others. But it has had an OK decade.

Saudi Arabia. This complex country remains half-friend and half-problem, a major source of oil with a generally stable government, yet also a nation that has tolerated the extremist Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam that encourages intolerance and violence and helped give rise to al-Qaeda. But the government has dealt with extremists on its territory rather well and made at least modest reforms in how it educates its youth and limits extremist propaganda from the Wahhabis. It has also forged partnerships with American universities to try to diversify its economic strengths.

Turkey. The country’s moderately Islamic government — often admired as a model in the Arab world — has been a diplomatic challenge for America and a major challenge of late for Israel. But civilian rule has finally become firmly established in Turkey, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not violent or extremist, and Turkish educational institutions are thriving. As the only Muslim member of NATO, Turkey provides a check on Iran and a link between the Western world and the Arab Middle East. Economic growth exceeded 6% on average over the past decade.

So of the world’s most important countries with Muslim majorities or large Muslim minority populations, to their great credit, more than half have made substantial headway in the past 10 years, by our brief reckoning. This is a provisional judgment, to be sure, with lots of warnings and caveats. But if you are looking for good news, take a look at what most of the world’s major Muslim countries have done since 9/11.