We in the west have been carefully taught. The nations of Islam, we are assured, are not like us. They are completely unresponsive to any change, let alone democracy. But political scholar and senior State Department advisor Vali Nasr is saying that whether we believe it or not, Islamic nations are already changing, very much for the better. And the force that drives them is one of the institutions that the west holds most dear. It behooves us, notes Nasr, to shake off our preconceptions and help this peaceful revolution among these nations.
On Wednesday, December 8 at 4:30 in Princeton University’s Robertson Hall, room 16, Nasr will speak on his latest book, “Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World.” This free program is part of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs’ series “Crossroads of Religion and Politics.” Visit www. wws.princeton.edu.
Nasr serves as professor of international politics at Tufts University and as a senior advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for the U.S. State Department. In addition to his latest book, he has also written “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future” and “Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty.” Nasr has written pieces in most of today’s national news journals and spoken on programs ranging from the BBC to the Colbert Report. He is also an editor of the “Oxford Dictionary of Islam.”
Nasr comes by his scholarly and political expertise as a matter of family tradition. Born in Tehran, Iran, Nasr grew up under father Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a prominent philosopher who continues to serve as professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. In 1979, when the Shah was deposed, Seyyed Nasr’s family fled and has remained in the United States ever since.
While his father was eagerly sought for several university posts, young Vali turned to the family library. “I inherited my father’s love of learning and understood the importance of studying even the smallest details, minutiae,” Nasr says. “I saw the world through the lens of academics.”
Entering Tufts University as an undergraduate, Nasr was heralded as a prodigy. “Except for Vali Nasr, I have never had another freshman tell me what books have recently been published and should be read,” said his professor, Leila Fawaz. By 1984, at age 24, Nasr had earned his master’s from Tufts and was off to M.I.T., where he took his Ph.D. “My dissertation was very well received,” he says. “It yielded two books, but it didn’t help me find a job.”
Struggling with this young scholarly dilemma, Nasr took an instructor’s post at the University of San Diego. Then at the Department of National Security Affairs he secured an associate research chair. In 2007 Nasr returned to Tufts and through his writings and teachings has become a very public scholar. His first State Department memo landed on the Oval Office desk the next day with President Obama nodding, “I agree with Vali Nasr.” A satisfying, if heady beginning.
Songwriter Bob Dylan’s lyrics “Get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a’changin’” seem to perfectly fit Nasr’s message to the Western economic powers, governments, and people. The rolling juggernaut of capitalism, with all the free market goodies it showers in its path, insists Nasr, is becoming the primary force for recreating an entirely new face of the Muslim world.
The Dubai effect. “The key,” says Nasr, “is that Dubai is not an anomaly, but a model — a symptom of what is coming.” One of the seven Arab Emirates, Dubai has blossomed into a global, if somewhat staggering, symbol of wealth and luxury. The city’s gulfside high rises boast 1,000-room hotels with underground fantasy lands that could swallow whole sections of a Disney theme park. The silvery spike of the Burj Khalifa stabs skyward over the cityscape and takes the fleeting claim of “world’s tallest building.”
Dubai’s wealth began with oil. But like the Rothschild family, who made their initial fortune in textiles, Dubai has switched business models and products. Tourism and real estate, along with high-end luxury and business deal making, are its primary products today. Dubai has all the glitz and faux-historic reconstructions of Las Vegas. And its visitors have just as much fun.
“Yet look at the people who come to Dubai,” notes Nasr. “There are a few Americans and Europeans, but for the most part they are Islamic tourists.” With studio suites starting at $400 a night, five-star hotels have no trouble filling their rooms with a quiet, but exponentially growing Muslim middle class. Dubai achieved its current wealth and stature by adopting business models from the Far East and the West, and blending it within its own historic trading heritage. It is a business hub sought out by international banking, real estate, construction, and consumer goods corporations.
Growth goes on. “Capitalism is the most transformative idea in modern history, and right now it is being unleashed full force into the Muslim world,” says Nasr. “The effects are everywhere.” He cites Turkey, which has resurrected its position from “the sick man of Europe” to join the G-20 (The world’s 20 major economies), despite the prejudice against its European Union membership. The city of Istanbul has retaken its ancient claim of “Gateway to Europe” with nearly $45 trillion in exports and $70 trillion in imports in 2009. Home to 35 billionaires, Istanbul boasts only one fewer than London and five more than Hong Kong.
But it is not the few super-rich who have launched the economic revolution in the Muslim world. “Change is coming through a very broad financial base of middle class and entrepreneurs,” says Nasr. “Look at Pakistan — you have an admittedly poor country, but you also see 10 to 20 percent with substantial middle class purchasing power. That’s a market of 18 to 36 million.” For foreign companies, this has translated into huge profits, and an enticement for others to follow.
Our fatal preconceptions. Without any sense of accusation, Nasr points out that many Western people have lumped together and boxed off the nations of Islam and see them as untouched by normal economic stimuli. “Economist Joseph Nye has pointed out that it’s all over for the United States because China, India, and Brazil are showing such immense economic growth,” notes Nasr. “Yet interestingly, no one is touting any such global influence from Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, or even the Emirates, which are all experiencing equal growth rates.”
Western pundits are quick to latch onto the vast poverty in many Islamic nations and the current lack of technological advantages for great portions of their populations. But who can justifiably ignore China’s and India’s poverty levels and their appalling records on human rights issues? If Brazil’s overwhelming infrastructure problems can be fixed, cannot Indonesia’s also be? Or could it be that it is our perceptions of these nations that are stagnant, not their economies?
And the extremists? Nasr is not dreamily envisioning Sunnis and Shiites joining hand in hand as they race to the mall to purchase iPads and peanut butter. The schisms are as old as Islam itself and will doubtless continue. The rift dates back to the death of the prophet Muhammd in 632 A.D., when Shiites blamed Sunnis for choosing whom they deemed the wrong successor. Just like Jews who saw Christians as choosing the wrong Messiah or Protestants who felt Catholics had gone astray, the conflict struck at the most basic human beliefs.
Nasr has always admitted that “the overall Sunni-Shiite conflict will play a large role in defining the Middle East as a whole and shaping its relations with the outside world.” But, he insists, it is not and will not be the transforming force we are witnessing in Islamic nations today. It is simply a matter of giving the people what they want.
Religious extremism has never stood up very long against the free market’s offer of food, clothing, shelter, and a little spending money on the side.
Nasr is calling for the West to broaden its financial base and perspective; to hasten the peaceful remaking of Islamic nations for good. If business leaders, people, and politicians are to become truly global, they must begin to deal with all the citizens on that globe.