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.”


  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:51h, 12 March Reply

    “all you have to do is scratch the veneer of Hindu liberal tolerance and you will find blood-and-soil ‘Aryan’ nationalism.”

    it is definitely not as simple as that. In my experience, right wing Hindus do not project any veneer of tolerance. They are quite bigoted right from the start, they just justify their bigotry, with tales of victimization and threats to national well being. To counter them, one has to resolve the truth behind their victimization complex.

    I havent read Meera Nanda’s book but if thats her thesis then I wont bother.

    As for the Muslim middle class, it would be interesting to see what it looks like in India, where circumstances require that it be relatively liberal.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 08:24h, 12 March Reply

    Vikram: The quote was not referring to right wing Hindus but to liberal Hindus and that was where it was making its point about the power of nationalism. I referred to the review because it asked what I felt was the right question that Professor Nasr did not in his presentation. And I felt the point about religious nationalism was worth investigating further while reserving judgement on whether the quote was an accurate description of reality or not.

    I haven’t read Meera Nanda’s book either and can’t say if the reviewer is being fair to her. I hope we can leverage the power of the Internet and hear from someone who has read it. I would love to hear from Vijay Vikram who has a perspective on the Right that I find stimulating. I think he would also be sympathetic to Professor Nasr’s contention that real solutions are not going to emerge from the seemingly secular left (see Vijay’s post:

    Policy advisors tend to simplify issues because they feel the need to recommend magic bullets as solutions to complex problems. Professor Nasr’s take on the Western middle class leaves unanswered questions. True, the merchant class gave rise to bourgeois middle class values that had laudable elements but the same middle class went along with Fascism and National Socialism at another time plunging the world into a destructive conflict.

    I find the argument too simple that those who are involved in business would never do anything to jeopardize their stakes. This is at par with the sort of prediction that says that two countries with MacDonald franchises would never go to war with each other.

    As you say life is never really that uncomplicated. My next project is to read the history of postwar Europe by Tony Judt. I hope to find some deeper explanations there. I recommend this profile of Tony Judt ( in which the book is discussed. Here is an intriguing excerpt:

    Judt’s academic reputation rests on the 2005 publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. It was an enormous success: The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who is collaborating with Judt on a follow-up book, calls Postwar “the best book on its subject that will ever be written by anyone”; Louis Menand, reviewing the book in The New Yorker, wrote that Judt’s scope was “virtually superhuman.” Postwar recounts two related stories: How Western Europe banished political extremism by building a robust welfare state, and how Eastern Europe first succumbed to and later released itself from communist rule. The book hinges on a series of painful ironies, each of which Judt pins down with precision. He both exposes the self-serving myth of European resistance to the Nazis during the war and acknowledges that it was precisely on the basis of such myths that a ruined Europe was able to restore itself. He also observes that because war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing had separated the fractious, ethnically diverse regions of Eastern Europe into tidy, homogenous nation-states, “the stability of postwar Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.”

  • ercelan
    Posted at 08:49h, 12 March Reply

    there is a range of bigotry etc — consider kerala and bangladesh in south asia; malaysia and indonesia in east asia, and of course much of the arab world.

    within pakistan, sindhis and baloch appear less bigoted.

    so what is going on?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:46h, 12 March

      Ercelan: If I were to speculate I would say that religion and nationalism is a potent combination. When this emerges in a politically dominant group it manifests in a virulent fashion; in an oppressed group it appears much less so. When the oppressed become oppressors in turn we might find that the differences are ephemeral. Re Indonesia, our memories of the actions against the ethnic Chinese and the Timorese have now faded.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:50h, 13 March Reply

    I think one has to see which of the factors – economic well being and/or religious identity driven politics – serves the symbolic role of providing self respect and validation to the middle class, the ultimate motivations of the middle class. When the results of economic liberalization do not improve the mobility of the social classes, whether due to poor governance or ingrained discrimination in the society, it is bound to be ineffective in changing the religous outlook of the middle class. Or when the liberalization is seen with an ex ante suspicious attitude, it is used but not allowed to influence outlooks.


