The level of power that the the ultra-conservative forms of Islam have in a society does often dictate also the general level of overall development in that society. An analogy with the computer world just might help here.
It has been said that culture is the operating system of a society. This analogy can well be used on religions also. If you are still running a computer on simple text-based DOS, when others have long since moved on to the modern graphical user interface of a modern version of Windows or Linux or OS X, you are in clear disadvantage.
There is only a very limited amount of commands that can be used in character-based DOS, when you can use Windows 7 or Linux to make a wild variety of things that are just impossible in DOS. One can well still use a computer with DOS if one wants. However, then that person is in a position of underdog to those who have upgraded to a more modern and flexible operating system.
A simple fact is that less impact old-fashioned forms of Islam have in a society, the better are society's chances for achieving real development. This has been true at least during the last couple of centuries.
Turkey is now a clear number one in Islamic world in all respects concerning its level of development. This happened after the earthly power if Islam in Turkey was effectively destroyed in the 20's and 30's by Kemal Atatürk. The role of Islam in Turkey has not been restored to former levels even by the last mildly Islamic recent government. This government has been restrained in part at least by the firmly established secular institutions and constitutional framework.
In general the Islamic countries where the religion has been pushed to the back seat have been more advanced than others in almost all respects. So, for example, the laissez-faire Dubai is in an extremely different position than some of its more fundamentalist neighbors.
One does not need to connect any dots to see how the underdevelopment, lack of real education, oppression of half of society (that is women) and general un-permissiveness and denial of all new thinking just could lead to problems in a modern world.
In Islam, there is no real division of secular and religious powers. Religion is always simultaneously also a political and social force. There is a wealth of more advanced and well-to-do-societies in the world that are in reality not guided and led by religious dogmas at all anymore. They are fully enjoying the benefits of economic, scientific, social and political progress of the last centuries and decades.
On the other side of the coin are societies that are in general dragging behind in development. This happens often because of the autocratic style of governing these societies. All too often this model does come from the medieval world of Islam.
The original Islam just was the religion of choice for the autocrat and of the absolute ruler in general. It was developed to support a strictly autocratic feudal society. Things like democracy or freedom of speech just have no place in the world of original Islam.
It is just extremely difficult for some people to admit that there are better and worse religions. It is often difficult to accept that most of all religions need to change with the societies in which they exist.
This is, of course, because it often requires the acceptance of the simple fact that religions are human constructs which are created made to serve human need. Humans do not exist to serve religions. Understanding this is of course all too much for very many.
Islam also was grand force for change 1200 years ago, and the building of an Islamic empire did lead to a new flourishing with an immense new free-trade-area. However, that religion and also the region that was under its rule did fall into a state of no change. Ultimately, closer to our time this area did fall to a status of utter stagnation compared to many other similar areas.
Unfortunately, Islam has not been able to change since that. This religion is now slowing down development in all of the societies where it has achieved a dominant position. A major problem is that Islam is too rigid in a world that requires flexibility. It is too closed in a world that requires openness. It just is too change-resistant in a world that requires constant change.
I must stress that I am really talking about the ideology of Islam in general here. I am not talking about Muslims as human beings. Individual Muslims can change, and they can be flexible. However, they can do this only in societies that are not ruled by old-fashioned forms of Islam. These qualities are much, much difficult to find in people living under the direct rule of fundamentalist Islam.
If you look at societies like Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Yemen or Sudan, you can find no openness, flexibility or possibility for real change. The big question here is always the amount of influence carried by the ultra-conservative religion in society.
Criticizing Islam is surprisingly a 'reactionary' thing to for some. However, I have never understood how criticizing one of the most reactionary and conservative ideologies there is on earth would be somehow reactionary itself.
Of course, this all is because extremely reactionary people are just now attacking Islam for their own racist and bigoted reasons. This makes some people think that all of the enemies of these reactionary people must be somehow progressive. They just fail to realize that it is all about a cat-fight between the most ultra-conservative and reactionary groups on the face of the earth.
