10. Saudi Arabia opened its first coeducational college campus, the King Abdullah Science and Technology University. In a country where the sexes have been so separated in public that some have spoken of ‘gender apartheid,’ this move, which came from King Abdullah, provoked raging controversy. When a prominent cleric criticized having male and female students on the same campus and the teaching of modern scientific theories like Darwinism, the king summarily fired him. It may seem a small thing, but many big social processes start small. Most Americans forget that Princeton University did not become coed until 1969.
9. Qatar is on track to average 7.5 percent per annum growth for the next few years. The natural gas giant is a cauldron of development activity. It permits Aljazeera satellite news to remain the most open and controversial media outlet in the Arab world. It is expanding the ‘Education City’ complex, where many American universities maintain campuses, and which serves as a key educational hub for the Gulf and its region. (This robust expansion contrasts with the difficult times higher education is facing in Dubai.)
8. A Pew Forum on Religion and Life poll finds that American Muslims are unusual in the degree to which they are integrated into mainstream American society and demonstrate moderate attitudes, condemning religious extremism and violence. In these regards, they differ significantly from the profile of Muslims in, for example, the United Kingdom and Germany. (Muslims in the U.S. are generally from higher class origins and are better educated and wealthier than is typically the case with European Muslims.)
7. The information revolution is making strides in the Arab world. A University of Maryland poll finds that the use of the internet continued to grow, with 36 percent stating that they use the internet at least several times a week and only 38 percent stating that they never use the internet (compared with 52 percent in 2008).
6. Albania has averaged 10 percent a year growth for each of the last four years and was the fastest-growing economy in Europe in 2009. It held elections in 2009, and although they were imperfect, a European Union report described them “as meeting most OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) commitments,” despite flaws. The EU seems to be giving the country a nod in its application to join. Albania has an especially aggressive government policy toward implementing alternative energy and wants to be the first green country in Europe. It depends heavily on thermal and hydroelectric plants (perhaps too heavily). Brussels concluded this year, “The government took measures towards the development of the sector by issuing licences for the construction of seven wind farms with a total installed capacity of about 1,360 MW (megawatts) and one 140 MW biomass thermal power station.” Albania, a country of 3.2 million, is 70 to 80 percent Muslim heritage, but a majority of the country is nonreligious. That is, these European Muslims are more secular than German, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Polish Christians.
5. The small Gulf oil monarchy of Kuwait took steps toward greater democracy and rule of law. Women were given the vote in 2005. In the May parliamentary elections, four women were for the first time elected to the 50-seat parliament; fundamentalists only gained 16 seats, down from 24 previously. As Greg Gause points out, in December parliament was allowed to go forward with a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister, which he survived. What is significant is that he is from the ruling Al-Sabah family and it had previously not been considered dignified to subject a high official from the family to such a vote.
4. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world at about 230 million, had successful parliamentary elections in 2009, further consolidating the country’s decade-old democracy. Secular parties did better this year, and support for Muslim fundamentalism dropped, both in the voting booth and in opinion polls. President Barack Obama’s enormous popularity in the country is credited by some observers for a sharp decline in approval of Muslim militancy. Indonesia has become the world’s 19th largest economy, and it, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the three Muslim-majority states in the G20.
3. Turkey, which averaged 5.8 percent a year economic growth between 2002 and 2008, was slowed but not devastated by the world’s financial crisis. In these six years, it has moved from being the world’s 26th largest economy to being the 17th largest. It is on track to be the second fastest-growing economy in 2010, after South Korea, according to projections from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The democratically elected Justice and Development Party government continued to govern with considerable popularity. Despite severe tensions between Ankara and the Kurdish minority in the southeast, the ruling party took the bold step of pushing for more Kurdish rights.
2. Stability returned to Lebanon. Successful parliamentary elections, untainted by Syrian interference, were held in June, and a national unity government was formed in November after a lengthy negotiating process. The Lebanese army intervened forcefully and in a timely fashion to nip potential sectarian flare-ups in the bud. The 13,000 U.N. troops patrolling the south helped back the Lebanese army. Despite tensions with Israel on the part of both Palestinian militants and the Shiite Hizbullah militia, there was no significant clash on the southern border. Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently visited Damascus, building on earlier diplomacy by Maronite Catholic president Michel Suleiman, a former general, and reducing regional tensions. Lebanon is probably now about 70 percent Muslim if the children are counted. The year 2009 saw the return of musical and cultural festivals, and the country of 4 million attracted 2 million tourists, the best year ever. Lebanon’s banking and real estate sectors were slowed but by no means devastated by the global financial crisis because they had adopted conservative investment policies as a result of bad experiences during the years of instability in the last quarter of the 20th century. The country was on track to grow 6 percent in 2009, down from 8.5 percent in 2008. The brutal Israeli assault on Lebanon’s economic infrastructure in the summer of 2006 set the country back three decades, and it will take time fully to recover. But despite fragility and a few clashes and small bombings, it is fair to say that at the moment, your biggest problem in Beirut is that you can’t get a timely reservation at the better restaurants.
1. A considerable proportion of the Iranian public resorted to concerted street and cultural protests against the stealing of the June presidential election by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Crowds demanded popular sovereignty and democracy and condemned dictatorship. Some of the largest demonstrations were held in late December. It is the greatest political awakening in Iran for 30 years. (Well, OK, you heard about this one, but not as much in late December as it deserved; the corporate media go on vacation from news at awkward times.)
Juan R. I. Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. He blogs at Informed Comment. This column appeared on his blog and is used by permission.