The Next Islamists: The Wide Green Smudge That’s Changing Our World

Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean For Our World
by Vali Nasr
(Free Press, 2009)

The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China
by Ben Simpfendorfer
(Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009)

We are well into the rise or return of Asia. A multipolar world is practically upon us, one whose big players will not be, for the first time in centuries, exclusively or overwhelmingly white Europeans or their settler offspring. But what if we counted the Muslim world as part of this convalescence, a dispersed population counting as many people as China or India, made unique by asserted religiosity, new economic success, and heightened political intelligence? Few bother to contemplate.

Many perceptions and studies of Islam are paralyzed by teleology. Namely, that there’s one direction to modernity, and it’s Western. The contemporary Muslim is often scrutinized with the same incredulity and dismay that arises when one’s most socially unfortunate acquaintance crashes the party of the year uninvited: “Oh, turbaned colleague, what are you doing here now?” Islam sits in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “waiting room of history,” for it is not only perceived as backwards, it is actually believed to be in our past—sharing the same planet as us, but not the same century. And so, journalists, thinkers and politicians lift up every Muslim rock and peek behind every Islamic veil to find the Oriental Martin Luther, the one who will take Islam from yesterday and bring it acceptably into today. This nicely and additionally explains the unthinking references in our popular media to terms like “the international community”—whereby a certain understanding of the West is rendered conclusive and global.

But history is not so determined.

What then would happen then if, while such commentators insist on the obligation of Islam’s conformity to the Western way, altered global conditions drained the matter of its urgency? What if a convergence of new sources of investment, rising business classes and ever more sophisticated politicians neither needed nor wanted to go West? If a rising China displaced America, what happens to the typical narrative—never mind the vile discourse al Qaeda propagates? Our president, more perceptive in this department than previous occupants of the office, senses these trends. Obama has recently encouraged the G8 to give way to the G20, which involves for example two crucial Muslim powers, Turkey and Indonesia. But does his administration see the fullest picture? For there are parts of the Muslim world that are inhospitable and unstable. But there are also regions wealthy with resources, industry, and youth.

By geography alone, the Muslim world could determine much of the coming age—and as Muslim populations become more economically capable, they will have to be dealt with as more than mere fundamentalists requiring planetary strategies for containment. (Think separation walls on steroids.) Parag Khanna and Fareed Zakaria got some of this down, as they note rising competition between established and insurgent economic powers over stretches of the world until now commonly disparaged. But too little analysis goes beyond this framework, to the on-the-ground happenings within the Muslim world—with the welcome exception of Vali Nasr’s brilliant Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean For Our World (Free Press, 2009) and Ben Simpfendorfer’s intriguing The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009).

The Wide Green Smudge

Simpfendorfer, fluent in Arabic and Chinese, is Chief China Economist at Royal Bank of Scotland, and has lived throughout the Middle East. He brings a casual language that makes his arguments easy to process and a pleasure to read, communicating sensitivities about and intimacies with both regions that cannot be faked. Vali Nasr is among other things Professor of International Politics at Tufts’ Fletcher School and part of Richard Holbrooke’s Afghanistan-Pakistan team, whose recent works have received significant attention. This, his most recent work, urges our reconsideration of the Muslim world by looking at its economic and social realities in another light. Both offer the gravity, subtlety, and statistics that the discussion deserves. We do not know what will become of the processes these authors point to, but we can after these books no longer deny that Muslim (and Islamist) politics are at once becoming, in some crucial circles, politically more refined, culturally more generous, and intellectually more democratic. I gather these circles under the title of the “Next Islamists,” whose priorities are engineered by new economic forces, the consequence of trends that too many analysts discount on account of cultural smugness.

Simpfendorfer’s slender book concerns itself with anecdotes, anthropology, and economics, informing us how new connections are organically emerging—in astonishing number—between rising Arabs, looking to invest massive sums of wealth in new markets, and risen China, a positive model for socially stable growth. These links involve much more than oil alone (Simpfendorfer makes much of the place of Islam in these relationships), but oil has produced the hundreds of billions that now constitute sovereign wealth funds taken seriously across the world. For its tone, facts and implications (if not its oddly inflated price) Simpfendorfer’s book is wonderful. Islamic historian Richard Bulliett called it “absolutely fascinating” and “stunning.” I cannot disagree.

The Next Islamism

If China becomes a new priority, an economic beacon and a political patron, what happens to the question of reconciling Islam and the West? As more wealthy Arabs consider investment in new markets, such as the “Islamic Corridor”—that wide green smudge from Atlantic West Africa to Indonesia—how will America be affected by new Muslim interests?

This is where Nasr’s timely contribution most clearly shines; in Forces of Fortune, Nasr explores the deleterious effects of colonialism (a topic on which Simpfendorfer is unfortunately silent) and then despotism on retarding Muslim politics. It’s no surprise Islam is so preoccupied with the West. For one way or another, it has been Western regimes that have dictated Muslim politics for a very long time. Starting in the 1960s, though, a new Muslim politics began to emerge, shaped by a clash between Cold War overseers, unrepresentative national elites, and persecuted anti-state movements. Initially, many of these movements resisted authoritarian states through explicitly secular discourses, equal parts national pride and socialist policy. The resurgence of Muslimness took two forms: Islamist political movements, many of which inherited or seized the discourse of the left and rebranded it (June 12, 1967: a great time to reintroduce an old product), and pietist movements concerned with the propagation of “orthodox” Muslim practices.

