Forces of Fortune by Vali Nasr

This book came to my attention after seeing Nasr interviewed on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”; his perceptions of the necessity of a middle class in the Muslim world intrigued me and I wanted to read more about his ideas. Subtitled “The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World”, the book actually deals with much more than that as it traces the economic development of Dubai, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey as well as the rest of the Middle East within the context of colonialism, secularism (which Nasr calls Kemalism), and fundamentalism and American/British/European interference as well as the influence of Islam on the economic and political climate of the Middle East. His basic premise is fundamentalism, jihad, and terrorism will only end and democracy will only win after the West opens up trade and encourages the formation of a middle class in Islamic states.

“The prevailing narrative in the West tends to emphasize that the rights that we hold so fear — the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of association, and the rule of law — were established by the institution of democracy. Less attention is paid to the prerequisites of democracy, and the West has become too enamored of the notion that democracy will flower spontaneously once there are free and fair elections. This discounts the vital importance of fundamental changes in society, law, and the relations between states and their citizens that are necessary for democracy to succeed. Western history clearly shows that those fundamental changes follow on the evolution of commerce” (pg. 254).

Although the book begins with a discussion of Dubai, Nasr real focus is on Iran and the predicament he sees the country as in with it’s current form of government — clerical rule. According to Nasr, Iran wants to spread it’s influence across the region and realizes that the only way to do that is through commerce and free trade within the region. As long as Middle Eastern countries are dependent upon the country for goods, services, and the highly necessary electricity, Iran will be able to flex its political and religious muscle within those particular countries. The most concerning part, though, is not that Iran wants to spread its own form of Islam and government structure, but rather that the countries secular middle class is not interested in forcing the governments hand into democracy as they are worried about a repeat of the Islamic Revolution and would much rather live under an authoritarian government than an (even more) uber religious one.

“The plight of the Iranian middle-class intellectuals and artists, writers and academics, businessmen and civil servants after the Islamic Revolution made an enormous impression on their counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world. From Morocco to Malaysia, whatever the sins and failings of the state and its elite, the middle class perceived that it would be subjected to the same face without the state’s protection. The middle class would not be fooled again. All around the Middle East ever since, thought the secular middle class has engaged in plenty of criticism of government, and when the opportunity has presented itself, has often expressed support for democracy — even spearheading massive protests in Iran and Pakistan recently — they have generally shunned alliances with Islamic forces. When push comes to shove, the middle class has lined up behind authoritarian, secular leaders as against fundamentalists. This dependence has been expedient, but it has also meant that that the secular middle class has not, by and large, acted as a force for cultural, economic, and political liberalization. In the many battles between governments and fundamentalists that have raged in the region, the middle class has played a secondary role at best” (pg. 141).

Nasr  makes the case that fundamentalism is a reaction to the secular autocrats of the early 20th century. Ataturk, Pahlavi, and the other rulers of Middle East accomplished a great deal by importing Western technology and political structures, but they believed progress came from the state, not the people. Their rigidity led to a backlash that we have been grappling with for thirty years. But Nasr doesn’t see Iran’s fear having much of a bases in the rest of the Islamic world because, according to him, fundamentalism is on its way out. Thanks in part to the rise in Islamic banking, which allows the most fervent of Muslims to participate in the global economy, the radical Islam practiced by Islamic terrorist organizations is no longer maintaining sway over the middle class.

“Khomeini’s radical breed of fundamentalism is by no means ascendant in the region today. The great promise of the new pious middle class that is rising to prominence in so many pockets of the region is that it has rejected such extremism and is practicing a new blending os Islam and capitalist believe in entrepreneurship and self-reliance, which can pave the way for liberalization, and for accommodation with the West. Those championing this blending for the most part seek ever more integration for the region’s national economies into the global capitalist system” (pg. 144).

His claims are interesting as well as the wealth of background information provided, although I did begin to lose focus during the second to last chapter which talked about Turkey. For the most part, the book is so well-written that I quickly forgot Nasr’s premise and just tried to absorb all the facts, but when all is said and done I do believe his premise does have some wait the United States and the rest of the world should take note of. It’s certainly much easier to make friends with trade than bombs.

Book Mentioned:

  • Nasr, Vali. Forces of the Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. New York, NY: Free Press, 2009. Print. 308 pgs. ISBN: 9781416589686. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Free Press. Retrieved: July 25, 2010.
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