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Several years ago a group of Arab intellectuals came together to study the economic malaise—fueled by high unemployment, massive illiteracy, and anemic GDPs—that grips much of the Muslim and Arab world. Their 2002 study, “The Arab Human Development Report: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations,” remains one of the most sober self-assessments of what has gone wrong with Arab economies and why. The report’s authors lament the “bridled minds” and “shackled potential” of nations which deny their citizens basic civil liberties.
Their candor, however, cannot disguise a fundamental evasion: There is no admission of the cultural hostility toward religious freedom and pluralism that infects Arab societies. This mental state of denial prevents Muslim leaders from recognizing the strong relationship between economic prosperity and religious liberty.
Christian reformers of the seventeenth century, in fact, were among the first to grasp the importance of freedom of conscience to the stability and economic well-being of the state. Thomas Helwys (1550-1616), an early leader of the English Baptists, produced the most principled defense of religious liberty in his day. His Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity (1612) insisted that a man’s religion was no business of the king, and that people of all faiths—“let them be heretiks, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever”—should be left alone. If every sect were granted freedom of worship, he reasoned, there would be far less strife and contention. “Behold the Nations where freedome of Religion is permitted,” he wrote, “and you may see there are not more florishinge and prosperous Nations under the heavens then they are.”
Muslim intellectuals complain about the ‘deprivation of human capability’ in the Arab world, but exonerate regimes that deprive people of their inalienable rights.
Some of the most provocative pro-toleration statements came from lay people whose vocations exposed them to the benefits of pluralism. Henry Robinson (1605-1664), a merchant and son of a wealthy London tradesman, traveled widely on the Continent. In works such as Liberty of Conscience (1643), Robinson regarded the right of private judgment in matters of faith as essential to human flourishing, akin to the right to private property or private enterprise. These rights were connected, and the repression of religious freedom produced blowback in the economic realm. A persecuting state, he wrote, forced Puritans to leave England and “carry with them their gifts, arts, and manufacturers into other countries, to the greatest detreiment of this commonwealth.” Economic ruin, he predicted, would be the fate of nations that seized their citizens’ property or drove them into exile over religion.
These were radical ideas in Europe in the seventeenth century. The Treaty of Westphalia had ended the religious wars on the Continent, but only by creating a system of national church establishments, which were free to harass and penalize religious minorities within their borders. Catholics were the first to develop both the theory and machinery of religious persecution; Protestants, though not as brutally systematic, followed the same dreary pattern. Both traditions predicated political and social stability on religious conformity: dissent was viewed as an incubator of sedition.
England experienced a commercial revolution alongside the rapid growth of religious sects, undercutting the fear that spiritual disunity and heresy invited divine judgment.
Many factors help explain the triumph of religious toleration in Europe. Yet historians such as John Coffey believe that rising prosperity “probably made a significant impact on religious mentalities.” In his book, Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, Coffey notes that the last decades of the seventeenth century—when debates about religious freedom reached a crescendo—saw an economic boom. England experienced a commercial revolution just prior to its Glorious Revolution, as trade flourished and living standards improved. This occurred alongside the rapid growth of religious sects, undercutting the fear that spiritual disunity and heresy invited divine judgment. Meanwhile, the economic dynamism of the Dutch Republic—the most religiously tolerant state in Europe—helped create a new narrative. “Prosperity and toleration were now seen as twins,” writes Coffey, “rather than as mortal enemies.”
That may overstate the case, but several prominent reformers argued in just these terms. Peter Pett (1630-1699), a lawyer and politician, said the best way to attract entrepreneurs to England and advance trade was to create an open, welcoming society—“which cannot be done without the giving them a due Liberty of Conscience.” The tireless Quaker agitator, William Penn, blended theological, moral, and practical reasons for toleration in his Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1670). His treatise included an economic critique of religious establishments and their legal regimes. Penal laws against religious dissenters, Penn observed, often plunged families into poverty, thus robbing society of productive economic activity. “Such Laws are so far from benefiting the Country, that the Execution of them will be the assured ruin of it, in the Revenues, and consequently in the Power of it,” he wrote. “For where there is a decay of Families, there will be of Trade; so of Wealth, and in the end of Strength and Power.”
‘Prosperity and toleration were now seen as twins, rather than as mortal enemies.’
Though they represented a minority view, these voices of toleration would find powerful advocates among classical liberal political thinkers such as John Locke. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke explained that sectarian rulers, by authorizing the economic impoverishment of dissenters, permanently unsettled governments and societies. As long as governments demanded religious conformity, there would be “no peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship” among the members of civil society. “Nobody therefore … neither single persons, nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other, upon pretence of religion.”
The insights of these religious thinkers are finally receiving support from the secular social sciences. Brian Grim, a quantitative sociologist with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has compared various socio-economic indicators with measures of religious freedom in over 100 countries. Grim is careful not to infer a causal relationship between religious liberty and economic prosperity. Yet his research reveals a correlation, prompting a frank suspicion: “A regulated and restrictive religious economy does not benefit all God’s children.”
Even the libertarian Cato Institute, not usually attentive to religion, has begun to explore the issue. Writing in the Cato Journal, scholars Ilan Alon and Gregory Chase argue that international businesses should be concerned about the problem because “it affects the general business environment, political relationships among countries, and consumer sentiment of companies doing business in countries that suppress religious freedom.” Their findings—based on indicators of economic and religious liberty in 75 countries—seem to vindicate the Christian reformers of Locke’s generation. “Although our results are preliminary, they suggest that religious freedom has a positive impact on a country’s prosperity.”
These facts still seem to be lost on many Muslim intellectuals. They complain about the “deprivation of human capability” in the Arab world, but exonerate regimes that deprive people of their inalienable rights. They link economic growth to new forms of “social cohesion,” but tolerate political arrangements that guarantee social strife. They even call for a “fundamental rethinking” of how Arab states should approach cultural and religious diversity—yet refuse to rethink their assumptions about the nature of religious belief or the moral demands of human dignity.
It requires no leap of faith—just, perhaps, a little historical memory—to realize this is not the road to economic development. It is the long and fractious and familiar detour to permanent stagnation.
Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at the King’s College in New York City and a contributing editor to The American.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.
There is a strong relationship between economic prosperity and religious liberty.
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