By Lars Lofgren
In his new book, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it will Mean for Our World, Vali Nasr provides an overview of the broad, societal trends that have shaped the Middle East over the last century. Each chapter serves as an overview of the popular topics of the region including Iran, Dubai, Pakistan, Turkey, fundamentalism, and the popularity of state control over the economy though Kemalism. Anecdotes are used throughout the book with engaging writing to absorb the reader in his discussion of the historical trends in the region. Nasr also makes a point to address popular misconceptions of events in the Middle East, providing a clear and thoughtful overview of many heavily debated topics. Throughout this discussion, Nasr exemplifies the importance of the middle class in fostering democratic norms, reducing tensions, and developing an economically vibrant region. If the West hopes to achieve long term reform within the region, it must promote economic reforms that support the moderate Muslim middle class. Only then will secularism, human rights, and democracy begin to gain prominence.
Chapter 1 – The Power of Commerce
While Western policymakers should be concerned about fundamentalism, they should not focus on it at the expense of the bigger picture. Fundamentalism is only practiced by a small minority in the Middle East and is not growing in influence. Fundamentalism has not led to its broad adoption; the broad adoption of Islam has allowed fundamentalism to survive (10-11).
Islamic goods and services are growing in demand. For instance, Islamic finance has moved beyond a niche market, growing at 15-20 percent a year. Islamic finance is simply banking services that conform to sharia law which prohibits collecting or paying interest as well as investing in businesses that may violate sharia law like liquor stores or casinos. There are financial complications to these services as financial entrepreneurs have had to adapt these restrictions to modern banking systems. Nevertheless, Islamic finance is far more palatable to Muslims, encouraging many to interact with western banking systems that have long been shunned in the Middle East (15-19).
Blending Islam with capitalism through tools like Islamic finance enable the west to connect with the growing middle-class of the Middle East, the center of gravity in many Muslim dominant societies. The key to encouraging capitalism in the Middle East is through the businessmen of this middle-class, not the state-sponsored elite. Democratic reforms and the adoption of human rights will not occur until the region is transformed by capitalism (22-25).
Chapter 2 – The World According to Dubai
The combination of an aversion to Western financial institutions after 9/11 and the need to secure funds from political and economic turmoil in the region creates a substantial inflow of capital into Dubai, generating demand for financial services and large volumes of trade. This turns Dubai into a critical regional investment hub (34-35).
Large conglomerates that are government financed but not government run have been the primary driver behind Dubai’s success (38).
There are several concerns with Dubai’s circumstances and growth model however. Having a heavy reliance on construction to fuel growth, the global financial crisis has hit Dubai particularly hard. Furthermore, the increased dependence on migrant labor is not exportable to other economies. Lastly, the high risk of conflict in the region further threatens to impede Dubai’s growth. All of this has allowed competitors to emerge, namely Abu Dhabi and Qatar (40-42).
Dubai exemplifies the desire for capitalistic reform in the regional Muslim’s willingness to engage with the global economy (44).
Dubai is Iran’s gateway to the world and provides the goods and services that economic sanctions have denied Iran. This lifeline to Iranians is an excellent opportunity for the West to engage the emerging middle class of Iran, the same middle class that the future of political and social reform depends on (46-47).
Chapter 3 – Iran’s Predicament
There is a surge of support for reform within Iran. The threat of political and economic reform is what led to the clerical support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009. To this end, Ahmadinejad has utilized populist and revolutionary sentiments of the lower class to keep the reform of the middle class in check (50-51).
Iran’s influence in Afghanistan and Iraq does not stem from military aid or ties to fundamentalists but from its economic ties (52-53).
The connection between Iran and Hezbollah has no economic underpinning, leaving it incredibly vulnerable and weak (56).
Sine 1979, Iran’s regime has been dominated by the conflict to provide economic progress while limiting economic and political reforms (56-57).
Iran is a theocracy ruled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who sits above the law bust must also rely on elections to choose the country’s President, parliament, mayors, and city councilman. However, the judiciary and economic institutions are directly under his control in addition to all legislation through an ability to veto. All government candidates must also obtain approval from the Guardian Council whose members are personally appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. (58 -59).
Ahmadinejad has the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei to fend off calls for reform, cleric seeking more power, and the increasing control of the political system by the Revolutionary Guards (59).
Iran was willing to cooperate with the United States immediately after 9/11 and worked to rebuild Afghanistan with the Americans. Even after the deceleration of the “Axis of Evil” by President Bush, the regime once again attempted to discuss and resolve all outstanding issues between The United States and Iran. These opportunities were largely ignored and not taken fully advantage of by the United States (63-64).
The revolution that toppled the Shah was predominately the result of income inequalities, not religious fervor (65).