The pietism fed into and was fueled by Islamist politics, but ultimately the politics expanded because it claimed to defend the piety. I believe the convergence of three realities has produced the Next Islamism, which, as Nasr and Simpfendorfer point out, we ignore to our own detriment: First, pietism successfully revived religious practice, until it became everyday habit. Second, political Islam failed to offer functional solutions to modern politics—Iran is, as Nasr said, the only real victory of the old-style of Islamism. And, third, global capital flows empowered new economies, drawing wealth, power, and prestige away from the West, a process Simpfendorfer captures excellently.

The age of the Next Islamists is fundamentally unique. It is a time when Indonesia is considered a near-future member of BRIC, Turkey is a top-20 economy, Iran’s turbaned government invests billions in embryonic stem-cell research, and Dubai hosts many of the world’s most outstanding infrastructure. We must come to terms with the consequences: practicing Muslims, who consume and produce a distinct worldview, and are more than capable of participating in global realities.

Whereas a few decades ago it was assumed that Islam would be secularized into oblivion, the opposite is true. But now that the religion has stuck around long enough, it can no longer become the simple rallying cry it once was. Take Iran, where of course the old-style Islamist discourse triumphed. But the Revolution is now contested by the Next Islamists, an insurgency of former regime elements articulating their disagreements with the Islamic Republic and offering in its place a more democratic Islamic polity. Few thought Iran could survive three decades out in the cold (Nasr notes it is 151st of 160 on a scale of globally isolated economies) and in that time build an elaborate welfare state, launch a satellite into orbit, and educate millions of young women through college and on to graduate school. Now that they have done this, many young Iranians expect (and deserve) more. Many do not (yet) see this expectation as at fundamentally and irreversibly at odds with their Islam. More crucially, neither do their most influential opposition leaders.

Liberal Democracy, or Market Capitalism?

It is not my intention to rehabilitate Fukuyama’s assertion of the inevitable victory of liberal democracy, but I can take consolation in calling him out as half-correct, and still more satisfyingly, entirely unintentionally. If (for now) all that is left is a certain social vision, then that vision is not so much liberal democracy as market capitalism. And if that is the conclusion of our era of history, then this leaves America not at the apex, but as just one competitor among others. The rest of the world can play the capitalist game, and judging by the progress of things, some parts of the planet are doing much better than we are. This may then make for new alliances between the Next Islamists and the West (so long as the West can break out of the thick teleology that demands we see the Muslim world as backwards and hostile.) But if America ignores options for trade and commerce in place of suspicion and hectoring, we empower Russia, China, and our own slow obsolescence. For China and Russia could become sources of anxiety for the Next Islamists, considering their authoritarianism as well as their treatment of some of their Muslim populations.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan slammed China for its treatment of the Uighurs, much as he chastised Israel over the Gaza crisis—yet in the latter case, he did not downgrade ties. The Turkish Parliament turned down an American request to host part of the invasion of Iraq, and yet continues to push close ties with the West. While Turks assert their right to practice a public Islam with a confidence that would have seemed unbelievable just a few decades back, these same Turks are not demanding the Islamic state we have understood by that term since 1979. They are keen to enhance the democracy their country has been building on its own resources, one that respects their unique historical achievements (Ataturk managed to build an independent, modernizing republic when almost every other Muslim country was either colonized or petrified). If American policy recognizes the role of the Next Islamists in building a wealthier Muslim world, we may find ourselves unsuspected partners. For we are far away, as Simpfendorfer notes, missing out changes storming across Eurasia. But our very distance could be welcome in an era of rising China, aggressive Russia, and their obvious proximity.

Engaging the World Beyond Our Coastlines

Consider Iran, which too often we read through a lens of inveterate mendacity. Iran has strong ties with Russia and China. China in particular needs to bring Iranian petrochemicals overland through Central Asia, lessening Chinese dependence on the Hormuz chokepoint and the Malaccan Straits. But those same relationships which give Iran diplomatic cover—consider, really, how few options Barack Obama has to get Iran to the table—can also be an Achilles heel. Iranians are in the process of debating what Islam their Republic is all about, in no small part because America is not the threat it once was. When, on July 17, Ayatollah Rafsanjani rose to deliver his long-awaited Friday sermon, some of his supporters responded to Basiji chants of “Death to America” with counter-chants of “Death to Russia.” If Islam can mean democracy, then the enemy of Islam is not the West. Members of the Green Movement asked why Iran’s Islamic government cares so passionately for Palestinians, but refuses to extend its pan-Islamic sympathies to Uighurs under Chinese rule. All Muslims are equal, but some Muslims are more equal than others. The democratic implications of such logic are by any measure deeply unsettling.

We should be ready for them.

We must break free of a certain laziness that contains our potential for engaging the world beyond our coastlines. Only a hard core of rigid secularization theorists or right-wing thinkers presumes Islam has no choice but to come to terms with a specific secular modernity (or, and this is much the same, Islam has no choice but to forever oppose that modernity), but these few too often dominate the discussion. It is to the contrary: Iranians, for example, do not have to doubt the ability of their culture and country to produce perceptive discourses. Turks, Malaysians, Pakistanis (remember the middle classes who pushed Musharraf out?), and Indonesians stand shoulder to shoulder, for they are among those Muslim states that have seen a resurgence of religious practice coupled with movements announcing the compatibility of Islam with democracy. Nasr and Simpfendorfer are speaking something about a Muslim future we hear of all too rarely. As the Next Islamists expand, much of the rest of the Muslim world will be watching very, very closely—and their empowered middle classes, perceptive intellectuals and courageous activists will hold their own governments up for comparison. Burning flags is so 1979.