Mosques, Social Capital, and the Economy

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Omar Al-Ubaydli is the Program Director for International and Geo-Political Studies at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies, an affiliated associate professor of economics at George Mason University, and an affiliated senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center.

November 6, 2017

[Preamble: Islam requires its adherents to pray five times a day; moreover, men who are in close proximity to a mosque during prayer times are required to go to the mosque and take part in a congregational prayer with other male Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, the government has taken two measures to facilitate congregational prayer: first, they have built a very large number of mosques, ensuring that people are almost always within walking distance of one; second, they require places of work and trading establishments to close during prayer time, so that employees and patrons have time to pray.]

In the wake of falling oil prices, Saudi society now needs a greater economic contribution from its regular citizens, outside the purview of what the government directly organizes—a point that Vision 2030 explicitly makes. In particular, one of the goals is: “Attaining a higher rank in the social capital index;” social capital is a measure of the extent to which citizens are connected to each other independently of the government, and of the degree to which they trust one other. How can Saudi Arabia build its social capital?

Western countries, including the US, are currently experiencing declines in their social capital, reflected in increasing conflict between rich and poor. In contrast, Islam, and more specifically the mosques where congregational prayers are performed, afford Saudi Arabia an advantage in improving its social capital, and provide it with an opportunity to avoid some of the societal problems that have recently emerged in advanced economies.

Social capital is not merely a spiritual phenomenon: it has important consequences for the economy. Scholars began to appreciate this after the publication of Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of the American community” in 2000.

Putnam began by drawing attention to the decline in social capital in the US during the last 50 years, as various indicators of participation in social capital had been retreating, such as active memberships in clubs, religious organizations, and non-profits. He attributed the contraction to television and the internet, as they enabled individuals to enjoy their free time without having to interact with others.

Putnam went on to explain the adverse economic consequences of such developments, most notably a diminution in the level of generalized trust. Why is trust important for GDP? In today’s complex economy, the government cannot realistically manage and oversee economic activity, meaning that people have to be able to trust each other to cooperate get things done. One of the most salient domains is charitable and traditionally non-profit work, where trust is instrumental.

Social capital affects the economy in other ways, too. Two decades after Putnam’s treatise, Charles Murray analyzed US society in his book: “Coming apart: the state of white America 1960-2010”, wherein he drew attention to another negative development over the course of the last 50 years—the virtual segregation of rich and poor social strata. In 1960, rich Americans would intermingle with their poorer brethren in their daily lives: they would study in the same schools, eat in the same restaurants, and attend the same churches; interclass marriage was a normal occurrence.

Among the advantages of this former state of affairs is that a poor person would always feel that he or she could scale the economic ladder, and that the opportunities afforded him or her were more or less the same as those available to the rich. Thus, all citizens were motivated to work hard and to behave responsibly toward others.

Murray discovered a fundamental societal change: the rich have started to cordon themselves off from the poor, living in their own neighborhoods. The best schools, restaurants, and jobs have become the exclusive domain of the rich, and interclass marriage has become quite rate.

As a result, the poor have started to lose hope, feeling that hard work will not open doors; rather, those doors were closed from birth, as they are not part of society’s elite. The working class’s contribution to the economy has diminished, and at times the poor have seemingly become impediments to progress, due to crime, disorder, and acute dependence upon government handouts.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, in principle, the pillar of prayer—specifically the congregational prayer that was established by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)—constitutes a strong foundation upon which to build productive social capital. Notably, congregational prayer arguably addresses the two problems raised by Putnam and Murray.

First, in response to Putnam’s thesis, regardless of the circumstances that might diminish the opportunities for citizens to meet, such as the internet, congregational prayer will always physically bring people together, creating a golden opportunity to improve generalized trust. It breeds familiarity between neighbors, it builds bridges, and creates new relationships. Arguably the most compelling evidence is the abundance of charitable work that emerges in mosques, based on private and decentralized efforts.

Second, with reference to Murray’s observations, mosques bring together people from all economic classes, representing a microcosm of what happens during the hajj pilgrimage, when observers cannot distinguish between rich and poor, manager and worker. In each row of Muslims partaking in a congregational prayer, the rich have no advantage at the expense of the poor, and worshipers are constantly reminded of their equality before Allah (God).

These circumstances yield benefits, including helping to prevent the sort of societal disintegration that has begun to impair advanced economies, as reflected in the recent popularity of far right politicians.

However, it should be noted that opportunities to gather and coordinate efforts can be exploited for negative goals—in other words, social capital can potentially be deployed to society’s detriment. The economist Adam Smith warned about this in his book, The Wealth of Nations: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” He was referring to how businesspeople can take advantage of the opportunity to cooperate to realize gains at the expense of ordinary people. In the context of using congregational prayer as a way of building social capital, therefore, worshippers must ensure that their collective efforts are directed toward constructive enterprises, such as emergency relief campaigns and philanthropy.

In summary, the challenge before Saudi Arabians is devising a way to leverage the regular gatherings of rich and poor offered by congregational prayer to improve generalized trust, understanding, and cooperation; and to use this to improve the economy’s performance, counter to the prevailing trend in western countries. Finding the right formula could play a crucial role in the realization of the Vision 2030.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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