The long-awaited reformation of Islam might come from the Muslim communities in the WestShahid Javed Burki / Apr 02, 2012, BS
For decades, if not for centuries, citizens of the Muslim world were divided into two economic classes. The narrow elite, which ruled from the top, had a great deal of economic wealth and considerable political power. But the vast majority of the population was poor and had practically no say in the way it was governed. This divide was sustained by a militaristic power structure that imposed the will of the rich ruling elite over those it ruled.
The mosque was the only place where this economic divide melted. It, too, in a way, served the purpose of the rich rulers — it gave the impression that these two classes were two parts of the same society.
This neat arrangement is now breaking down and new political and economic systems are taking shape in several Muslim states, including Pakistan. The reason for this near-revolutionary change is the rise of the Muslim middle class. This is occurring in both parts of the Muslim world — in the Arab as well as the non-Arab components of this vast swathe of land that stretches from Indonesia in the east and Morocco in the west. But, as this article will indicate later, what is contributing to this phenomenon is the growing Muslim population in the areas where this community is forming the diaspora.
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What, then, are the immediate causes of the rise of the middle class in the Muslim world? Let us begin with the enormous demographic change that has occurred in the countries of this area. For decades, Muslim countries had rates of population growth that were measurably higher than those in other developing countries. Religion – or, at any rate, the way it was interpreted by some of its leaders – had much to do with this difference. To take two examples: Ayub Khan’s attempt to introduce family planning in Pakistan in the 1960s was successfully resisted by Islamic parties and contributed to his fall after an 11-year rule; and in Iran the arrival of an Islamic regime resulted in a sharp increase in the fertility rate and hence in population growth. As we know from the experience of Catholic countries in Europe, religious beliefs cannot override economic compulsions for too long. The number of children born per woman – the definition of human fertility – declined significantly in Catholic Europe. The same is happening in the Muslim world. Iran, Pakistan and Turkey have all seen significant declines in fertility rates in recent years. But, by then, the earlier high rates of population increase had already created a cohort that swelled the ranks of the middle class. This cohort is better educated, more urbanised, and more desirous of change.
How large is the Muslim middle class, and at what rate is it increasing? These questions are not easy to answer, since not much research has been carried out. Looking at some of the country studies, the size of this segment of the population can be estimated at 250 million people in the seven countries with the largest Muslim populations. These countries are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran and Egypt. The middle class represents about 30 per cent of the total population in these countries. Given the rates of economic growth in these nations – averaging at about six per cent a year – and their relatively skewed income distribution, the size of the middle class is probably increasing by eight to 10 per cent a year. This means that 20 to 25 million people are being added every year to this group.
The Muslim middle class is well represented in the various diaspora groups dispersed across the globe. There are large Muslim communities in Western Europe and North America. Their total size is more than 20 million. Notwithstanding European and American fears about the penetration of radical Islam into these communities, large segments of these populations have picked up the liberal economic, political and social values of their host populations. This makes the diaspora groups more modern and secular than the native populations from which they are drawn. With the development of communication technologies in recent years, the Muslim communities in the West are not only in touch with their homelands, they are also influencing the populations from which they came. We know from the several case studies carried out to understand the dynamics of the “Arab Spring” that the diaspora had a deep influence on the events leading up to the uprisings. Prominent members of the diaspora are now engaged in political restructuring of countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. In Pakistan, Imran Khan’s rise has the support and financial backing of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain, West Asia and North America.
Some scholars of Islam have suggested that the long-awaited reformation of Islam will come from the Muslim communities in the West. They feel that their religion has come under the influence of the people who want to take it back to the days of its founding, and not forward where it needs to go. They would like to challenge the message coming out of groups such as the Al Qaeda. This could be one reason the post-bin Laden leadership seems to have moved the focus of its attention from hurting the West to influencing the Muslim homeland.
The important conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that the rise of the middle class will profoundly affect the development of the Muslim world. It will have a moderating influence on all aspects of life in these countries, as they make the transition from the old order to those evolving now.
The writer is a former finance minister of Pakistan