By Vali Nasr
Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
The Muslim world is going through a quiet and profound revolution. Islamic consciousness is on the rise, sweeping over every aspect of public and private life. But it is not the zeal of this turn against secularism that is noteworthy, but the diversity of opinions and new ways of thinking that it embodies.
This rising fervor is led not by the usual authorities–clerics and Islamic activists–but, more prominently, by bloggers, rappers, fashion designers, televangelists, human rights activists and self-styled Islamic gurus and thinkers of all stripes. Theirs is a call to religion, but also interpreting the meaning of piety and its relevance to society and politics in new ways.
There are reformers in this mix, but this is by and large a conservative Islamic resurgence, which celebrates piety while rejecting violence and extremism. There is no one flavor of Islam dominating with some interested in politics while others are content to leave politics alone and focus on matters of personal faith and practice. Just as the separation of church and state in the U.S. supported the flourishing of many different Christian denominations, the loosening of the grip of top-down state control and sponsorship of Islam is making room for many Islams.
This is a hopeful development; it opens new vistas of thinking before Muslims that could facilitate embracing many aspects of modernity and constructive engagement with the West on many fronts. What makes this possible is the rise of a new middle class in the Muslim world that is tied to commerce and trade, is keen to engage the global economy, and therefore favors blending Islam with modernity in ways that prosperous middle classes everywhere blend religious values with commercial interests and demands of operating in the global economy. The impact of this middle class is evident wherever private sectors have been allowed to take flight and reach out to the global economy; most prominently in Southeast Asia and Turkey, but also to a lesser degree in the Arab world, South Asia and Iran. The West should take note; this historic trend offers the best hope for changing mind-sets in the Muslim world, and defeating Islamic extremism.
The Islamic fervor that is rising in Turkey is distinctly globalization-friendly; in fact it is supported by small-town businessmen that have prospered in trade with the world, and now use their wealth to support Islamic causes–but those causes are in tune with their commercial interests. The rising Muslim middle class in Turkey is not keen on Islamic activism and less so extremism. Much like their American counterparts, they too favor religious values blended with capitalism. Nowhere is this blend more clearly at display than in Dubai. The little emirate has become the ideal for the Muslim middle classes, and surprisingly it is far from the Spartan future fundamentalism promises. Dubai is a distinctly Middle Eastern mix of mosques and malls whose attraction lies not in its Muslim identity but that it evokes Disneyland and Las Vegas, a playground for Muslim tourists and a hub for raging business and manic consumerism. The little emirate has already shown that Muslims are ready to engage the world economy eager to excel and prosper in it. Dubai shows that the enthusiasm for Islam need not mean opposition to thriving business, nor is at odds with middle classes values and behavior the world over.
New values will not grow roots in the Muslim world because the West wins its intellectual sparring with Islam, but when those values serve the economic and social interests of people. If those values have not been fully embraced by Muslims as of yet, that is not because of the fundamental nature of Islam, but primarily because the commercial class that must spearhead the process of propagating them is still too small. The good news is that it has arrived and it is rising. If it grows to dominate Muslim societies then those global values will take deep root as Muslim values, paving the way to democracy. As has been the case with so many other world religions, the impetus for transformation will not come from the market. The change agent is all too often businessmen and traders, and market forces they unleash and abide by. It is these forces that will also transform the Muslim world.
Vali Nasr is Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and author of “Forces of Fortune: The Rise of a New Muslim Middle Class and What it Means for Our World.”