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The Call from the Minaret


Back in December, Madeline Albright hosted a major pan-Arabic conference, the Middle East/North Africa Economic Summit, in Qatar. According to an official Conference handout, "the purpose of the conference is to articulate and put forth the general framework needed for an improved regional investment climate."

The discussions would provide "a hands-on approach to doing business in the region." Attendees, business executives and regional cabinet ministers would "examine together the most appropriate policies to increase investment, commerce, and trade, facilitate business strategies, and assist companies to better understand and predict the business environment."

It certainly sounded good, and many of the Islamic countries surrounding Qatar sent delegates. However, they sent only the janitors, bell-hops, and elevator operators of the Islamic political world while the political big shots boycotted the conference.

While the secretary of state of the world's only superpower failed to attract Islam’s political elite, a few hundred miles away in Tehran another regional conference was being held, that of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, one that attracted Islamic kings, emirs, prime ministers, presidents-for-life, and other such high-ranking dignitaries. Indeed, 54 principal political leaders of Islam attended, including such sworn enemies as Iraq and Iran.

The Arabic press immediately saw this for what it was—a countermeasure to the U. S.-sponsored MENA conference and as an important opening to resolve outstanding regional problems and show a united stand by Muslim countries. Putting on its peacemaker face, Iran would show it had defied attempts by the Great Satan to isolate it, and that it would deal with the tensions in its policies with Iraq, Bahrain, the UAE, and other Arab countries over ideology. Certainly Iran’s neighbors, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would want to hear whether Iran still thought terrorism was an acceptable form of Islamic political dialogue.

Arabic journalists and politicians pointed out to all who would listen this OIC summit would be a great tool in working on common interests and resolving outstanding issues. Some pointed out that after decades of cooperative torpor, the region was beginning to ask what it could do to help itself.

Turkey—part of the NATO block—was also participating, probably to deal with Syria and Iraq on the Kurdish problem and water rights, and to reaffirm its roots in the Islamic world. Indeed, if the Arab countries were putting together the beginnings of a Common Market, Turkey had to worry that any anti-Arab stance might carry a high economic cost along with the possibility of Islamic trade sanctions.

Imagine—the World’s Only Superpower, who has passed out tens of billions of dollars in aid to its foreign clients over the decades, has a block party and it’s boycotted by many of those same clients. Meanwhile Iran and Iraq, Jordan and Syria sit at the same conference table, the lambs mingling unafraid with the lions. Here the Islamic world, often looked down upon by Western political pundits and leaders as economically backward, politically crude, and socially barbaric, was turning to itself for answers, not to the rich West. Here were Muslims wrestling together over how to solve their region’s economic, social, and political problems, not consulting those who consider themselves their betters, the Americans and Europeans.

It's no accident that only a couple of European and Islamic allies support us in our struggle against Iraq. Because it has been done principally to buy votes, our unilateral actions against Iraq easily could provoke an Islamic backlash.

Surely such events as these should be warning bells to those Westerners dependent on the Mideast for oil and fearing the explosive caldron of Middle Eastern politics, but if so, few in the West heard the bells ring, as how these conferences were attended went almost unreported in the U. S.

At the end of the last millennium the world's two great powers, China and Islam, could scarcely find Europe on their maps. In their hubris they were not able to imagine that a continent so dark and mysterious could develop over a few years into global dominance. In this country we have forgotten that as recently as 1910, emigrants had to decide whether it was smarter to move to South or to North America, so prosperous were Argentina and Peru.

Examine the global maps of the past thousand years, and one feature stands out: how constantly over every decade or so national borders shift. Our political and social worlds are in far more flux than our short-sightedness can imagine.

Today in the West we also overlook how rooted the Islamic world is in trade. Muhammed (peace be upon him) was born in A.D. 570 at Mecca and belonged to the Quraysh tribe, which was active in caravan trade. At the age of 25, Muhammed joined that trade from Mecca to Syria in the employment of a rich widow, Khadiji, whom he married.