Under President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, modest relaxation of economic restraints on the middle-class spurred cultural and social activism. Economic progress for the middle class served as the single greatest driver of democratic and liberal reforms during the period. The election of President Muhammad Khatami offered further hope for continued reform in 1997. Eventually, Supreme Leader Khamenei realized that continued economic reform would eventually demand political reform as well and began staunch opposition towards further reform by empowering the Revolutionary Guards with increased control of the economy. The lower classes’ anger with the new found wealth of the middle class as well as Supreme Leader Khamenei desire to prevent further change would culminate in the election of Ahmadinejad (66-76).
There is evidence to indicate that Supreme Leader Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad is waning and that parliament may pursue economic reform once again (80).
Sanctions on Iran may help contain the influence and power of Iran’s elite but sanctions have a disproportional impact on Iran’s middle class, decreasing the odds of reform within Iran (83).
Chapter 4 – The Tragic Failures of Secularism
There have been three tragic flaws with the the promotion of state-centric modernity in the Middle East through what has come to be know as Kemalism:
- The development of patronage states.
- Failure of a truly independent bourgeoisie.
- An over-emphasis on secularism which has alienated much of the public by attempting to repress Islam (85).
Muslim societies have maintained a large degree of power and influence for much of history. The imperial overstretch of the Ottoman Empire during the technological advancement of Europe helped produce the current disparity between Islam and the West. This was followed by post-World War I colonialism where the West attempted to maintain control of much of the region by exploiting religious and ethnic divides (86-93).
The initial paradigms that Turkey and Iran adopted after World War I became known as Kemalism and quickly spread throughout the Middle East (94-95).
Even though the leaders of the Middle East that utilized Kemalism solidified their countries and built state infrastructures, many quickly succumbed to despotism, became corrupt, and left bloated state institutions that would stifle markets for decades. While Kemalism proved to be an excellent paradigm for initiating state development, the state-centric model quickly became a drag on economies (109).
Much of the economic and democratic developments in the West owe themselves to the rise of the bourgeois. With the state-centric model of Kemalism, an independent middle-class has never been able to fully form to demand political reform (112-114).
Chapter 5 – The Great Islamic Revolution
The Iranian Revoultions may have ended in theocracy but it did not begin as such. The movement began as a collection of interests comprised of pro-democracy, socialist, communist, and Islamic activists from all levels of society. The middle class served as the driving force behind the revolution after becoming disaffected with Kemalism (117-119).
In 1952, the CIA sponsored a a propaganda campaign to encourage opposition against Mohammad Mossadegh, the Prime minister of Iran from 1951-1953. Contrary to popular opinion that the CIA instigated the coup against Mossedegh that would allow the Shah to rise to power, General Zahedia was actually the primary actor in ousting Mossedegh (124-125).
The turn towards theocracy was largely the result of the middle class’s inability to compromise their secularism. In other words, the middle class of Iran preferred a secular dictatorship over an Islamic democracy, which alienated the lower class and derailed progress towards any form of democracy. The West should learn from this; a secular regime or middle class is not as important as institutions that encourage commerce and the loosening of state control (140-144).
Chapter 6 – The True Course of Fundamentalism
Militant extremism is not on the rise within the Middle East. It is able to gain footholds only in areas that lack government control and stability. Furthermore, the popularity of Islam since its inception has been the result of it’s appreciation for the arts and science, not the willingness to spread Islam through bloodshed (146).
Fundamentalism is not a complete rejection of the West, it is a rejection of modernization with secularism. Examples such as the Taliban are by far the exception and do not represent the interests of the broader population. Even though fundamentalism does claim that Muslims must live in a strictly Islamic society governed by an Islamic state, there is no model for how an Islamic state would function in practice or an agreement on what that model would look like. Even shariah law, which an Islamic state must adhere to, has numerous interpretations (148-151).
Fundamentalism began in the 1930s and is largely attributed to Abul Ala Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb. Qutb becoming highly influential and much of these writings served as the basis for modern Islamic extremism. Fundamentalism was developed on the conclusion that Islam rose to prominence by integrated religion and politics. In order to obtain that prominence once again, religion and politics should once again be merged (152-157).
Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud, began providing funding for the promotion of Wahhabism in order to deflect popular rage over programs of modernization within the country and maintain political control. This gave a boost to fundamentalism (162).
After the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, those involved returned to their homes throughout the Middle East and employed their skills of violence for fundamentalist causes. In Afghanistan, a global perspective took sway with the United States becoming the focus (162-163).
The debate within many Muslim societies is not between Islam and secularism; there are few that advocate for secularism. The debate is between types of Islam. Commerce and economic development is the key to encouraging the adoption of moderate versions of Islam (168).
For voters and politicians, fundamentalism and shariah law do not drive elections. Instead, the economy and public services do (175).
Chapter 7 – Chapter 6 – The Prophets of Change
Kemalsim and fundamentalism have both lost their appeal; the Middle East is now embracing pluralism (176).
Radically changing Islamic law or compromising its values, as many in the West have demanded, is not a option. Modernization and increased uncertainty in a globalized market place has encouraged people to return to Islam for a degree of social and cultural security. Promoting reformism will not produce change or moderation. Issues such as the status of women and minorities are unlikely to change in the short term. These changes will have to occur if Islam is to integrate itself into the international system but these changes will come from within, not from Western political pressure (184-187).
