Thomas Sowell

The idea that what goes around comes around applies not only to individuals but to nations and whole civilizations. It was just a few centuries ago -- not long, as history is measured -- that China had the highest standard of living in the world and the Dutch were the world's largest exporters, while North Africans were enslaving a million Europeans.

Nowhere have whole peoples seen their situation reversed more visibly or more painfully than the peoples of the Islamic world. In medieval times, Europe lagged far behind the Islamic world in science, mathematics, scholarship, and military power.

Even such ancient European thinkers as Plato and Aristotle became known to Europeans of the Middle Ages only after their writings, which had been translated into Arabic, were translated back into European languages.

Today that is all reversed. The number of books per person in Europe is more than ten times that in Africa and the Middle East. The number of books translated into Arabic over the past thousand years is about the same as the number translated into Spanish in one year.

There are only 18 computers per thousand persons in the Arab world, compared to 78 per thousand persons worldwide. Fewer than 400 industrial patents were issued to people in the Arab countries during the last two decades of the 20th century, while 15,000 industrial patents were issued to South Koreans alone.

Human beings do not always take reversals of fortune gracefully. Still less can those who were once on top quietly accept seeing others leaving them far behind economically, intellectually, and militarily.

Those in the Islamic world have for centuries been taught to regard themselves as far superior to the "infidels" of the West, while everything they see with their own eyes now tells them otherwise. Worse yet, what the whole world sees with their own eyes tells them that the Middle East has made few contributions to human advancement in our times.

Even Middle Eastern oil was largely discovered and processed by people from the West. After oil, the Middle East's most prominent export has been terrorism.

Those who look at the world in rationalistic terms may say that the Middle East can use some of its vast oil wealth to expand its own educated classes and move back to the forefront of human achievement. They did it once, why not do it again?

All sorts of things can be done in the long run, but you have to live through the short run to get there. Moreover, even the short run, as history is measured, can be pretty long in terms of the human lifespan.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate