Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review : Forces of Fortune
Author : Vali Nasr
My Rating : 4 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World".

I came to know about this book while watching my favorite "The Daily Show". I liked the premise of the book and decided to try it out.

Vali Nasr is now considered a prominent thinker and scholar about the Middle East. In this book he presents his approach to solve the issues that plgue the Middle East and especially its relations with the Western World. His suggestion is to foster free market society in the Middle East and empower its middle class. By doing this, Vali Nasr argues, the Middle Eastern populace will have a vested interest in promoting long term stability in the region, and eventually give rise to democracy.

This is a logical argument and the author presents it convincingly. His knowledge about the region's history and political system is impressive. The thesis is supported by combination of hard data, interviews, anecdotes and personal interpretations of the historical events.

Nasr starts with explaining the inroads Capitalism has made into this region - with the obvious example of the trading hub of the region - Dubai. As one businessman summarizes how Islam and free market co-exists there - it's a city of five star hotels and five star mosques !

This is the theme that appears many times in the book. Nasr argues that Islamic societies willingly and easily embrace capitalism when given the opportunity. When secularism is forced from above, it has failed, as it happened for example in Iran during Shah's regime. This gave rise to the dangerous extremism of Khomeini. But if free market ideas take hold, the society gravitates towards a much more tolerant society - like Turkey. Turkey appears numerous times in this book. Not just about itslef, but the Turkish model or Kemalism is discussed frequently in different social contexts - for example how it fared in Pakistan.

In the introductory chapter, there is a bombardment of data and it overwhelms the readers with different statistics. Thankfully, all the other chapters glide very smoothly. The narrative becomes very engaging as the author starts presenting his case. Considering the sensitivity of the topic, a "matter-of-fact" tone is maintained almost through out the book. This is different than "fair and balanced" which is either an euphemism for political correctness or used to hide cluelessness of the journalists. Nasr is on the other side of the spectrum. He clearly has a great grasp of the issues and has no qualms about presenting things as he sees it. He masterfully avoids the trap of apologizing for the Muslim world. For example, he mentions that poverty is not enough of a reason for terrorist breeding grounds and points out that many terrorists come from well-to-do families.

He also avoids the pitfall of "who is to blame". His focus is on how to solve and what's the best way to move forward. So there is not much mention of the meddling done by Russia and the Western World - which is also one of the many reasons for the instability in the region. This leaves some questions insufficiently answered. I am not sure I came out completely convinced with the reasoning for the lack of democracy in most of the region.

Nevertheless, his message is clear and easy to understand. He wants free market forces to nudge the area towards a stable, tolerant, democratic society the same way it did in Europe many many decades ago. This is a refreshing clean approach and hopefully reshapes prevailing view points.

This book is a great example of scholarly work and I recommend it to anyone interested in political issues of our times.

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