The Madrasah has been portrayed as a breeding ground for fundamentalism and extremism. While there are Madrasahs that provide fanatical teachings, they are by no means the norm. The vast majority of parents seek high-quality, useful Islamic education that teaches religious values and the knowledge to succeed in a competitive market place (190-193).
Chapter 8 – Pakistan’s Horror and Hope
The pledge of support by Pervez Musharraf immediately after 9/11 aimed to increase foreign aid, secure American support for his regime, end international sanctions, and use the United States to protect Pakistan’s position against India (204).
The Pakistani military has maintained a tight control over the country, even during times of civilian rule, since it first took control through a coup in 1958. This cyclical pattern between the military and weak civilian regimes has created a downward spiral where each iteration produces fewer results and the military must grow more manipulative to maintain control (207-208).
The success of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan convinced many generals and ISI agents of Pakistan that fueling jihadist movements could be an incredibly effective means to secure national interests. Pakistan used this strategy to increase their influence in Afghanistan through support of the Taliban in order to achieve “strategic depth” against India in proxy control of Afghanistan. This strategic vision has created many ties between the ISI and extremists and cannot be characterized as a rogue element. To this day, ties with extremists have served a specific role in Pakistan’s national interest and strategy against India. The infrastructure for these connections exists to this day and is not under the full control of Pakistan (214-222)
As with the rest of the Middle East, there is evidence, like the lawyers’ movement that denied Musarraf complete control, to show democracy will take hold when the middle class is allowed to assert itself following economic reform. This should be the focus of the West’s policy towards Pakistan (226-227).
Chapter 9 – The Turkish Model
Turkey’s progress towards capitalist growth and political pluralism should serve as a model for the West when formulating policy towards the Middle East. Turkey’s success has primarily been the result of free-market reforms but also the constitutional requirements set forth by the European Union (EU) as conditions for accession into the EU (233-234).
In the post-Ataturk period, state planning and Kemalism served as the models for promoting development which has limited private-sector growth. With the emergence of a new political party, the AKP, the states’ monopoly on the economy has been challenged. Today, the political dynamics of Turkey’s center of the conflict is the rising middle class represented by the AKP and the old business elite that benefited from state’s control (236-248).
Even though the fate of Turkey and AKP is not secure, it will become a Muslim capitalist democracy if it stays on course. The West should support these efforts (250-251).
Chapter 10 – Winning the Future
Democracy will not take root within the Middle East until legitimate economic progress is made. Instead of demanding elections, the West should demand that leaders in the Middle East  submit to the rule of law,  accept constitutional checks and balances,  eliminate regulations and bureaucratic red tape that impedes commerce,  employ fewer and smaller state enterprises,  reduce the public sector,  employ fewer people through a government payroll, and  open up for foreign direct investment, trade, and the free flow of goods and services. Aid given by the West should concentrate on supporting entrepreneurship and commerce while opening Western markets to the goods and services of the Middle East (256-257).
Sanctions and policies of isolation only make it more difficult for commerce and the middle class of Iran to assert itself. Considering that the middle class is likely the only force that can provide stable, long-term reform within Iran, the use of sanctions should be reevaluated (263).
The Bottom Line
Vali Nasr presents an incredibly informative book. Forces of Fortune is, hands down, one of the best primers on the Middle East. While there are numerous topics not discussed like the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Nasr focuses on the underlying dilemmas within the region that underpin today’s tensions. Anyone that has an interest in the Middle East must read this book. For those that have already studied the Middle East at depth and are familiar with the concepts of neoliberalism, this book won’t provide much in the way of new insights however.
Nasr’s thesis of empowering the middle class of the Middle East to spur democratic reform throughout the region depends on a single assumption: the adoption of a neoliberal world view. Neoliberalism is a perspective within international relations that states economic interdependency and the adoption of democratic norms will reduce conflict throughout the globe. This is essentially Nasr’s argument. As the middle class of the Middle East is allowed to progress economically, political reform will follow and tensions between the Middle East and the West will decline.
There are numerous counters to this perspective. For example, Japan and the United States were highly integrated economically before World War II yet this did not prevent them from going to war. Realism, the other dominant world view in international relations, would assert that states are inherently self-interested since there is no global power that can monopolize force. Even though the middle class of the Middle East may spur economic development, these states will persistently pursue their self interest. Since the survival of any given country is never assured, national interests are built on a foundation of increasing one’s relative power compared to other states.
The answer is most likely somewhere between the two perspectives. Nasr’s policy perspectives will most likely decrease conflict within and from the region. However, conflict should not be expected to be completely negated. There are no foundational “peace” theories within international relations, and for every model of peace, there is contrasting examples of that model leading to war. In short, Nasr’s policy recommendations are likely to increase long-term development, consolidate democratic norms, and reduce tensions, but they cannot be expected to bring complete stability and peace to the region.
Nasr, Vali. Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. New York: Free Press, 2009.
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