A fact is that radical Islam is not a force for change. It is a force of stagnation and it does lead into a medieval darkness if these ideas are taken seriously in a society. Original Islam was basically perfected as a system for conserving feudal societies and their deep and profound inequalities to maximum extent.
One cannot fathom why any progressive or liberal person on this earth would ever rise to the defense of political Islam that aims at restoring the original version of Islam.
The big thing here is that in areas where Islam has power it is in general rule MORE intolerant, MORE hate-inducing and generates of MORE tight group-thinking than most other modern world-religions or irreligious ideas are in general.
However, to me the main problem with Islam ultimately just is its apparently lacking the ability to change with the chances that do happen around it in the real world.
Islam did change incredibly and very fast during the first couple of hundred of years of its existence. Islam was, in fact, crafted during a longer period of time. It did not drop from the sky. The teachings of the Mohammad were just a small part of the complex system that was developed by dedicated scholars in the early centuries of Islam.
The early scholars had the daunting task of creating a system that would best serve the newfangled feudal Arab ruling class. They had also to create a system for making tens of millions of quite recently conquered subjects willingly serve their new masters.
The problem with Islam just could be that it was been more successful than other major world religions. Most of all it has succeeded in fighting off the same forces that have forced many other major religions either into the path of change or to the road to obscurity. The resistance to change is inbuilt in all religions. However, some just have been much more malleable than others.
There has been also progressive forces in Islam. Unfortunately they have had not much of any real impact on the development of their societies.
The stagnation hit Islam at a time when the Western Europe was going on the transformation triggered by the Age of Enlightenment and most of all the loss of mental power of the Catholic Church. They could finally start the voyage from the feudal and tribal societies into what they are now.
A major problem is that all of modern interpretations of Islam have remained in their fundamental nature the same. They have not altered the basic need for absolute submission to the absolute truth of a single ideology. They have not altered the belief in the sanctity of bronze-age moral codes and most of all the role of women as wholly subordinate to men.
There are many factions in Islam. However, for example, Shia is no real alternative to Sunni, as they just have different sets of absolute requirements and different demands for quite similar absolute submission.
The main point is that Reformation and counter-Reformation are still missing in Islam. Most of all the secularization of the societies that lie under Islamic rule is still way too incomplete. As long as this process is not started, these societies will drag behind in developments that are going on in freer societies.
Writer Timur Kuran argues in his book "The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East" that the Islamic legal institutions slowed the economic development of the Middle East. They slowed or blocked the emergence of central features of modern economic life. According to Timur Kuran this includes private capital accumulation, corporations, large-scale production, and impersonal exchange.
All this mean that Islam just might be in its present form bad for the people. However, this does not mean that Muslims would be any different from us as humans. There are hundreds of millions of good, loving, law-abiding and caring Muslims only minding their own business.
However, the more a basic, original, unchanged and undeveloped form of Islam has political, social and cultural power in a society, the less advanced and more restrictive, reactionary, backward and generally undeveloped that society tends to be.
However, I believe that even Islam can be tamed similarly as Christianity was ultimately tamed in Western Europe. However, change must come from the inside of the Islamic world itself. Islam itself must be changed if the Islamic world ever wants to rise again from its backwardness.
The good news is that Islam is not a virus or genetic disease, but just a human ideology. In fact, just ideologies are surprisingly easy to change if there just arises the general will to do that.
In Europe, we did happily get rid of the overpowering rule of the Catholic rule during the last few hundred years. This is true, even if this church still does persist. However, it is without most of its secular powers. Just this achievement did push Europe in a path for development that is still lacking is Islamic world.
Of course, there are millions and millions of individual modern Muslims who do not really care anymore what their antiquated religion orders and demands them to think. However, a sad fact is that in too many Islamic countries their voice has been not heard at all.
We can only hope that the ongoing round of revolutions or "Arab Spring" that is going on in the Islamic world can change it.
(This piece was completely refurbished in 7th of January, 2012)