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Can Entrepreneurs Tame the Mideast?


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The theory is that a flourishing Muslim bourgeoisie will usher in democracy. That seems like wishful thinking

Forces of Fortune:

The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class

and What It Will Mean for Our World

By Vali Nasr

Free Press; 308 pp.; $26

Vali Nasr, an eminent Middle East scholar, offers a sunny vision of that region's future that should interest anyone concerned with global business or politics. In Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, he argues that entrepreneurial, religiously conservative contingents in such countries as Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran can propel the Middle East into a democratic and prosperous 21st century. If only those arguments were more persuasive.

Iranian-born Nasr teaches at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. His 2006 book, The Shia Revival, ably explained the origins of sectarian violence in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. And he has advised Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for the U.S. to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Forces of Fortune, Nasr asserts that the West, and especially the U.S., has focused on opposing extremism and missed a shot at effecting real change by nurturing a nascent bourgeoisie of bankers, manufacturers, and scientists.

It's an appealing idea, but as soon as Nasr's theory encounters reality, it begins to crumble. Take Iran, which the author knows best: Members of the middle class, including entrepreneurs, helped lead protests there against the rigged reelection in June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nasr strains to maintain his optimism, despite the brutal response of the theocratic regime and its thugs. "Change comes only slowly," he writes. "There will be many ... setbacks." Understatement aside, the bloody outcome in Tehran undercuts Nasr's notion that commercial energy will erode Middle Eastern authoritarianism anytime soon.

But Nasr interprets the stifled dissent in Iran as a crack in the mullahs' defenses, a wedge for the campaign for greater openness. As for who would lead the resistance, Nasr nominates capitalists such as Parviz Aghili. Aghili got his PhD in the U.S., cut his teeth at HSBC (HBC), and founded the 55-branch Karafarin Bank. Nasr says Karafarin is the most competitive of Iran's 10 private banks, thriving despite rules favoring government banks. One of the best ways to weaken Ahmadinejad and bolster the economy, Nasr argues, is to help Aghili, who aims to integrate Iran into the global business system.

Sounds good. But Nasr's one suggestion for helping Aghili and others like him is to end Western sanctions that hurt Iranian businesses. The author opposes military threats, suggesting that the U.S. should open a diplomatic line to Ahmadinejad. Perhaps President Obama can charm Iran out of its desire for a nuclear weapon. But that seems less likely after June's election fiasco. Short of sanctions, it's not clear how the West can apply real pressure.

Moving to Pakistan, Nasr is, if anything, less convincing. Yes, as he says, émigré Pakistanis have thrived in business abroad. But within Pakistan, the only encouraging proof of capitalist pushback he can identify is the lawyer-led movement that helped end the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf. The lawyers also helped bring in an elected government. But that government can barely contain the Taliban and its extremist allies, or the pernicious Pakistani security forces. Sadly, for his pro-capitalist stance, Nasr has to admit that "the economy has begun to unravel."

His one striking example of commerce aiding progress is Turkey, where the religiously conservative Justice & Development Party has pointed the nation toward a rosier future. Nasr gives a tour of the city of Kayseri, 550 miles east of Istanbul. Kayseri exports furniture and denim. Its food products giant, Ulker, orchestrates an empire that includes Godiva Chocolatier. The place bustles.

Even though Kayseri is a devout city, its version of Islam "is not hard-edged fundamentalism and even less so an echo of extremism that inspires radicalism in the Arab world. Islam here is conservative, but pro-Europe, pro-democracy, and above all pro-capitalism."

Nasr demonstrates how varied Islam—and Muslims—can be. But he doesn't explain how Turkey's successes can translate to countries where there are great business traditions but also religious and ideological movements that have priorities at odds with unleashing capitalism's invigorating forces.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor at BusinessWeek.

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