However, markets were in Islam long before Muhammed. Like their cousins, the Jews, the early Arabs had a strong commitment to commerce and bargaining. A visionary, Muhammed called for such socially stabilizing norms as the establishment of commercial law, the expansion of property rights for women, the prohibition of fraud, the establishment of clear standards of weights and measures, and the defense of property rights.

Just as happened in Latin America over the past couple of decades, today’s rising tide of mercantilism in Islam is in part a return to Islamic roots and a reaction against the Arab socialism that destroyed the markets of the Muslim world. Indeed, when the history of the 20th century is written, one of its biggest stories will be the century’s failure of all forms of statism, which includes socialism as well as communism.

According to I. A. Ahmad, an Islamic scholar who's examined past and present Islamic economic life, those opposed to free markets tend to fall into four camps: those who object to private property, the socialists; those who disdain material property, the ascetics; those offended by some getting rich and others staying poor, economic egalitarians; and those who stupidly believe that a command economy can provide better economic benefits than free markets, the statists.

Muhammed's preachings refute all these notions, reports Ahmad. In fact, the prophet encourages private property and the creation of wealth, provided wealth is not used for immoral or vain purposes.

His immediate successors united an Arab world that had disintegrated into tribes and castes. The world has been wrestling with Islam ever since. At its peak the Arab empire extended from the Atlantic Ocean across North Africa and the Middle East to central Asia. In fact, Islam's rapid conquests in Asia and Africa are unsurpassed in history. Turning toward Europe, Muslims conquered Spain in 713 and Sicily in the ninth century. In 1453, Constantinople fell into Islamic hands, and in 1529, Muslim armies besieged Vienna.

A great Arab civilization emerged in which education, literature, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and science were highly developed. From a macro point of view, after the collapse of Rome the global balance of power and wealth shifted to the Indian Ocean region for a thousand years.

A thousand years! Our American supremacy has existed for not even a century, yet we have the hubris and short-sightedness to consider our civilization and influence permanent. At the end of the first millennium, while the English were still fending off Viking raiders and Duncan, king of Scotland, was about to be slaughtered by Macbeth, scholars in Baghdad and other great Muslim cities were translating and studying the literature of Greece, Persia, and India. In China, another part of the ancient world in decline but now on the rise, the T’ang dynasty (618–907)—often called the golden age of Chinese history, painting, sculpture, and poetry—had begun its own descent.

Indeed, much of Western history is the story of the West’s attempts to contain Islam, including such moments as the Spanish Inquisition, the wars in Central Europe, and the Crusades. One of the main functions of the Holy Roman Empire was to contain the spread of the vigorous Islamic revolution.

Today the homes of over a billion Muslims stretch from Morocco through the Philippines, and this ages-old struggle continues in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, the Sudan, and Chetnya.

While divided and frequently at war with each other, the Islamic world contains such potential economic powerhouses as Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, and it includes cultures as diverse as those in Algeria, Western China, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Central Europe.

In the 18th and 19th century the Muslim part of the world came to be dominated by others. Fifty to 70 years ago the French controlled Algeria and North Africa, while the English dominated the rest of Africa, Pakistan, India, and Egypt. Russia held sway over Central Europe, and only Turkey and Iran maintained a measure of independence. Part of what has kept the modern development of Islam arrested was the control exerted by colonial powers -- called the 'Great Game' -- in the 19th century as each sought more territory, trade, and dominance in the region.

After the colonial period ended in the mid-20th century, these countries had little to sell but oil because other businesses had not developed despite the region's long and rich history of trading. In the Cold War, these nations were only bit players, pawns in the global nuclear chess game. While Israel appeared to have huge importance, to judge by the attention it was paid in the United Nations and in the world press, it essentially was a side show.