  • Khalil Sawant
    Posted at 05:33h, 13 March Reply

    Right-Conservatism is Right-Conservatism and not Utra-Conservatism, because it is liberal on the economic front.
    It is easy to see examples where increase in prosperity of middle class has made them, more Right-Conservative.
    And yes illiterate and poor people do show more tolerance, if they have to live every day with people of other communities, because daily bread is more important than higher-matters.

  • Vijay
    Posted at 17:33h, 13 March Reply

    Anjum: Many thanks. I am in agreement with your broader point. We will always have to resist the temptation of extrapolating from the historical experience of the West.

    There’s an interesting dialectic at play if we focus our attention on anti-Muslim sentiment in contemporary India. There is of course Hindu historic memory that sees the Muslim as an invader and an alien presence and then there’s Independent India’s continued state of war with Pakistan since 1947 (sometimes cold, often hot). The two feed into each other and foster an anti-Muslim attitude in the Indian middle class and the masses in general.

    There probably was a good chance that a secular state could be transplanted onto the Subcontinent but Partition effectively killed that prospect. Just as Europe has abandoned any conscious commitment to the Enlightenment project, India has abandoned a conscious intellectual commitment to Nehru’s project of a secular republic. In the battle of Subcontinental ideas, it is the Idea of Pakistan – the idea that Hindus and Muslims can’t live with each other in any tolerable circumstance that has triumphed.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:50h, 14 March

      Vijay: Thanks for the comment. Just so we are all on the same page could you elaborate a bit on how you feel “Europe has abandoned any conscious commitment to the Enlightenment project.” The argument about the secular project in India is quite clear.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:07h, 15 March

      Vijay: I want to probe the dialectic that you have identified for possible anti-Muslim sentiment in contemporary India. The Hindu historic memory is a selectively appropriated one. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani has argued convincingly that there were at least three contending Ideas of India. The one that triumphed was the one that saw Muslims as an alien presence in India. This interpretation of history, in turn, strengthened the Idea of Pakistan. So, the question is why did this particular Idea of India that effectively killed the prospect of co-existence triumph over the others?

      If one looks towards invasions as a contributing factor one would also have to contend with the Christian invaders that ruled India for over 200 years. Yet today there is no simialr anti-Christian or anti-British sentiment in India. Why not? We also have to contend with the fact that 1857 was a salient landmark in Indian history. This was a Indian uprising against the British invaders. It was not a Hindu uprising or a Muslim uprising but an Indian uprising. There is no equivalent landmark event before 1857 that could be classified as an uprising of the invaded against the invaders; at least one does not come across it easily in the history books.

      This leaves us with the continued state of war since 1947. This is clearly a contrivance by the Pakistani establishment to justify its hegemony over the appropriation of state resources in Pakistan at the cost of its citizens. Can the Indian side find a way around this ploy and nullify it instead of allowing it to sow communal discord within India itself?

    • Vijay
      Posted at 01:57h, 19 March

      Anjum: The argument about Europe’s abandonment of the Enlightenment project is owed to the English philosopher John Gray. I urge you to become familiar with his work if you’re not already. He argues that the Enlightenment project has been self-undermining. The universalising vision of the philosophes which animated the great age of the West has given away to fractured late-modern perspectives.

      So, Europe still operates using Enlightenment idiom but without a conscious commitment to it tenets. You’ll forgive me if I haven’t explained this properly, I’m coming to grips with Gray myself.

      South Asian: I haven’t read Khilnani’s book but I’m surprised that he argues that the Muslim as alien conception has triumphed. I would imagine his argument would have been that the constitutional secular idea of India gained ascendancy.

      I believe I already answered your first question in my earlier comment. The dialectic explains anti-Muslim sentiment in India. Anti-Muslim sentiment is a pre-partition phenomenon but it hardened afterwards because of the imperative of competing nationalisms.

