October 21, 2009

Turning Extremists into Exporters

The way to transform Muslim countries into stable democracies is to integrate them into the global economy and allow their middle classes to grow, says Vali Nasr

By James I. Miller

Talk to Vali Nasr about his new book, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World (Free Press), and two phrases are likely to recur: long run and short run.

With the book, Nasr, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School, poses what he describes as an “intellectual challenge about the way we think about the Muslim world.” His core argument: It’s time for U.S. policymakers to integrate a long-run view of the Muslim world into their thinking. They also need to realize that the transformation of Muslim countries toward stable, moderate, capitalist democracies requires that they have robust middle classes tied to global commerce and trade.

“The very things we value in the West, the pinnacles of progress, all have to do with a stable middle class,” says Vali Nasr, who appeared recently on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Photo: Melody Ko

For half a century, U.S. policymakers typically haven’t had time for such visions, says Nasr, A83, F84. Too often they are fixated on the traumatic day-to-day events that have roiled life in the Muslim world. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the focus started to evolve. Forces of Fortune is meant to nudge—or maybe push—that evolution.

“It’s obvious we understand that we’re dealing with 1.3 billion people in a vast area of the world, which poses short-run challenges to us,” says the Iranian-born Nasr, who moved with his family to the Boston area during the 1979 revolution that turned Iran into a theocracy. “But our interest lies in a long-run transformation there.”

Nasr, associate director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts and the author of the 2006 bestseller The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, is a senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, H97, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tufts Journal: What is the “critical middle” and why does it matter?

Nasr: Everywhere in the world where we see stability, prosperity, openness and democracy, it’s associated with a stable middle class. That’s true of the United States. It’s true of the rise of Europe. It’s now true of China and India. In other words, the very things we value in the West, the pinnacles of progress, all have to do with a stable middle class.

You cite Turkey as perhaps the best example of a Muslim country that’s moved in that direction. How close is it to what you call the “holy grail of freedom and prosperity”?

They are fairly close. Turkey has had a stable democracy since 2002. It’s now one of the world’s largest economies. Istanbul is a favorite tourist destination. Turkey is exporting—producing very vigorously. Yes, it’s now a more Islamic country, but not the kind of Islam we worry about in the Arab world or Pakistan.

Turkey has a lot of infrastructure, a lot of educated people, and it had decades of secularism. But it is not those things that got Turkey to where it is. It is the opening of Turkey to global markets that began in 1980 that integrated it into the global economy. That gave rise to a whole generation of Turkish businessmen, a lot of them small-town, religious-conservative businessmen who do direct business with Europe. They’re generating wealth, and they’re creating jobs in Turkey. As a consequence of their rise, Turkish politics has also opened up.

Turkey shows us, number one, that it’s possible for that to happen in the Muslim world. Number two, Turkey became simultaneously global as it became more Islamic, so Islam was not an impediment to globalization. Number three, whatever good things that have happened in Turkey are a consequence of its integration into the global economy.

Has the United States languished in addressing the “critical middle”? How do we change that?

We have, largely because for the past half a century policy has always been directed at addressing short-run problems. Helping a class rise or putting in place economic changes that would help a class rise require time. Those are long-run visions that policymakers often don’t have time for, or can’t wait that long for.

You’re going to only have that middle class if the economies of the Muslim world open up to global commerce and trade, embrace market economics and become part of the global economy.

This has happened elsewhere in the world, but not because somebody had a long-run agenda. Countries that needed money and went to the International Monetary Fund or other funding agencies were given money on the condition that they reform their economies. Now what does reforming your economy mean? It means that you reduce tariffs, you change your regulations. The government reduces its control. You encourage foreign investment. You encourage multinationals to come in and produce and export from your country.

With the focus on commerce, is there a risk of values such as democracy, freedom and human rights getting lost?

I think it’s the opposite. Those values will only come with the transformative effect of integration into the global economy. If values we share are going to be Muslim values as well, that will only happen when Muslims are participants in the global economy and not standing outside of it. That’s the way it happened in the West. The Reformation changed religion, but democracy, pluralism, tolerance—these are values associated with the rise of commerce and the rise of trade.

If Forces of Fortune is republished in five years, and you’re asked to write a chapter about the interim, what do you think it will say?

I hope that by then, the Muslim middle class—whether it’s in the Arab world or in Asia or in Turkey, whether they’re dominant or they’re still growing—would become big enough a force that we would see it very visibly. By then, I no longer would need to introduce it to readers. Rather, I would be explaining the many ways in which it actually has changed the whole world.

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