NPR logo

Nasr: Middle Class Can Transform Muslim World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Nasr: Middle Class Can Transform Muslim World

Middle East

Nasr: Middle Class Can Transform Muslim World

Nasr: Middle Class Can Transform Muslim World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Author Vali Nasr's new book Forces of Fortune explores the entrepreneurs who built the skyscraper economy of Dubai, and transformed the economy of Turkey. Nasr tells Steve Inskeep that the middle class transformed the modern West, and it can transform the Muslim world as well.


On this September 11, a leading thinker about the Middle East and the Islamic world says we have a fresh opportunity to change them. Vali Nasr is worried about terrorists and extremists like the ones behind the attacks eight years ago today. At the same time, he's interested in a growing part of Middle Eastern society, the middle class.

Professor VALI NASR (International Politics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; Author, "Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World"): They may be socially conservative. They may be religious but they're capitalists.

INSKEEP: Which he says makes it possible for Westerners to work with them. Vali Nasr is a professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. He's also an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, a key U.S. diplomat. And Nasr is the author of "Forces of Fortune." That new book explores the entrepreneurs who built the skyscraper economy of Dubai and transformed the economy of Turkey.

Prof. NASR: The main force that is transforming Turkey in the right direction is this middleclass-based economic force. And this is what happened in Europe as well. You know, the main transformation in Europe came not because of religious reformation or religious wars. It came about because of rise of capitalism. It is the rise of capitalism and trade that ultimately made for the success of modernity and democracy and market-based economies in the West. We should trust the same forces that transformed the modern West to transform the Muslim world.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about reasons that some people have wondered if they should be able to trust that. There have been efforts to quote unquote "modernize" the Middle East for decades. There's a lot more money in the Middle East than there used to be, thanks to oil among other things. And after 9/11, nevertheless, there were people saying, look these modernizing efforts have failed. You've basically got a bunch of corrupt governments and a lot of poor people who are increasing alienated by the West, and in fact, the efforts to globalize the region, the argument went - have actually increased the conflict.

Prof. NASR: Yes, because money is not modernity. The modernity that the Middle East had experienced in the past decades was force-fed from above. And it never really permeated down into the society, and it never integrated average citizens and the middle classes into a global economy. I mean, ultimately, when you look again at a country like Turkey, an average businessmen in a small town, who is mosque-going, who is religious, is directly selling denim jeans or leather to European manufactures. He understands that talking about jihad is not good for business.

There is a self correction in his views on religion. There is a pressure from moderation that comes from the market and from his economic interests, not because some bureaucrat or dictatorial leader tells him to do so. Where we see a lot of rigidity and conservative in the Muslim world is where the middle classes, the trading classes, the commercial classes have no vested interest in moderation.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

Prof. NASR: They don't interact with the global economy. Radicalism doesn't go to the bottom line. For a Turkish businessman that sells denim jeans to Levi Strauss in Europe, the image of his country, the image of his company, matters.

INSKEEP: When you talk about more economic openings to the Middle East, is that politically difficult for the United States. If we talk about lifting sanctions on Iran, that's very hard. Or even if you talk about doing a ports deal with Dubai, this very open capitalist country, that proved to be very politically difficult.

Prof. NASR: It's always difficult, to either open our markets - for instance, textile markets - to foreign countries. I mean, Pakistanis, for a long time, wanted direct access to U.S. textile markets. Or to get countries to change their tariffs or their market structure in order to accommodate this. But it won't happen unless we focus on it. In other words, the American Congress or the American public have to understand, that if they really want a different Muslim world, they have to play it at the economic level. The have to sacrifice certain things and provide open markets for certain goods that would encourage economic growth in the region.

INSKEEP: You know, you write about your grandfather, who was Iranian. And I wonder if his story, which perhaps you can tell here, reveals a difference between two different concepts. One is getting people to be Westernized. The other, which I think you're arguing for, is getting people to be globalized.

Prof. NASR: Well, my grandfather belonged to the first generation of Iranian students, who, in the early 1900s, were sent to Europe to study medicine, engineering and come back and serve their country. And he went to Paris. He became a medical doctor. He adopted Parisian ways. He always dressed impeccably, almost as a Frenchman. And he spent his whole life in Iran trying to help his country build medical facilities, serve the people as a doctor.

INSKEEP: This is in the time of the Shah of Iran - before the revolution in 1979.

Prof. NASR: Exactly. And that generation for a long time, for the West, held a hope that it's people like him, who go to the West and come back, essentially, as Westernized people that are going to bring modernity to this region. The impetus at the generation of my grandfather was a decision by a dictator to have his country modernized. It was a purely political decision. The decision to modernize now is completely business, economic based. Now as people are adopting global rules, not because secularism is good or because it's hip or cool to be Westernized, they are adopting rules of the West because they want to play in that economic field.

INSKEEP: So, round out this story of Iran for me. You told me about your grandfather, a certain type of person who tried to modernize in a certain, and you feel failed way, decades ago. Who's the modern person in Iran today?

Prof. NASR: The modern person in Iran is an average businessman, who, you know, has invested in a mutual fund, who is in import-export business, and who would like to see the economy to be opened up so he can do more trade. He may go to mosque, he may not. He may be secular or religious, but he's thoroughly a businessman. The generation of my grandfather, when he went to Paris, the modern West was not about money, it was about morals and values. And therefore to be Westernized, you had to accept certain morals and values. Today's West is not about morals and values, actually, it's about the rules of the market.

INSKEEP: So that modern Iranian and people like that, of course, exist now - is he somebody, you would argue, that can be a friend of the West, even though this may be a guy who has conservative religious beliefs; who does not treat his wife well by Western standards at all; who may even give some money to an Islamic charity that Westerners would consider dubious?

Prof. NASR: The more important thing is - I think at this stage is not that they are necessarily our friends, but that they are willing participants in the global order; that they're willing to play by the rules of the game and that actually the rules of the game, they way in which it operates in Singapore, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, London, and New York also decides how they operate in Cairo, Tehran, Karachi, or Istanbul. If Muslims become part of this larger global picture, then we're okay.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is the author of "Forces of Fortune." Thanks very much.

Prof. NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: On 9/11, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.