      There is plenty of anti-Christian sentiment in India. But Christianity is on the margins of Subcontinental life, Islam isn’t. Also, the British were not a proselytising bunch. They opened a few missionaries sure, but they largely let the Hindus be.

      “Can the Indian side find a way around this ploy and nullify it instead of allowing it to sow communal discord within India itself?”

      As I’ve suggested to Anjum before, the only solution to our Subcontinental woes is political reunification. As we represent two contradictory Ideas of India – conflict is built into the relationship and well-meaning civil society gatherings will do little to alleviate our political problems. Until then, we’ll just have to tolerate periodic crises and armed conflict.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:23h, 21 March

      Vijay: Khilnani has a nuanced perspective on the Idea of India. He describes Savarkar’s idea and then mentions (p. 161 of the paperback edition) that “The Gandhian Congress adroitly marginalized the Savarkarite conception of Indian history and Indianness, but its presuppositions were never erased: many nationalists outside Congress, and even some within it, shared them. The undertow of this modernist Brahminic imagination of the Indian nation, outlined round the turn of the twentieth century and systematized by men like Savarkar, has moulded India’s political history more deeply than is usually acknowledged. The official ideology of the post-1947 Indian state effaced it from the histories of nationalism it sponsored…. But its definition of an Indian nation was an ever-present imaginative magnet, the pole against which men like Gandhi and Nehru constantly had to act.”

      We should also delve deeper into the religious dimension of British rule. Dalrymple’s account in The Last Mughal has good evidence. He goes as far as to attribute the role of the missionaries after 1803 as one of the primary causes of the 1857 mutiny. An important aspect was that the missionaries came with an attitude of superiority – bringing light to benighted heathens. The psychological implications of such an attitude of contempt carry a deep significance.

      On communal discord in India, does it make sense to defer a resolution to an event that might be very far into the future?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:01h, 19 March

      Yet today there is no similar anti-Christian or anti-British sentiment in India. Why not?

      There is anti-British sentiment, but it is mostly of no practical value in India. It is no longer a practically unaddressed sentiment. The British left India. Why not an anti-Christian sentiment then, I hear you ask? Because the Christians left in India are no way connected to the British Christians who ruled over India.
      The Muslims who ruled over India assimilated and did not leave India. They became part of India and many Muslims may derive their genealogy from these invading Muslim armies. That makes for a low hanging fruit if thought in terms of demogoguery for political mileage.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:48h, 19 March

      Vinod: Too many issues are mixed up in this argument so let me try and clarify what I am trying to get at. I know there are attacks on Christians in remote areas from time to time but these are really economic conflicts that find justifications in religious terms. I will come back to this later.

      I am trying to understand if the alleged anti-Muslim sentiment in India to which Vijay referred has to do with the fact that Muslims invaded India and that this has become part of “historic Hindu memory”. My point was that the British also invaded India but that invasion has not become part of historic Hindu memory in the same way. One test of this would be to see how the immigration officer at Delhi airport deals with a brown visitor from Pakistan compared to a white visitor from England – the historic memory is very selective. I want to understand the reasons for this selectivity.

      If the invasion is not really the cause of the antipathy, then one must look at the fact that there are many more Muslims (compared to Britishers) still in India. If, as you mention, Muslims have assimilated it should lessen the antagonism against them. But it has not. By elimination, I am left with two possible reasons: (1) Anti-Pakistan sentiment is spilling over into anti-Indian Muslim sentiment; (2) economic conflicts and stresses are finding an outlet against a community that can be classified as the “other” much like the occasional economic conflicts against Christians. In both cases, the antipathy could seek a justification in historic grievances – that would render the historic memory selective.

      Pakistanis are completely callous about the first reason which suggests that religion is not a tie that binds – politics trumps it every time. Indians are not doing enough about the second reason by failing to find ways to protect marginalized “others” in India.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 13:42h, 21 March

      Ok, SA.

      Let me also try to clarify my answer then

      I want to understand the reasons for this selectivity

      The historic memory has a connection with the muslim invaders because the muslims left behind have a connection, some real and some imagined, by language or culture which acts as signs of the historic invasion of muslims.

