Shelves: nonfiction , middleeast , politics Forces of Fortune is a pretty good book, but I feel a little like a victim of a bait-and-switch. The subtitle is The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World, which I took to mean that the book would be heavily focused on economics, but the book is very much focused on cultural, religious, and historical issues. I was disappointed that there wasnt more of an economic focus. Its also shoddily written in places. That said, I still learned a good deal.

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During that time of remarkable upheaval the forces of Islamic revolution seized Iran; Pakistan proclaimed itself an Islamic state; the Soviet Union touched off a jihad by invading Afghanistan; and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by radical fundamentalists. Since those fateful years, many more violent revolts, deadly clashes, terror attacks, and bloody suppressions have followed, along with deepening conservative Islamic attitudes and anti-Americanism across a vast swath of countries from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Extremism has come of age in this cauldron, giving rise to al-Qaeda, and its cult of violence and dark vision of the future. That object has determined how America sorts its allies from its adversaries, which fights it has taken on, and whether in pursuing its interests it will champion reform, promote democracy, or look to dictators and military solutions.

It has also led America perilously close to reducing everything in the Middle East to the fight against fundamentalism, and to seeing every expression of Islam as a threat. The U. That sort of clarity can be a great help, but it can also grossly oversimplify, obscuring vital aspects of the situations within countries and regions that provide opportunities for improving relations. Looking at the Middle East as it is today — caught in the web of violent conflicts, seething with anger and anti-Americanism, and vulnerable to extremist ideas — it is difficult to have hope for the future.

But, however difficult, that is just what we must do. In his perceptive book The Age of the Unthinkable, the strategist Joshua Cooper Ramo argues that by intensely focusing on that which is before us, we miss important trends — some barely detectable — that will shape the future.

The paradigms that dominate today may matter little tomorrow. These conflicts are serious, and we must prevail in them, but we should also recognize that there are other forces at work in the Muslim world and they too deserve our attention — they may ultimately matter more to us. Take the case regarding the paradox of Iran, a brutish theocracy lording over a restless population that is also a rising power with ambitions to match its glorious ancient history, and a keen sense of purpose honed by decades of confrontation with the West.

An examination of the ironies of Iranian power, and the fault lines within the country — on display in the recent presidential election — offer a particularly revealing starting point for rethinking the true challenges, and prospects, in transforming relations with the Muslim world. Iran also now openly seeks great-power status and is building a nuclear program. Making matters worse in recent years was the more antagonistic approach to dealing with Iran that was adopted by the Bush administration, and the badly managed prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For much of the past three decades, the United States and Iran were locked in a stalemate, with no diplomatic relations, but also not much in the way of direct confrontation.

America was content to isolate Iran as much as possible while waiting for the clerical regime to succumb to perceived inevitable internal pressures for change. The Bush administration believed it could nudge history along.

Veterans of Reagan era cold war politics — the so-called neoconservative hawks who gathered around Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — drew confidence from what they perceived as the U.

By breaking the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late , toppling Saddam, and then uprooting Baathism in Iraq, the United States removed local rivals that had contained Iranian power to its east and west. Today there is no indigenous military force in the Persian Gulf region capable of containing Iran. Iranian leaders are keenly aware of how their regional influence has grown since , and especially since The clerical regime has also kept up, if not jacked up, its meddling in Palestinian politics through its support for the extremists of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as well as cultivating ties with Syria.

By excoriating Israel and taking advantage of Arab frustration with the lack of progress in the peace process, Iran seems to curry more favor these days on the Arab street than the tired old Arab dictatorships in charge. There is worry across the Middle East that all this activity will only increase if Iran goes nuclear. Talk of military action against Iran was rife in the Bush administration throughout and , but the United States had too much on its plate in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the deepening political crisis in Pakistan, to take any such step.

All of this seems to indicate that Iran has become a juggernaut. But as the recent upheaval shows, the reality is more complex. There is plenty of this activity to alarm America and its Arab allies, and worse, those ties are becoming stronger. But viewing Iranian power from that angle alone makes it look more inevitable and ominous than it really is.

