Muslim Middle Class at Odds With Extremism

A Palestinian man sells sweets as Palestinians prepare for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr at a market in Gaza City last September. (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

The Muslim future lies in the rising middle class not in extremist fundamentalism. So argues Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, in his book "Forces of Fortune: The Rise of a New Muslim Middle Class and What It Means for Our World," published by last month by the Free Press.


Eight years have passed since 9/11 and we still worry about Islamic extremism. It has become easy for us to see everything in the Muslim world from that perspective. But if we are looking for new trends, extremism is not it.

There is another story; one that will define the future. It's the rise of a new middle class in the Muslim world. A new economy is taking shape with the mixing of traditional Islamic values and free-market capitalism. The trend is changing mind-sets, politics and even religious values. Many middle class Muslims are devoutly religious and their wealth and aspirations put them squarely at odds with extremism. These middle class Muslims look to the market to create and maintain their wealth -- not to the government.

This marks a new development in the Muslim world -- a genuine bourgeoisie with the same wants and preferences as other similar groups elsewhere. These Muslims are a force for change and a force helping to integrate the Muslim world into the global economy. The rise of this "critical middle," is every bit as powerful and important as extremism -- and more so, for it holds the key to changing hearts and minds in the Muslim world, and once and for all putting fundamentalism out of business.

Extremism in the Muslim world has grown out of the failed economies of authoritarian states that are tightly-regulated and isolated from the world. People outside of the global economy who see little hope for progress and prosperity become easily enamored of extremism and its gospel of violence. The up-and-coming middle class has been sprouting in the nooks and crannies of the government-controlled economies, and its dynamism will eventually loosen the suffocating grip of the state and challenge the dark vision of extremism.

Will the Muslim businessmen -- entrepreneurs in finance, manufacturing or trade in Karachi, Jakarta, Tehran or Cairo -- lead a capitalist revolution much as Protestant burghers did in Holland four centuries ago? If European history is any guide, only a robust breed of capitalism driven by this rising middle class will bring true modernization to the Muslim world. Those leading the change will not be secular dictators, enlightened clerics or liberal reformers, but businessmen.

The great battle for the soul of the Muslim world will be fought not over religion but over market capitalism. How do we know that? We can look at the remarkable transformation that has swept Dubai, Turkey and Indonesia. Freed of the clutches of government control the private sector has boomed, and Muslims have shown themselves to be capable capitalists. That the blending of Disneyland and Las Vegas with Arab culture in Dubai became such a hit should convince us that if given a chance Muslims will play well in the global economy, and then it will be Dubai not al-Qaeda that will capture their imagination.

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 8, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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But what about many of the 9/11 Islamist muderers? Mohammed Atta, their leader was a middle class well educated engineeer, and he and his confederates all had gobs of cash. They used the money and their advanced education to turn civilian air liners into guided missiles. Osama Bin Ladin himself is the scion of a highly successful upper middle class Islamic entrepereur. Sorry, but something is rotten in the state of ..... well, you know.....

Posted by: captn_ahab | October 8, 2009 3:36 PM

All well educated Muslims live in other parts of the world and not in the middle east. So should they go back to restore peace. Unlikely

Posted by: hrao | October 8, 2009 4:46 PM

A prosperous Middle East has been in existence for the last 50 years and that hasnt stopped it from producing Bin Laden and his ilk.Not all moslems are terrorist but all of them sympathize silently whenever a suicide bomber kills people. I have worked in the GCC for the last 20 years and every Muslim here of whatever nationality applauds every act of terror unless it is directed towards them. Steven Levingston is sadly mistaken in his view that a rising middle class of Muslims will look to Dubai. On the contrary many more will be financially capable of making donations to terrorist organizations masquerading as charities.

Posted by: gopiqpp | October 8, 2009 4:50 PM

It seems that the way extremists be they dictators or whatever can only retain power by keeping the people they wish to control poor and uneducated.

Once a population develops a middle-class, that population becomes uninterested in extremism.

Posted by: treadlefish | October 8, 2009 5:03 PM

A middle class always existed in the muslim countries. But in the last 2-3 decades we see that the middle class bends to the religious extemists. The most striking sign of it is the return of the hijab (head cover of the women)that almost disappeared in some places.

Posted by: alitani | October 8, 2009 5:23 PM

Muslims have always been capitalists and traders. Mohammed was a trader, and his wife was a rich businesswoman. The Muslims traded all over the world, which is one reason today while countries as far apart as Nigeria and Indonesia are Islamic today.

Posted by: truthman3 | October 8, 2009 6:21 PM

The west has a fundamental misunderstanding that terrorists are motivated by Islam. Stop invading Muslim countries, occupying them, and killing their inhabitants, and you'll see a real reduction in terrorist activity.

Posted by: shukris | October 8, 2009 7:22 PM

Interesting blog and discussion. Having lived in the Middle East and worked in business there, I know there is plenty of rich people but definitely no open economies. Anyways it is time we had a look under the hood of economies there. There is a lot of money in government hands that doles it out to people. But that seems not the right way to building economies. I think Nasr is on to something.

Posted by: bookman2 | October 9, 2009 6:33 AM

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