Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Rise of Islamic Capitalism by Vali Nasr

I recently read The Rise of Islamic Capitalism - Why the New Muslim Middle Class is the Key to Defeating Extremism by Vali Nasr.

The author's name brought back memories. At the dawn of the eighties I was studying Islam at Temple University in Philadelphia. My two main professors were Dr. Ismail Al Faruqi, perhaps America's best-known professor of Islam at the time, and a relative newcomer named Sayyed Hossein Nasr who had fled Tehran from the Iranian Revolution. He is Vali's father.

I still remember Dr. Nasr describing what it felt like to walk the streets of London alone during his first days of exile, and in particular saying he had left his entire library behind. As a young scholar and an academic, his future held more possibility that that of many other refugees, but he was a refugee nonetheless. His family followed him later, never again to return to the life they had enjoyed in their own country.

Although I was only an undergraduate, I was able to take a few graduate seminars with Dr. Al Faruqi and the Muslim students who had come from all over the world to get their PhD from him. He was much more open in these seminars than in his regular classes, and I recall him saying, "We are all hoping and praying for the complete demolition of Israel." I also remember him saying, "We thank God for the Iranian Islamic Revolution. We need to wait 20 years to see how it will develop, but we praise God for allowing it to happen."

Dr. Al Faruqi never got to see the Iranian Revolution 20 years later, because he and his wife were both brutally murdered in their North Philadelphia home (the police report concluded it was the result of a botched robbery, but rumors circulated that it was the work of the Jewish Defense League). Dr. Nasr (Shia, Sufi, and Persian) and Dr. Al Faruqi (Sunni, Conservative, and Palestinian) never mentioned each other in their respective classrooms, and I still wonder what Dr. Nasr really thought of the colleague who so praised the revolution that had cost him everything.

Vali Nasr believes that the end of imperialism in the Muslim world during the 20th century was followed initially by a failed attempt of secularism (exemplified by Kamal Ataturk in Turkey and the Shah of Iran), that in turn was followed by a failed attempt of fundamentalism. He believes the future - if we in the West properly nurture and feed it - will be a successful moderate capitalistic Muslim Middle Class. The industrial growth experienced recently in the southern region of Turkey known as Anatolia is a precursor of what could happen all over the Muslim world - again dependent upon the proper Western response. And similarly to Dr. Al Faruqi, Vali cautions the overly impatient that it might take 20 years or so for this prosperous new world of Islam to break out.

One of the chapters of Vali's book is devoted to "The Prophets of Change", in which he discusses popular preachers with a vast following in the Arab and Muslim world. His first example is Amr Khalid, an Egyptian who has both amassed a personal fortune and created a media empire by presenting Islam's version of the Prosperity Gospel. I've listened to Amr's Arabic lectures and could have sworn I was simply following a translated presentation of Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When America's home-schooling mothers adopted the idea of home-school co-ops - the Spanish-speaking mother teach Spanish to the neighborhood homeschoolers, and the mother who is good at mathematics do the same in teaching math, Amr enthusiastically encouraged Muslim moms to get together with their Muslimah neighbors and develop the same type of child-centered activities (although I don't recall him ever mentioning Steven Covey by name, or acknowledging he had gotten the co-op idea from American non-Muslim homeschooling mothers).

Vali's next example of a Prophet of Change is Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, whose message is also directed to the Arabic-speaking world. Vali is not pro-Qaradawi, but presented him as an example of the pluralism, or the competing voices, calling for the attention of Muslims today. I am personally even less accomodating of Qaradawi than is Vali. As I listen to him on Al Jazeera's weekly Shariah and Life program, I can't help but think he has not had a creative or original idea in the last 30 years, if indeed he ever did. He simply repeats the hard-line Muslim approach towards non-Muslims that followers of the Sunnah have believed for the last 1400 years. The Jews are the sworn enemies of Allah, dialogue with Christians is non-productive because they are untrustworthy, and if we are all faithful Muslims Allah will one day establish his kingdom based upon his law (or, in Islamic terms, the Caliphate will return and Shariah will rule).

The third Prophet of Change emphasized in the book is a Turk named Fethullah Gulen, whose website is here, and who I would guess is the Prophet of Change with whom Vali Nasr most closely identifies. Gulen teaches, quoting Vali, "that pious Muslims can and should be full members of modern society and that there is nothing in the shariah that bars them from excelling in it or coexisting with the West".

The sentence I just quoted brings up something interesting. In his book, Vali Nasr repeats the word "pious" or "piety" again and again. It got to the point I thought it was on almost every page; when it popped up anew I would think, "Here it comes again!"

It took a while to realize what Vali Nasr means by "pious". It is not necessarily honoring your wife, loving your enemy, sharing profits with your employees, or dealing respectfully with the competition. Piety is observing the external appearences of Islam. The pious Muslimah dresses modestly, says her prayers at home if not in the Mosque, and reads the Quran. Her pious husband also reads the Quran, attends the Mosque, and gives his children Muslim names. Their neighbors can look at them and know they are Muslims.

I realize I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, even to myself, but I keep repeating the same thing, "I don't think it is going to work." When Karen Armstrong travels to the UAE and encourages university students to just follow the Golden Rule I think, "It's a great idea, but it's not going to happen." When a young Palestinian and a young Israeli stand side by side and share their dream of a two-state solution by 2018, I think, "I'm sorry, but the only difference between today and 2018 is that we will all be eight years older." And when Vali Nasr presents his vision of a prosperous, peaceful, pious, Muslim middle class leading us all to a more peaceful tomorrow, I have the same response, "Unless you are truly willing to leave Muhammad behind, he will always come up and grab you from behind. Unfortunately it won't be to lead you ahead, but always to pull you back."


Susanne said...

Well leaving Muhammad behind ain't gonna happen....and I think that's your point of why this change will never come.

Interesting info!

Quotable Quotes: said...

I think leaving Muhammad behind is happening...but just one person at a time. Let me refer you to this post:

Cyril Lucar said...

...unless you're a Muslima, then Muhammed grabs your behind. Sorry. so sorry...couldn't resist.

Susanne said...

Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading about the three you've met who left Muhammad behind. I know of a few who left him for Jesus and not secularism. I just don't see it happening in enough numbers to make a huge difference in their society.

Quotable Quotes: said...

Wafa Sultan says, "If as a result of my entire life's work, only one person changes their mind about Islam, it will have been worth it."
I believe, however, that many more than one person are changing their mind about Islam. Who would have ever imagined back in the 80's that Communism would come crashing down so quickly? Although Islam seems incredibly formidable, it is extremely brittle. Chipping away at the simple question, "Is Muhammad really a Prophet of God, and is the Quran a book from God?" could bring it all crashing down. At least, that's what I think.

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