The Middle East is not just a zone of clashing extremist ideas and zealous terrorist armies. It is also a place of struggling and thriving economies, where new classes and business elites are elbowing their way higher in the power structures of many countries, changing religious, social, and political life on the way.

Other contenders for great-power status in recent memory, Brazil, China, or India, all rose to prominence not on the back of hard power but as economic stars driving growth in the regions around them. That is not the case with Iran. Iran is not going the way of the so-called BRICs to use the somewhat misleading acronym that lumps petro-dependent Russia in with the more diversified economies of Brazil, India, and China.

Hard power is not its most effective means to greater influence. Iran has most influence where it does most trade; where that influence is backed by economic and business relations. The Iranian rial changes hands there as easily as local currencies. In fact, Iran has such a vital interest in this trade that the regime has created banking and financial ties and invested infrastructure projects in these countries ranging from roads, railways, and piers to pipelines andelectricity pylons.

Businesses of all kinds have grown in these countries on the back of this trade. In so many ways, Iran is well qualified to become a true economic powerhouse driving wider growth in the region.

It has vast oil and gas reserves, plus a strong industrial base by regional standards. Labor is cheap but the literacy rate is high, over 75 percent. Stanford regularly admits Sharif alumni into its graduate programs in engineering, and according to one Stanford professor and former department chair, "Sharif now has one of the best undergraduate electrical-engineering programs in the world. The degree of ingenuity and skill already present is attested to, ironically, by the nuclear program, which is run by homegrown experts.

And it is not just splitting atoms that is supposed to catapult Iran into global status, the country is also investing in space research and biotechnology. The initiative has surged ahead taking advantage of the fact that a fetus is not considered a human in Islamic law before the end of the first trimester of a pregnancy. In a more down-to-earth vein, Tehran mayor and former Revolutionary Guards commander Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf talks of development in terms of economic reform, private sector growth, and globalization.

Such hopeful talk from the higher-ups falls flat, though, before the reality of an Iran where inflation is running at double digits and about a quarter of the workforce is jobless. The problem is not a lack of enterprise or fundamental potential. Iran has a dynamic private sector and the middle class to go with it. The state grew to its current size after the revolution by devouring large parts of the private sector — nationalizing businesses, banks, and industries. It prioritizes spending on the poor above achieving economic growth, and therefore sees no problem in stifling entrepreneurship with red tape, starving businesses of resources, and taxing them dry.

It is top-down centralized economic management at its worst. When it comes to the economy, Iran is not a regional leader but a regional laggard, dawdling in the soggy bottomlands of suffocating statism.

This economic stagnation was a powerful driver of the vehement opposition to Ahmadinejad in the recent election. The thing to watch in Iran over the next few years is the private sector and the middle class tied to it — the same class that in the aftermath of the June election led millions to ask "where is my vote? At issue will be whether the state will free the economy and let this dynamic society reach its full potential.

As a senior Iranian official once told me, "When push comes to shove, the Palestinians will be the first to turn on Iran. Great-power status presupposes economic leadership, and that Iran is not currently providing. How can a country with an economy the size of Massachusetts and the lowest military expenditure in its neighborhood take on the United States and claim great-power status?

But even with nuclear capability, the kind of status that Iran covets will elude it. Both India and Pakistan started down the nuclear path in the s, but only one of them emerged as a regional great power in the s. It was not nukes that turned India into a rising power, but rather its economic growth rate, newfound friendliness to free markets, and ability to integrate into the global economy. Iran today rallies the alienated and rouses the dispossessed, but those seeking progress and prosperity have to look elsewhere for inspiration.

If Iran wants to be a great power, it will have to further nurture its economy so that it serves as the engine of growth for the region that it could be. That would mean bringing itself into concert with a vital economic transformation underway all around the region — the rise of a new middle class that is the key to more fully integrating the Middle East into the global economy, and to the building of better relations with the West.

It is to this rise of a new middle class that leaders in the United States and around the West should turn attention — to fuel its potential — rather than allowing the chimerical power of fundamentalism to dictate so much of the approach to the region.

