Vali Nasr. Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. New York: Free Press, 2009. 320 pp.
This empirically informative yet analytically defective book labors to dissect the complexities of political and economic development in the Muslim world, strongly focusing on Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser extent, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
As the full title of the book indicates (Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World), the central theme that frames the narrative is how economic modernization and the concomitant rise of an urban middle class (dubbed the “critical center”) connects with the resurgence of Islam as well as the issues of democracy and globalization. This is a bold undertaking providing a wealth of information that, irrespective of its multiple flaws mentioned below, sheds light on the shifting ideological landscape underway in significant parts of today’s Middle East and beyond.
According to Nasr, Islamic fundamentalism in its extremist forms is on the verge of being eclipsed by a more moderate version embraced by a “new pious middle class” that is “rising to prominence” (pg 144) and thus bound to accelerate the region’s retarded globalization. An avid believer in the “transformative power of markets,” Nasr strongly advocates a “capitalist revolution” and the unfettering of private sectors whereby liberalization through capitalism could spur “direct foreign investment, trade and the free flow of goods” (pg 256).
In making its case for a broad-based economic change centered on the middle class, the book journeys to the historical past, dissecting the region’s “twisted path to modernity” (pg 87) reflected in various authoritarian models of development that have bred a state-dependent bourgeoisie too often incapable of acting as the engine for political modernization. In the case of Turkey, the author credits both the political foresight of the country’s moderate Muslim leaders as well as the infusion of capital from Europe as the principal reasons for Turkey’s success story, hailed as an “exemplary case of capitalist and democratic development in the region.”
Nasr is equally impressed by Dubai, whose “growth represents an enormously appealing new model of development” (pg 32) that is based on a new pattern of state-private partnership and the questioning of “a long history in the Middle East of state control and disdain for pure capitalism” (pg 37).
Obviously, Dubai’s recent financial meltdown and the sudden bursting of its economic bubble raises legitimate question marks on such unbridled mercantilism, seeing how even such US ideologues of capitalism as Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, have openly admitted that there are serious “flaws in the free market economy”; many developing nations, including in the Middle East, have rightly resorted to greater market regulation and even protectionism in reaction to the current global economic crisis.
In comparison with hard-hit Dubai, the relative isolation from the world economy of some other economies in the region has to some extent shielded them from the negative impact of the global financial crisis. To his credit, half way through the chapter on Dubai, Nasr amends some of his own outlandish praises of the early pages in order to give an account of Dubai’s unprecedented crisis. But this indicates a hasty revision and only gives the chapter a split personality without a coherent causal analysis of what went wrong and how this may impact the author’s “unfettered capitalism” penchant.
Nasr’s analysis falls outside the parameters of a Marxian class analysis and he dispenses with the methodological questions altogether; the whole book has a journalistic flavor that may make a timely travel companion for Western policy-makers touring the Muslim Middle East to preach economic reform, yet has scant social scientific value, rambling for too long on the familiar territory of fundamentalism, Kemalism, etc, with precious little on a systematic assemblage of economic facts. These are compounded by several factual errors, such as claiming that “most” of Iran’s regional trade is with Central Asia — not true.1
Nasr draws heavily on his personal observations, which is fine except that the interlocutors are nearly always from the upper stratum, reflecting his own middle-class predilections that lead him to draw too close a connection between political extremism and lower classes and poverty, smacking of both economic determinism, not to mention naïve globalism. On the other hand, the recent expansion of the “war on terror” to Somalia and Yemen, a country described by US President Barack Obama as ravaged by “crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies,” indicates that Nasr’s predictions of the growing demise of extremism may be wishful thinking.
The chapters covering Iran are largely uninteresting and stale, rehashing the known arguments about the Islamic revolution, “tragic” failure of secularism, etc. Yet in addition to the total lack of originality, the more egregious problem is that the book recycles the prevalent Western stereotypes regarding the Iranian regime as a sponsor of terrorism and nuclear proliferator intent on regional dominance, waging “wrong-headed policies” led by a “populist,” namely President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Nasr fails to mention that the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency has made extensive inspections of Iran’s facilities and has found no evidence of military diversion. His sharp distinction of democracy and authoritarianism is also conceptually untenable, and his claim of “heavy taxing” of the merchant class by the Tehran regime invites criticism in light of the hitherto successful opposition of the former to the latter’s mild tax increases.
The book pays almost no attention to the role of Iran’s legislative branch, the regular albeit restrictive elections or the country’s strategic and national security outlook, presenting instead a caricature of Iran that in the end makes the book a poor product from which Western diplomats might glean information for their Iran policies.
What is more, with all its legitimization of a soft Islam, the book’s main defect is its Western-centrism, reflected in its prescriptions, for instance, on how the West should “cajole” the Iranian leaders to “rethink their national interests,” as if Western powers know any better or always have the country’s best interest in mind.
Mainstream thoughts nearly always end in the snares of their own conformism. Nasr quotes approvingly former British prime minister Tony Blair, one of the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and wants us to believe that the West today has placed a “high premium” on democracy in the Middle East, a questionable assertion given the absence of any pressure on the oil sheikhdoms, or friendly authoritarian regimes, to democratize.
Indeed, the whole weltanschauung exhibited here is a fundamental step back into the bosom of (Edward) Saidian Orientalism that cannot possibly be received by the Muslim intelligentsia as anything other than indicative of a Western-centric mindset, thus making the author, an advisor to the US government, part of the problem and not the solution.
That aside, in his romanticization of the “forces of fortune,” Nasr forgets that, instead of the shining chariots of liberalism, they can also be the forces of greed, nepotism, corruption, class oppression and stateism (Bonapartism), especially when there are threats from below featuring sharp class divisions. But Nasr, with his bourgeois bias against populism — claiming that in Iran it is “laying waste to state institutions” and representing “backlashes” against his cherished business classes — is simply incapable of providing an objective and analytical account of such complexities, or deciphering the positive values of “economic populism.”
He prefers instead to paint a rosy and triumphant picture of the middle classes while sidestepping the issues of class struggle. But who is to say that the working classes are not more important or politically successful, since they often have the numbers on their side? For instance, they defeated the largely middle-class “green movement” in Iran at the polls last June. This is still too hard to swallow for mainstream academics issuing their solidarities from their ivory towers, paying only scant attention to the durability of Islamic populism founded on a potent mixture of religion and (anti-hegemonic) nationalism.
In conclusion, despite the book’s egregious shortcomings, readers should appreciate the author’s efforts to tackle a difficult subject and to improve our understanding of the world of Islam today.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy and a co-author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11. This article was first published in Asia Times on 23 January 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.