The term Ali Baba has a few meanings. Most famously, it is the name of the poor woodcutter protagonist in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a tale appended to the end of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights by a French translator. International copyright law did not exist at this point, and it was common for translators to tamper with works in transit. The story is believed to have been told to the translator by a Maronite Christian story-teller from Aleppo, now in modern Syria. In the tradition of this story, the name is sometimes applied to Iraqi looters by coalition forces and other Iraqis, or to coalition soldiers by Iraqis.

More interestingly, the term is commonly used to describe a joint business venture in South East Asia involving a non-Chinese Muslim frontman and a Chinese subcontractor.

The Chinese for centuries occupied an economic position in South East Asia similar to that of the Jews in Western Europe. That is to say, they were a diffuse community spread across a number of societies to which they were alien. Their ability to tap into this international network of fellow-Chinese throughout the region allowed them to enjoy economic success (the similar ability among the Jews is, if you look back far enough, the root of the claim that the Jews rule the world which was so popular with Nazis and Bolsheviks, and later adopted by Islamists). Even more important was the difference in ideology and religion between them and the natives of Muslim South East Asian society.

The interpretation of Islam that used to be prevalent throughout peasant South East Asia, analogous to a similar strain in Christianity, stressed the essential fatality of everyday life. It was not for one to try and transcend the bounds of one's social position and economic status, as Allah had created one in that situation for a reason, and trying to fight against it would be tantamount to fighting against Allah. Besides, in much of the region, the bounties of Eden were easily attained if the soil and custom were not disturbed by the malignant hand of man; surely this was proof that Allah smiled kindly upon the people of this region, and they should be content with their lot.

The Chinese, meanwhile, did not have a similar worldview in Confucianism, and they were generally much more industrious in trying to shape the world in the way they wished. The Islamic fatalism was clearly much less compatible with capitalism than an ideology which was practical and this-worldly, although the Islamic view was, for one reason or another, the dominant viewpoint in most traditional peasant societies. This meant that as modern economic sectors sprung up alongside the traditional ones, the Chinese in South East Asia came to hold much of the economic power. This led, for instance, to the anti-Chinese riots in Malaysia in 1969, an event which has been repeated all over the region in the last one hundred years.

However, unlike the Jews, the Chinese lacked something - social power. Memories of the Holocaust and the pogroms of the Black Hundreds in Russia may make it seem strange for me to assert that Jews in Europe had social privilege, but they did have one thing: access to the rulers who needed their money and international financial network. The Chinese, however, had no such access to the social elite. In fact, they have often suffered political repression, such as in the 1963 Malayan Constitution which specifically discriminated against them (even the name of the country says it all: Malaysia for the Malays).

In the days before free market capitalism came into vogue in the region, business contracts depended on the patronage of some high official who was in charge of building infrastructure, maintaining defence, and so on. Often this person would be in the palace somewhere. This meant we had a paradoxical situation where the natives had the social position to exploit economic opportunities, whereas only the Chinese had the drive and the means to do it. An 'Ali Baba' deal (stereotypical names for a Muslim and a Chinese man) was one in which a Muslim got the contract with his social connection, and then acted as a front in employing Chinese contractors to do the actual work.

Nowadays, the Ali Baba deal is in decline and is looked down upon. A new interpretation of Islam has become dominant in the middle class of much of the region, one surprisingly similar to that of Max Weber's Calvinists. Holders of the new view reject both the fatalism of their grandfathers and the neo-traditionalism of Islamic fundamentalists, arguing that Islam and economic modernity can be synergized. They view the work of an entrepreneur as essentially one of giving rather than accumulating things, as a provider of work, wisdom and positive social activity in the Islamic ummah (community of believers). Unlike many Westerners, they understand that economics is not a zero-sum game and view economic activity as both spiritually and practically beneficial.

As with Calvinism, success in the economic sphere is evidence that Allah smiles kindly on an individual. Hence, Islam and modernity are working together to provide a new work ethic which looks down on the corruption, idleness and waste of old feudal society and looks forward to a future of economic progress which is of positive benefit for the whole community, and conducted in accordance with God's commandments. It is powerful visions of this sort that can overcome the rigid authoritarianism of the Salafists.

For a case study and the most well-written piece of social anthropology I have ever read, see Patricia Sloane, Islam, Modernity and Entrepreneurship Among the Malays. Weber's famous analysis which provides a look at a parallel in Christianity is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

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