      Trust that clarifies.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:22h, 21 March

      Vinod: I am not fully convinced by this explanation. If the connection with the historic invasion were material, Indians should have a lot of antagonism against Muslims of Central Asia, Turkey and Iran who are exactly alike the Muslims who invaded India. Yet, India is courting these Muslims all the time stressing their common “civilizational” links. At the same time there is this alleged antipathy against Muslims in India on account of the historic invasion although the Gujrati or Bengali Muslim has less similarity in terms of language and culture with the invaders than the Turkish or Irani Muslim.

      The way I see it, it is the “left behind” aspect that is material. It really doesn’t have much to do with religion or history. It is more that there is a group within India that can be identified as different from the majority. Whenever there is stress or competition, the ‘Other’ can be demonized and then reasons can be found for that characterization. This could just as easily be seen as an extension of inter-caste antagonisms that do not require any history of invasion for their existence.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 16:13h, 21 March

      It could indeed well be an extension of inter caste antagonisms. But I’d like to play with the historic memory of invaders idea a bit more. To take on your demurrer, Iranians and Turks are not hated in India because they are currently not in India. There is no reason for the historic memory on the Turks and Iranians in Turkey and Iran to find expression today just like the way the historic memory of British has no reason to find outlet in India. The courting in foreign relations is purely a matter of political pragmatism of the ruling political class over which the masses have little to no control and don’t care about either.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:32h, 22 March

      Vinod: The Shiv Sena has no issue with non-Maharashtrians as long as they are outside Maharashtra. Once they are inside Maharashtra some historic memory gets triggered. Is the problem with the Shiv Sena or the non-Maharashtrians?

      More seriously, this issue of historic memory and how it is shaped needs more study. There is an interesting chapter in Romila Thapar’s book Somanatha titled ‘Sanskrit inscriptions from Somanatha and its Vicinity.’ She makes the point that the word Musalmanas is rarely used in the documents – people are referred by their ethnicity. Arabs were good, Turushkas were bad. Romila Thapar asks the right questions: “Did the local people make a distinction between the Arab traders and the Turks? The Arabs, who were initially invaders, had now come to be accepted as partners in trade and the trade brought large profits. Were the Turks unacceptable because most of them were still coming as invaders? Clearly, they were not all homogenized and identified simply as ‘Muslims’, as we would do today.” The same distinctions were made later between the English, the French and the Portuguese – some were allies at times and enemies at others. They were not all lumped together as Christians.

      If the masses don’t care much about anything it is for the ruling political class to shape historic memories as it wills. Is the ruling class in India doing enough to establish social harmony in the country? If not, why not?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:44h, 23 March

      SA, pondering on your last post, I fully agree with the way you have now framed it. It is politics that decides which facets of history gets picked in the recollection process.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:25h, 26 March

      Vinod: I have also pondered over your last comment and been disturbed by one possible implication. If the antipathy towards Muslims is related only to their location – antipathy if the Muslims are inside Indian borders, no antipathy if they are outside Indian borders – how is the antipathy going to be resolved?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:50h, 26 March

      SA, very good question.

      Honestly, it can only be resolved if there is a sufficiently long period of relative peace that buries this antagonism really deep. Said differently, it can only be mothballed into the memory-oblivion and cannot be resolved through an actual, honest and open discussion. I have a bleak view of human nature – we are ultimately a protoplasm of prejudices.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:40h, 29 March

      Vinod: I agree that we are a protoplasm of prejudices but we also have the ability to overcome our prejudices. Once again, the trajectory of racial prejudice in the US is an example. Overcoming prejudices requires discussion and proactive initiatives – I don’t think the strategy of moth-balling them into memory-oblivion would work. If the prejudices survive, any random spark would threaten a conflagration. In fact, there will always be people with a ready match in hand to exploit the prejudices.