Economically much of Islam was moribund until oil was discovered, and like the effect on some hillbillies, new-found oil wealth proved a mixed blessing, paradoxically bringing more problems than it solved. Saudi Arabia is a prime example. There oil revenues created a corrupt regime that today is loathed and feared by many of the citizens it purports to lead. Even after decades of huge oil revenues, Saudi Arabia today is bankrupted by urgent social woes it is not prepared to handle. The economic structure of a plantation isn't geared to solve 21st-century problems. As usual, conspicuous unproductive consumption led to massive debts.

With the collapse of the Cold War people everywhere, having lost their identification as pro-Soviet Union or pro-America, are looking for a new identification. In the United States, we see a movement towards city, county and state governments with less willingness to accept the wishes of Big Brother. In other parts of the world, nationalism, tribalism and religion have resurged as the larger purposes in people's lives. Religious fundamentalism has served that purpose in Islam.

With the global triumph of capitalism has come a vision that the old ways don’t work too well. Even a country as old and stodgy as Egypt, 70 million people and growing, is in the process of opening its borders and markets, and indeed may even become an exporter of hydrocarbons.

Today Egypt, like much of Islam, has a young and expanding population, without the negative demographics of North America, Europe, and Japan, whose aging populations will become a huge drag on their economies over the next decades. TBy contrast, not hampered by such problems with Social security, the Islamic world is poised for surprising development and growth. Investors would be foolish not to give it a close look.

As well, in a sharp turn from the old ways, Islam is exploring the opening of its borders to tourism. No part of the world is more fascinating, including such sights as Persepolis, the ruins of the ancient Persian kings in Iran, the splendors and mysteries of Istanbul, the soaring minarets of the imperial mosque at Isfahan, the great mosques of Sultan Hasan at Cairo, and the ancient ruins of North Africa such as in Tunisia.

In Saudi Arabia, of all places, developers are bringing artificial snow to the Aseer region, ostensibly to be a Mediterranean-like resort for Saudis only. As its oil revenues decline over time, it will be forced to use such resources and welcome tourism. According to the Wall Street Journal, the government has already allowed in small groups of Japanese tourists and American college-alumni groups. An investment in Islamic tourism could pay off handsomely.

Iran is another country for whom oil caused more problems than it cured. Today more than 50 percent of its population is under 20 years of age, and becoming restless. Last year this youthful population elected the country's most moderate president in a generation, and he now is reaching out to the rest of the world.

Even countries such as Libya and Kuwait are changing. A region spanning three continents and involving a billion people is stirring, and if we are not attentive to these changes, we are likely to miss a chance to participate in one of the great stories of the 21st century.

As a further example, our press and politicians encourage us to think that Iran is a backward country ruled by Medieval clerics while in reality it not only has established a stock market but also has implemented laws to attract and protect foreign investments. Many regions of the world are led by economic powerhouses -- California in the U. S., Germany in Europe, and South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa -- and Iran could easily become one of Islam's powerhouses.

The Iranian government's 'Second Plan,' its most recent outline for investment states: "Priorities are currently given to projects which provide the missing links in the industrial production class ranging from foundries, casting units, and machining plants to the increase of agricultural and mining equipment. Opportunities for foreign entities abound as French, German, English, and other European countries actively play key roles in Iranian industries ranging from automobile manufacturing to the construction of oil rigs. There is still room for foreign investment, especially in the areas where transfer of technology is a key feature of agreements."

In 1994, the last year for which figures are available, in a survey of 100 industrial units that were transferred to the private sector, 70 were sold to the public through the stock exchange, 18 were auctioned off, and 12 were sold through private placement. Does this sound like statist activity, or more like Margaret Thatcher privatization?

We think of this part of the world as stodgy and slow, but for many centuries this was the most nimble, the cleverest, and the most aggressive portion of the world. Islam invented arithmetic and astronomy, and the complexity and subtlety of its best poetry and religious thought rivals that of China and Europe. Their merchants and sailors traded throughout Africa and Asia at a time when our English ancestors were painting themselves blue and the U. S. was the home of hunter-gatherers.

