Pseudo-Secularism

Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Forbes.com: Want to Prosper? Then Be Tolerant

Paul Johnson, 06.21.04, 12:00 AM ET

In economic activities the greatest of virtues is tolerance. All societies flourish mightily when tolerance is the norm, and our age furnishes many examples of this. China began its astounding commercial and industrial takeoff only when Mao Zedong's odiously intolerant form of communism was scrapped in favor of what might be called totalitarian laissez-faire.

India is another example. It is the nature of the Hindu religion to be tolerant and, in its own curious way, permissive. Under the socialist regime of Jawaharlal Nehru and his family successors the state was intolerant, restrictive and grotesquely bureaucratic. That has largely changed (though much bureaucracy remains), and the natural tolerance of the Hindu mind-set has replaced quasi-Marxist rigidity.

In the last fiscal year India's GDP grew an estimated 8%, and in the third quarter, 10%. India's economy for the first time is expanding faster than China's. For years India was the tortoise, China the hare. The race is on, and my money's on India, because freedom--of movement, speech, the media--is always an economic asset.

When left to themselves, Indians (like the Chinese) always prosper as a community. Take the case of Uganda's Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific dictator Idi Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain. There are now more millionaires in this group than in any other recent immigrant community in Britain. They are a striking example of how far hard work, strong family bonds and a devotion to education can carry a people who have been stripped of all their worldly assets.

Common Denominator
The contrast between China and India--both moving steadily to join the advanced countries of the world--and those countries where Islam is dominant is marked. Whatever its merits may be, Islam is not famed for tolerance. Indeed, of the major world religions it is the least broad-minded and open to argument. With the rise of a new form of fundamentalism in recent decades, its intolerance has been growing--as has the concomitant poverty.

In the past when an Islamic society has been modified by a strong secular influence, economic progress has been possible. Take Iraq. Until 1958 the British-influenced Nuri as-Said regime, which was comparatively tolerant in its outlook, made good use of the country's oil revenues. The Iraq Development Board was doing an excellent job. Had it been allowed to continue, this enlightened form of capitalist state planning would by now have made Iraq one of the richest countries in the world. Alas, the regime was too tolerant of extremists. In 1958 Nuri as-Said and all his colleagues were murdered by an alliance of Baathist officers and religious fanatics. Since then Iraq's oil revenues have been wasted on war and armaments, and its people brutalized almost beyond belief.

The tale in Iran is similar. Under the secular regime of the last Shah the economy was going great guns, but then the Shah wasdriven out by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his zealots. Some Iranians believed the modernizing and industrialization were happening too fast. But at least Iran had been moving forward--incomes had risen and poverty was on the wane. Since the Iranian revolution this great and once highly civilized country has stagnated or gone backward, and all the money generated by its oil has been wasted.

There are many other examples. Algeria once had a flourishing agricultural sector, a significant industrial sector and highly productive oil and gas fields, but it has little to show for all that now. Libya's Muammar Qaddafi may have come to his senses, but a generation of rich oil production has been wasted. Nigeria, where Islam is on the ascent, has also dissipated its oil wealth. Conditions there are less promising today than when Britain was in charge a half-century ago.

Saudi Arabia is another country where intolerance has held back economic advance. No nation has received more cash from its natural resources than has this Sunni Muslim state, with its ferocious tradition of Wahhabi fundamentalism. What's happened to the wealth? Gone with the wind of bigotry. Some of the other oil-rich Gulf states have done a little better, but in none of them do enterprise and free-market capitalism flourish.

As for the less well endowed Islamic states like Pakistan and Bangladesh, it's better to draw a veil over their misery. On the evidence of the second half of the 20th century it would appear that Islamic state control is a formula for continuing poverty, and Islamic fundamentalism a formula for extreme poverty.

The more I study history, the more I deplore the existence of those--be they clerics, bureaucrats or politicians--who think they know what's best for ordinary people and impose it on them. We have a pungent example of this know-all mentality in the EU. The bureaucrats of Brussels have created yet another brand of intolerance that determines by law everything from the shape of bananas to the number of seats in a bus, from apple growing to house plumbing. As a result the German economy is contracting and the French economy is stagnant. There are now more unemployed people in single-currency EU Europe than there have been at any other time since the worst of the 1930s, and many of them will never work again.

Let those of us fortunate enough to live in the U.S. or Britain hang on to our traditions of tolerance at all costs, resisting like fury all those who seek to undermine them with political correctness or any other kind of dogma.

Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author, Lee Kuan Yew, senior minister of Singapore, and Ernesto Zedillo, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, former president of Mexico, in addition to Forbes Chairman Caspar W. Weinberger, rotate in writing this column. To see past Current Events columns, visit our Web site at www.forbes.com/currentevents.

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