The author of a new book believes capitalism and middle class values can transform the Muslim World economically, culturally and politically.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American, is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. His views on the Muslim world are based on observations during visits to Muslim countries.
"I took notice of different trends that I see taking place there, that didn't have to do with the debates we usually have about the Muslim world: about extremism, dictatorship and religion," he says. "But it had to do with commerce, development of a new middle class and its participation in the global economy."
This emerging middle class, he says, consists of entrepreneurs, investors, professionals and consumers.
Prosperity changes attitudes in Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Dubai
"If you look at countries that have actually taken steps to open themselves to the global economy, for instance Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Dubai, we see this process at work," he explains. "We see the rise of a middle class. We see the rise of middle class attitudes towards family, towards commerce, towards society, towards religion and towards politics. So when we look at these countries, we see that you have much greater prosperity, and [the sort of] attitudes would make [the society] much more amenable to the kinds of changes that we would like to see across the Muslim world."
Free market economy pushes open doors
In his new book, Forces of Fortune, Nasr explains the transformative power of prosperity.
"When you have a large free market, that free market would then create a vested interest in economic relations inside the country and in the world," he says. "For those economic relations to work, your laws have to change, and your regulatory environment has to change, and the relationship between government and society has to change. You have to embrace a certain degree of openness. Secondly, you cannot have conflicted relations with the rest of the world if you're going to be doing business with it."
History proves the author's point
"The rise of the West, the transformation of Asia, the transformation of Latin America, these have all happened because of the pressure of market forces, commerce and trade," he says. "We don't have a case around the world where you have stable democracies, prosperous democracies that don't have a middle class," Nasr says.
Pakistan and Iran pose special challenges
However, moving to the free market economy in the Muslim world is not always an easy process. Nasr points to Pakistan as an example.
"Pakistan is a tough case, largely because you have so much extremism and instability in it," he explains. "That obviously makes getting business going much more difficult. But that does not mean that it's not doable, or that there is any other way doing it. In other words, if Pakistan is really going to be stable, prosperous democracy, then it has to have a strong middle class."
Iran, Nasr says, is a different case. The nation already has a successful business class, but it is not strong enough to transform the society.
"It's not large enough to be able to determine the direction of the country," he says. "So as a consequence, many of the conflicts we see within Iran reflect this struggle; the middle class, the pro-private sector forces, favor opening to the West, they favor a private sector economy, they favor less government control of the economy. They confront forces that want a closed economy, controlled by the government."
Creating the will for a Muslim middle class
For a Muslim middle class to arise and thrive, Vali Nasr says, members of the society themselves must have the desire and ability to move to a free market economy.
"There is no way around it," he says. "You cannot import a middle class from outside. You rather have to create it within. And the only way to create the middle class is to create an environment for commerce and for economic activity in it."
The West can lend a helping hand
"Whenever you have change, you have winners and you have losers," he says. "Losers will always resist change, whether they are bureaucrats, government officials or people who benefit from the old system. Winners always push for change. The West can help the winners win and it can help the losers to be reconciled with the changes that are happening," Nasr says.
Moving from a government controlled economy to an open market and free trade, he adds, requires tough laws to protect the process from old systems that may try to corrupt and thwart it. That will allow entrepreneurs to establish successful businesses, which will eventually lead to a more stable economy, a more open cultural and political environment and a transformation of the society.