The great irony of the fundamentalist threat is that the two years from to in which Islamic fundamentalism shook the world and terrified the West were also its high point of power. That is not to say, of course, that after fundamentalism won Iran, turned Pakistan, and destabilized Egypt it just died out; fundamentalists are too vocal, active, well organized, and well funded for that.

Fundamentalism most definitely remains a worry, and its extremist edge a serious threat. The thought of nuclear-armed Pakistan, with its million-plus population — deeply divided along ethnic lines, and with a troubled economy and weak government — unraveling before the extremist onslaught is unnerving to say the least. A failed Pakistan in the clutches of extremism or plunged into civil war, and with no safeguards locking down its nuclear arsenal, would be deeply destabilizing for the region and the world.

The Taliban visited horror on Afghanistan, but this rag-tag army of religious zealots and tribal warriors amounted to no more than an incomplete insurgency in a broken corner of the Muslim world — an antique badland even before decades of war ravaged it.

There have been no additional Irans, and the prospect that another Islamic state will arise — whether through peaceful means or violent ones — has been steadily declining.

The West must remain vigilant against fundamentalism, but that should not stop Western policymakers and publics from seeing the "whole picture" in the Middle East, and a vital truth of the region is that the fundamentalist strain of Islam is not practiced by the vast majority of the population, and is not on the rise.

What is true is that since , a broader wave of Islamic resurgence has swept across the Middle East, and fundamentalism has surfed that wave rather than fueling it. The Islamic resurgence is much larger, deeper, and more complex. The vast majority of Muslims are moderate and pragmatic when it comes to religion, balancing law and piety with a healthy dose of mystical practices and folk religion. It is not fundamentalism that accounts for the ubiquity of Islamic influence across the region today; rather it is the other way around: Widespread Islamic fervor — which can, but does not have to, take on a fundamentalist form — has allowed fundamentalism to survive past its prime.

It would of course be foolish to ignore fundamentalism and the extremists associated with it, but it is also imprudent to consider fundamentalism the end-all and be-all of what we need to know about Islam and the Middle East. It is time that we take a good look at the vitality of the energetic blending of Islamic piety and capitalist fervor that is flourishing in many pockets around the region. A testament to Ottoman grandeur, the great mosque is an architectural marvel of unrivaled beauty.

They were the words of the Prophet, he was told: "A merchant is the beloved of God" al-kasib habiballah. It was also a hastily organized damage-control mission. Two months earlier, His Holiness had caused a furor when, in a speech in his German homeland, he had evoked the criticisms of Islam made by fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who led the empire during its last days, as the Ottoman Turks steadily encroached on its power, eventually seizing Constantinople.

Manuel had written a "Refutation of Islam," in which he argued that Islam was an irrational religion, an evil falsehood that had been spread by the sword. Making the reference worse was the fact that Manuel, in his desperate efforts to obtain support for the fight against the Turks, had made an alliance with the pope in Rome.

By quoting Manuel, the current pope seemed to be saying that Islam was essentially driven by jihad and was at odds with Western values — not only Christian values, but those of modernity altogether. How ironic, then, that on that day at the Blue Mosque, the pope discovered that for centuries, the last words worshippers read when leaving the mosque were a call to commerce.

Not only was commerce important to the seventeenth-century Muslim world, it is even more important to that world today. Washington is certainly not entirely unaware of this. The United States has been supporting economic reform and business initiatives in the Muslim world, but with too much focus on working with government planners and the top-level business elite.

Change will not come from this upper crust — it has too much invested in the status quo and depends too heavily on the state. It is business with small "b" that should hold our attention. All across the region, a whole new economy is rising, mixing local values with surging consumption and building ever richer ties to the global economy, and this trend is not only every bit as powerful and important as the threat of fundamentalism, it is more so. In the spring of , I met in Dubai with a group of Middle Eastern businessmen.

Only a short time earlier, the little emirate had been swept to dizzying heights of wealth and prosperity, and these businessmen had done quite well for themselves.



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Forces of Fortune

Much of the economic and democratic developments in the West owe themselves to the rise of the bourgeois. For instance, Islamic finance has moved beyond a niche market, growing at percent a year. Read more Read less. Inside the Doomsday Machine.


‘Forces of Fortune’


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