      There are some relevant insights in this story from Nigeria about the underlying issues that manifest themselves in the form of religious conflict. India is fortunate that it is in a phase of economic growth unlike the decline that characterizes Nigeria. Still, it has to watch out for those who are bypassed or left behind by the growth.

      These two articles (here and here) are also relevant to the discussion of the evolution of morality and cooperation.

  • Naseer
    Posted at 08:13h, 14 March Reply

    One needs to be careful about reading too much into the “tolerance” in Dubai. It is a police state with a very powerful intelligence service based on local Arabs (as opposed to the bulk of the non-Arab residents). The so called middle class exists only under the rigid and tightly controlled socio-econimic mileu created by the sheikhs who own everything. This includes all the mosques, where all sermons are provided by the state and only read by the local imams. No imam is allowed to stay at one mosque for too long, and they are constantly moved around.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:18h, 15 March

      Naseer: I was also puzzled by the choice of Dubai and thought it an odd illustration. In an earlier era Beirut was a much less artificial place and equally integrated into the global economy. Its entire middle class was swallowed up by parochial conflicts.

  • Umair
    Posted at 19:54h, 14 March Reply

    I dont think i’m in any position to poke holes in Professor Nasr’s view on the Muslim middle class. I can only offer my two aana’s on the Pakistani middle class or more specifically the urban class in Pakistan. In my view the middle class (as a consumerist, non-agrarian segment in society) has been created both by the state and by economic and social activity taking place outside the purview of the state. For example, the bureaucrats and the military officers are middle class in the Western sense (urban professionals, educated with ideational principles of meritocracy etc.) and the other part of the middle class, the traders, transporters etc have been created by both the state and by events such as the Green revolution, diaspora movements and remittance flows and a general increase in commercial capital across the country.

    More interestingly, neither of these two classes are specifically anti-jihad in their ideologies. There is a considerable amount of support being handed out to the askari tanzeems by the trading/merchant class in Pakistan. The only thing that can be said is that they dont want an Islamic state in the country but are more than willing to fund Islamic causes (so to speak) in other parts of the world like Kashmir and Afghanistan.

  • Khalil Sawant
    Posted at 17:32h, 26 March Reply

    >> I have a bleak view of human nature – we are ultimately a protoplasm of prejudices.
    Pessimistic but Honest 🙂

  • Yathrib
    Posted at 21:14h, 20 April Reply

    I am wondering if this lingering Hindu resentment against Muslims could be 1) due to fear of terrorism; 2) belief that Muslim rule is and has been very oppressive.

    We could also widen this debate by wondering why Palestinians seem to dislike Jews?
    Any guesses/theories?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:11h, 23 April

      Yathrib: This is a complex issue and a brief reply always runs the danger of being either simplistic or dangerous. I will offer my opinion and we can discuss the issue further if you wish.

      Communal tension has long had its ups and downs – terrorism is fairly recent and Muslim rule is long gone. Even amongst Muslims there is sectarian conflict just as there is caste conflict amongst Hindus – neither of these have anything to do with the factors you have mentioned.

      I feel that that the issue of social violence needs a deeper examination. First of all, it is a mistake to associate everything Hindu and Muslim with religion because these are cultures as well as religions. Conflicts can arise for any number of reasons and we over-simplify by automatically attributing them to religion. Conflicts can also be instigated by fanning religious feelings. We need to think about the fact that the illiterate poor are, in general, much less bigoted than educated middle-class individuals. The former, who have to deal with each other for daily survival, lose in the event of conflict; the latter often promote conflict for political gains.

      We can look at the Middle East conflict in the same light. It is a dispute between two communities (Palestinians and Israelis) over ownership of land. Why should we see it as a conflict between Islam and Judaism? If religion had been the root cause, Jews would not have continued living in Muslim countries before the creation of Israel. Perhaps there are some who gain by obfuscating the real reasons for the conflict.

  • Yathrib
    Posted at 11:27h, 29 April Reply


    So once again Islam is not at fault.

    Then what is the problem?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:38h, 29 April

      Yathrib: Every situation has its own specificity and needs to be assessed in the context of that specificity.

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