In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is considered the first cause of everything, but He constitutes creation in a way that allows for the operation of semi-independent secondary causes, ie, cause and effect in the natural world. In other words, when a rock falls, the direction of its fall is determined by the forces of gravity, not directly by God. For a Sunni Ash'arite Muslim, this is not so. There is no cause and effect in the natural world. God is not only the first cause, but the only cause. It is, therefore, God who makes the rock fall and who determines the direction in which the rock moves. The rock could just as well have fallen upward or sideways, and it may do so next time, depending on God's will. Since God can will anything, the direction in which the rock moves is unpredictable. However, God seems to observe certain habits, and his habit appears to be to have rocks fall downward. But it is only that - a habit, and has nothing to do with natural laws.
Here is the problem with this view of things: if there is no continuous narrative of cause and effect tying events together in a comprehensible way, the world becomes incomprehensible. Each thing that happens is a discrete event, directly willed by God, which has nothing to do with the events that precede or follow it. There is no connection whatsoever - outside of God's volition in placing these events in an arbitrary sequence. There is no natural sequence. This makes reality unintelligible. As a result, the Muslim mind becomes prey to wild conspiracy theories as substitutes for rational explanations.
The denial of causality has very practical consequences in Muslim life. For instance, between 1983 and 1984, weather forecasts were suspended by the Pakistani media. This was because Muslim scholars had complained that the prediction of rain lies outside of what can be lawfully known to man. If God is unpredictable, and He directly causes the weather, how can one forecast it? The attempt to predict the weather is a blasphemous presumption.
Here is a more recent example in the same vein from the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram. Its founder Mohammed Yusuf proclaimed that "All knowledge that contradicts Islam is prohibited by the Almighty." Like the weather. Yusuf said, "There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it."
The broader consequence of the denial of causality is the dearth of science in the Sunni Muslim world. The denial of natural law, occasioned by the Ash'arite conception of God as pure will and power, removes the very objective of science from the Muslim mind. Since the effort of science is to discover nature's laws, the teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist obviously discourages the scientific enterprise. There are people in Saudi Arabia today who still do not believe man has been to the moon. This is not because they are ignorant; it is because accepting the fact that man was on the moon would mean also accepting the chain of causal relationships - gravity, thrust weight, trajectory, etc. - that put him there, which is simply theologically unacceptable to them.
However, the devastation extends far beyond science, and here we come to the broader truth of Romney's observation. Were it not for sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world would find itself at the bottom of the scale in every category of human development - productivity, per capita GDP, healthcare, education, literacy. The grim statistics are laid out in the UN Arab Human Development Reports, all written by Arab scholars themselves. Why is it that a country like Spain can by itself produce more than the entire Arab world? Or how can little Finland export more than the Arab world, when oil exports are removed from the equation? How come Greece translates five times as many books a year as the whole Arab world does?
The 2003 Report states, "In being connected with and at the same time contradictory to knowledge, Arab intellectual heritage nowadays raises basic knowledge problems."
Indeed, it does.
The report is bold enough to refer to "sometimes a disregard of reality" in the Arab world. This disregard, with its devastating consequences, is the direct result of a deformed idea of God that disallows causality, reason's ability to know reality, the intelligibility of the world, and the integrity of creation. It has produced a dysfunctional culture.
A poor economy is one effect of this dysfunctional culture, which is why Romney was correct in pointing to it as the culprit. He is spot on that "culture makes all the difference."