Philadelphia and Fallujah

Michael Metzger

Why is Philadelphia a 21st century city while Fallujah is not?

It’s a question scholars have struggled with for years, suggesting answers that are unsatisfactory, writes The Economist. Now an economist at Duke University offers a surprising distinction explaining the divergence between Middle Eastern and Western cities. It might make your faith community reconsider its mission statement.

The disparities between Middle Eastern and modern Western cities have long been a debate among scholars. Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American economist based at Duke University, has written a book on the subject called The Long Divergence. He tackles the vexing question about why, for most of its history, the Middle East was just as dynamic as Europe. For example, in the year 1000 the Middle East’s share of the world’s gross domestic product was 10 percent compared with Europe’s 9 percent. By 1700 the Middle East’s share had fallen to just 2 percent and Europe’s had risen to 22 percent.1

The disparities are not because Islam disdains commerce. If anything, “Islamic scripture is more pro-business than Christian texts,” notes The Economist. Kuran instead advances a more plausible reason—the West’s long ascendancy was rooted in its mission of making institutions that combined labor and capital in productive new ways. The Middle East fell behind the West because it failed to produce institutions that were capable of mobilizing large quantities of productive resources. The net effect is enterprises in the Islamic world operate differently than those in the West.

For example, under the Islamic “law of partnerships,” businesses can be dissolved at the whim of a single partner. Islamic leaders recognize this unsteady reality. “America is ruled by institutions,” notes Lebanon’s Muhammed Hussein Fadlullah. “We, in the Arab countries or in the East, we don’t have institutions.”2 As a result, Islam’s atomized approach denies financial investors the benefits of institutional boundary markers.

Today, for example, income per head in the Middle East is only 28 percent of the European and American average. Electricity, telecoms, and transport have not been institutionalized, presenting a problem for Middle Eastern business. Rampant corruption also cripples innovation and investment. On a scale from one (the most corrupt) to ten, Western Europe’s five most populous countries received an average score of 6.5, whereas the three most populous countries in the Middle East averaged 3.2.

This divergence ought to create cognitive dissonance in the church, since Laura Winner, among others, claims it is “famously hostile to institutions.” Everything is “organic.” This anti-institution bias ranges from outright hostility to being unaware—but it does show up, particularly in a church’s mission statement. Most use phrases like winning people or building relationships or making followers of Christ. They focus on individuals, not institutions. If you point this out, however, you get push back. Many believers imagine institutions as the cold and cramped cubicles of Corporate America.

“It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things,” G.K. Chesterton warned. “The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they must always, and they always do, create institutions. We are never free until some institution frees us, and liberty cannot exist till it is declared by authority.”3 Alonzo McDonald, Chairman and CEO of Avenir Group, Inc., warns faith communities against being “overcritical of the general idea of institutions—as if those who come to Christ are restored to the simplicity of an Eden-like existence that needs no structures or organizations.”4 The reality is we don’t live in Eden.

In a fallen world, overlooking institutions has ominous outcomes. Individualism reverses how we ought to define life, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. We are not defined by what we as individuals ask of life but by what life asks of us, he writes. “As we go through life, we travel through institutions—first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.”5

Brooks is borrowing from On Thinking Institutionally by the political scientist Hugh Heclo. Heclo says institutionalists have a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he or she has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.” Brooks says he tries to keep a list of the people in public life he admires most. He finds they have invariably “subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution.” The reality of our present day is that institutional thinking is eroding. “Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior.” It also explains the divergence between Middle Eastern and Western cities.

The irony in all this is that faith communities hail marriage as an institution established by God. They bemoan national media institutions for undermining marriage. They are correct on both counts. Changing the world requires dense, overlapping networks of institutions. Changing it for the better requires the faith community assisting institutions in flourishing. This requires a mission targeting institutions, not just individuals, and raises the question of whether churches are willing to rewrite their mission statement. If they won’t, the long divergence between today’s church and the ancient church’s mission of building institutions will likely continue.

1 “The Crescent and the Company,” The Economist, January 29, 2011, p. 67.
2 Robert J. Pollock, “A Dialogue With Lebanon’s Ayatollah,” Wall Street Journal, March 14-15, 2009, A7.
3 G.K. Chesterton and Iain T. Benson, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume VII (Ft. Collins, CO: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 286.
4 Alonzo L. McDonald, “The Grand Inquisitor Lives—Idolatry in Organizations and Management,” from No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age ?edited by Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), p. 138.
5 David Brooks, “What Life Asks of Us,” New York Times, January 27, 2009


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  1. I agree, an excellent break-down of the situation. I think examining the institutional qualities of Islam (depending on the sect, the location, etc.) could tell us more and more about what to expect. Amy Chua’s Day of Empire is very strong about saying that when an empire’s religious institutions are allowed to flourish, the empire will flourish. Suppressed, and the empire’s prosperity is suppressed.

  2. My complaint typically isn’t against institutions per se relative to the church, but rather to the pursuit of the church for modern business practices, the consumerization of the church that has occurred in modern America since the 1920s forward, especially since the 1970s. By bringing in the modern business model, we reinforce a consumer mindset that weakens the church.

    I will admit, though, that in my lament and critique to often talking about the negative impact of “the church as institution.” Your blog post gives me pause to think more deeply about how I am expressing my thoughts.

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