11 Mar Good Muslims: A Material Theory of Culture?
By Anjum Altaf
I attended a talk by Professor Vali Nasr where he presented the central argument of his new book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. Professor Nasr is an influential voice as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special Representative of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which makes it relevant to summarize his views and to identify some areas of agreement and disagreement.
Professor Nasr’s underlying hypothesis was quite straightforward: the middle class transformed the modern West and it can transform the Muslim world as well. The rise of trade, capitalism and merchant life is the most important trend at work and one that shapes the contours of culture and delimits the uses of religious belief. From this vantage point the prescription follows logically: if Islamic countries are integrated into the global economy, this trend would shape the cultural landscape of the Muslim world. We would end up with Muslims who are market friendly and fun loving but within the norms of a religious sensibility reduced to the role of a moral code. No more jihad since jihad would be bad for business – modern Muslims would be much like modern Americans which would be very reassuring indeed.
In his talk Professor Nasr cited the examples of Dubai and the city of Kayseri in Turkey to illustrate what he had in mind. Dubai is integrated into the global economy and Muslims love going there because it is a mix of Disneyland and Las Vegas – they can have fun there but also be able to pray at five-star mosques. Kayseri, a small city, was transformed after the liberalization of the 1980s and now makes about five percent of the world’s output of denim jeans – it is conservative but modern, with a business elite that is fiercely capitalistic and averse to all types of religious extremism.
Professor Nasr used an uncontroversial definition of the “middle class” – the set of people who are neither very rich nor very poor; households comprised of individuals with professional skills and occupations and with earnings that left some disposable income after the necessities of survival were taken care of. The key in Professor Nasr’s formulation was to allow this middle class to integrate into the global economy.
There was one point about the middle class in the presentation that I felt is worth reiterating. Professor Nasr argued that the set of people whom we typically characterize as the middle class in Muslim countries needs a second look. This is really a class created from the top by the state and dependent on it – industrialists beholden to patronage and licenses and bureaucrats in the employ of the state or of state-owned enterprises. This middle class may be secular and appear progressive but is actually pre-modern in outlook and resistant to integration into the global economy for fear of losing its protected privileges. The real middle class emerges from the bottom much like the traders operating out of Dubai and the jean manufacturers in Kayseri. These people appear conservative but are much more modern in their business outlook which shapes their interaction with the rest of the world. Appearances can be deceptive.
This is an important point. I had some reservations, though, about Professor Nasr’s main hypothesis. I felt there was too sweeping a generalization from the history of the middle class in the West and that selective illustrations were used to support the application of that generalization. As a counterpoint to Kayseri, which manufactures five percent of the world’s jeans, I immediately thought of Sialkot in Pakistan which used to manufacture over three-fourths of the world’s output of soccer balls and an equal proportion of the world’s disposable surgical instruments. My guess is that if one probed the attitudes of this globally integrated middle class emerging from the bottom one would find a lingering support for jihad and a soft spot for the Taliban.
The views of Ashis Nandy have been mentioned earlier on this blog – that the responsibility for communal violence in Ahmedabad rests squarely on the shoulders of the middle class in Gujarat (one of the Indian states most integrated with the global economy) and that its middle class is actually more religiously bigoted than those who are illiterate. And it also seems obvious that the businessmen in Pakistan who would benefit most from trade with Indian economy are unable to overcome their religious prejudices sufficiently to set aside their sympathies with non-state actors aiming to disrupt the Indian economy.
The bottom line is that one cannot begin with a pre-determined notion of what middle class values are like based on the historical experience of the West. One needs a more general theory about what shapes middle class values and why middle class values in one place might differ considerably from middle class values in another. Without that foundation there is the danger of being led astray by reliance on selective evidence that favors one interpretation rather than another.
Comments from readers who have read Professor Nasr’s book would be especially welcome. Readers might also want to look at Ralph Dumain’s review of Meera Nanda’s new book “The Wrongs of the Religious Right.” In the review, Dumain poses the relevant question: “Why do some countries engender religious fundamentalist movements while others at a comparable level of social development do not?” He refers to Professor Nikki Keddie for an explanation “in a fusion of high levels of religiosity and nationalism” and goes on to remark: “all you have to do is scratch the veneer of Hindu liberal tolerance and you will find blood-and-soil ‘Aryan’ nationalism.”