In a startling U.N. report, Arab Human Development Report 2002, a team of Arab scholars, led by Jordan's former Deputy Prime Minister Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, examined the following question: "Why is Arab culture, why are Arab countries lagging behind?"
The report confirmed that during the past 20 years, per capita income growth in Arab countries, which averaged a stagnant 0.5 percent a year, was the lowest in the world with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Labor productivity declined 0.2 percent while unemployment averaged 15 percent, three times the world average.
The report concluded that a paucity of resources is not the problem: The Arab world is "richer than it is developed. Arab countries have the resources to eradicate absolute poverty in less than a generation." Instead, the Arab report identified "three deficits" that pose "serious obstacles to human development: freedom, empowerment of women and knowledge."
Democracy, the report found, "has barely reached the Arab states," and a third of the adult population is illiterate -- half of all Arab women cannot read or write. "This freedom deficit undermines human development." Ranking countries on a widely used freedom index that encompasses civil liberties, political rights, freedom of the press and government accountability, the Arab world finished dead last. Women, in particular, are oppressed, denied freedom to move about, attain an education, engage in commerce or even receive adequate medical care.
While the report was a remarkably courageous exercise in self-examination by Arab scholars, there was one conspicuous omission. It neglected to recognize a fourth deficit of no less importance to the equation of social progress: a tolerance deficit.
Tolerance and liberty are the interlocking pillars of a free society. Liberty means having the freedom to think and advocate anything you desire and to live your life any way you want, so long as doing so does not encroach on other people's freedom do the same.
Tolerance means granting that same freedom to others, and the tolerance deficit in the Arab countries is glaring. It can be measured by their abysmal record on religious tolerance. According to a global survey of religious freedom by Freedom House in December 2000, "The religious areas with the largest current restrictions on religious freedom are countries with an Islamic background." Not a single Arab country protects religious rights, and most discriminate against non-Muslims. Some, such as Saudi Arabia, prohibit the worship of any religion other than Islam and execute converts.
Religious freedom is of particular importance because by maintaining that God's will is a matter of personal faith, it ensures a society's ability to curb the power of those who seek to impose their "truth." It is no coincidence that in Arab countries where Islam is officially the only path to God, oppression and violence are so often perpetuated in the name of religion. It is in the name of religion that women are subjugated. It is also in the name of religion that political violence is fomented.
Some Arab governments have developed sinister apparatuses of indoctrination that use national educational, media and religious institutions to brainwash Arabs, young and old, to hate and kill in the name of Islam -- that is, their "official" version of Islam. Two would-be "moderate" regimes, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, stand out for stoking the flames of intolerance.
As the intellectual and religious centers of the Islamic world, their religious leaders have a great influence on the attitudes of the region. Government-appointed leaders such as the new Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, have endorsed suicide-killings against Israeli civilians as a religious duty: "The Islamic countries, peoples and rulers alike, must support these martyrdom attacks," he declared in April.
The Egyptian Christian Copt minority is persecuted by the government, and hundreds have been massacred by Islamist groups since 1998. Saudi Television broadcasts weekly sermons from Mecca and Medina that praise jihadist terrorists around the world, call Muslims to rule over the "infidels" and preach the annihilation of Jews."
In his recent speech on the Middle East, President George W. Bush recognized how this infrastructure of intolerance within the Arab world feeds terrorism: "Every leader actually committed to peace will end incitement to violence in official media and publicly denounce homicide bombings." Western democracies and Israel have laws against hate speech and public incitement of violence. It is time that the Arab countries did the same.
Islamic civilization's greatest contributions to science, medicine, architecture and the arts occurred when it showed the most tolerance toward religious minorities. The 21st century can usher in an Arab Renaissance. By erasing the tolerance deficit and showing respect for other religions, Arab democracy can bloom, freedom can flourish and the full potential of the Arab people can be unleashed to close the development gap with the rest of the world.