The irresistible rise of the Muslim middle class

The Muslim world’s current turmoil has one key cause that is rooted in neither religious ideology nor sectarian struggle. In Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, rapidly growing and increasingly assertive middle classes want a say in politics and greater economic opportunity. Modern communication — in particular the extensive use of social media — has enabled this rising middle class to find its voice and to have its voice heard.

In asserting themselves, middle-class Muslims are guided by no particular political philosophy or religious preference. The street protests in Cairo over the past 30 months clearly reflect the political preferences of middle-class youth. The protests first forced out former President Hosni Mubarak, because his regime was failing to meet their demands; and their judgment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s subsequent administration was equally harsh, culminating in former President Mohammed Morsi’s removal from power.

What this new middle-class “Muslim Street” wants is an inclusive political system — a demand heard not only in Egypt, but also in Iran, as Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the country’s presidential election in June attests. Likewise, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government has met with considerable resistance as it has sought to define public policy along ever-narrower religious lines. Protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square this summer, triggered by plans to develop a city park, resonated countrywide, because Erdogan has increasingly governed with too exclusive a public in mind.

This conflict, like the one in Egypt, will be resolved only when political systems that institutionalize respect for pluralism and the sensitivities of minorities are established. It also highlights another important aspect of protest politics in the Muslim world.

While members of the new middle class appreciate economic progress, they no longer want it to come at the expense of political rights. Economic development must be accompanied by respect for ordinary citizens.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson advance this line of thought in their recent book “Why Nations Fail.” They emphasize the importance of inclusive political development as a prerequisite for sustained economic growth. Political systems in many emerging countries, they argue, become unstable because their composition is insufficiently representative and their policy preferences are excessively narrow.

Long-term stability requires both political inclusion and equal access to economic opportunities.

One large Muslim country, at least, seems to be increasingly determined to reflect the aspirations of middle-class youth while maintaining its Islamic identity. Pakistan may not be the country that springs to mind when people look for an example for the rest of the Muslim world. But Pakistan has been moving in this direction — uneasily to be sure — since before the Arab Spring protests began.

Of course, Pakistan has endured periods of extreme political, economic and social turmoil. But as the May 2013 election and the conduct — thus far — of the new government demonstrate, the country may finally be set on a course to achieve political stability and thus prepare the ground for sustained economic growth.

In the last few years, Pakistan and Turkey have managed to push the military away from the center stage of national politics. Throughout the post-colonial period in the Muslim world, it was the military, as the best-organized public institution, that filled the space occupied elsewhere by political parties, well-established government agencies and professional civil services.

The creation of these institutions is a slow process. Repeated military interventions in large Muslim nations — Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey — have impeded orderly political development. But these countries’ rising middle classes have begun to move their political systems in another direction — a testament to the power that they now wield.

That power has increased for several reasons, the most important of which is demographic. Most large Muslim countries have very young populations, with a median age in the mid- to upper 20s. With more than half of these countries’ populations below the age of 30, political development has been able to move forward despite the recalcitrance of entrenched elites.

That progress is likely to be interrupted, but not halted. Given this, the military takeover in Egypt, no less than Erdogan’s violent crackdown on protesters in Istanbul, will be regarded in the long term as a hiccup, not a reversal of the inexorable rise of the Muslim middle class.

Shahid Javed Burki, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore. © 2013 Project Syndicate.

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