While Islam's regional cooperation seems impossible, and our image of it is of oil sheiks, religious fanatics, terrorists, and camel-tending caravan owners, today's reality is vastly different. After all, there was a time when Latin America could be accurately described in one word, manana, but today it can best be described as "bustling." Fifteen years ago no country was more backward or had a more glamorous history than China; today it, too, is on the move.

At the northwest corner of the Indian Rim are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which still have vast quantities of oil that the West must have. In the southeast area are Malaysia and Singapore, success stories despite the turmoil of late 1997, whose growth has far to go. Meanwhile, if it can continue to be a country, Indonesia will be an emerging giant with the world's fourth largest population and its largest Muslim concentration. It's interesting to note that if Indonesia had split up 30 years ago, no one would have noticed or cared. Today, we'd be fools not to take notice, as its coming dissolution will have major ramifications throughout the world.

Like the Christian world, Islam is not one entity, no monolith, but as full of cults, sub-branches, splinter religions, political divisions, and schisms as the culture of the West. Just as Christian nations have struggled to destroy each other in wars as diverse and savage as the Hundred Years War and World Wars I and II, so have Muslims. It appears to be mankind's lot to prey on each other, be it singly or as whole nations. Iraq's war with Iran was no more or less barbaric than the trench warfare of the first World War or later genocide in Germany or the Chinese slaughter of the middle class. Sadly, man's viciousness to his fellow man knows no national boundaries.

A giant economic, political and demographic revival is occurring in the Islamic part of the world. If Muslims appear to be alien, mysterious, and dangerous, it's more because our short-sighted journalists find it easier to sell newspapers and TV shows with sensationalism and violence than with thought-provoking examinations of the changes.

In our provincialism, we all too often fail to see the obvious. To us Turkey is only a minor member of NATO, often forgotten and regarded as its oddest member because we scarcely recognize Turkey as part of Europe. We remember that Turkey served our interests well in the Gulf War, not only allowing the passage of our warplanes on their way to Iraq, but also allowing attacks from the bases we maintain there. While today Turkey is embroiled in four major conflict zones, it is also one of the world's big emerging markets, and a place the savvy investor is watching. Exhibiting the future for its Muslim brothers, it is also the destination of six million European tourists, as few cities anywhere can match the mysterious atmosphere and moody delights of Istanbul's many layers of history and cultures. Not only is it the European Union's 10th-largest trading partner, but it also is Russia's second. It has Europe's sixth-largest stock exchange. No other Moslem state, except possibly Malaysia, functions as democratically as Turkey, and none has gone as far in espousing secularism. What's not to like here for investors?

Over the past few years, the chief weapon in Washington's arsenal to gain its way in this region has been the imposition of international sanctions. But while we ply these ineffectual means, Russia, coming out of its long contraction, is opening its arms to Iran, Iraq, and other Islamic players, strengthening the Moscow-Tehran axis.

Once again, Islam is on the move, and this time the region isn't as interested in playing one side of a global conflict against another for crumbs from the big powers' table, as it did during the Cold War. The gains produced by terrorism don't seem to be long lasting or stable. Traders for over a thousand years, at both high and pedestrian levels, from the bazaar to the ministries of trade and finance, Muslims are returning to their centuries-old roots. Our hubris in ignoring this change may cost us dearly.

The citizens of Islamic countries are sick of seeing prosperity on their TV shows -- such fare as Dallas and Knotts Landing -- and not sharing in it. Fifteen years ago the people of Latin America and China went through a similar sea change in their vision of what they could achieve for themselves. Aided in no small way by modern communications -- cell phones, faxes, radio, television, pagers, and computers -- both peoples pushed aside old, corrupt regimes and produced their own miracles.

The attentive should fix their eyes on the Islamic world, where just such a powerful revolution is shaping up, as the future will run to those who measure the terrain and jump in early.


Updates are available at www.jimrogers.com.

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