A Response to Nasr by Shira Service

Forces of Fortune

On Monday, October 22, 2012, Vali Nasr came to my Social Sciences Seminar course held at the Cooper Union. Before this presentation I was privileged to read about Nasr, who after many years working in various collegiate institutions and as a special government representative to the Middle East, is now considered a leading expert on the region. He is currently the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and has been affiliated with a handful other prestigious universities over the years. Nasr, in the context of our humanities classroom, spoke mostly on the topic of his own book, “Forces of Fortune” which encompasses topics and discussions about the “Rise of the New Middle Class” and the current state of the Middle East.

He introduced the topic by mentioning that after the past four years under the Obama administration the US has attempted to make better our relations to the Middle East and to bring more peace into the region. However, the Middle East now seems bridled in as much or more instability, extremism, and terrorism than ever. Seeing this as an obvious problem and/or threat, he expressed the desire for these problems to be seen as an opportunity. He mentioned that where these problems lie, a potential breakthrough could be on the horizon, contingent upon creative innovation in the region.

After this sort of introduction, Nasr briefed us on the recent history of the Arab Spring uprising in the Arab world. He described the onslaught of revolutionary acts and political upheaval following the bold act of a Tunisian fruit-seller setting him self on fire as a political statement and act of desperation. He described two separate schools of thought as to why these uprisings happened, and why they happened when they did. The first perspective he described followed the idea of chance; that those who follow this idea believe that a revolution for democracy was eventually to happen, and it just happened to occur when this fruit-seller could handle no more. Nasr, on the other hand, seemed to support the idea that it was due to a very low rate of economic growth in the region, which he said was actually substantially lower than in the 1970s. One major factor that he mentioned was the percentage of youth in the total population. 60%-65% of the population is youth, and about 300,000 youth are in school. These youth often attend school for 7-8 years, extending the period in order to continue living on government subsidies. However, only about 2,000 actually graduate, and these graduates often enter into the bureaucracy or government. This, essentially, grows the size of the government. It seems to me that these numbers show that the current investment into these students’ education is working for the mere purpose of enhancing the quality of life during the course of time when they are being educated. Perhaps Nasr, by bringing light to this, was suggesting that the investment should be into the future of the students and community, an investment for the time after school, and with the hope of graduation rates increasing. Then, the workforce would likely increase, allowing for exponential increase in the over all, long-term quality of life in the region. Additionally, an increased work force may mean that young adults would be busier working and have fewer children, also helping balance the overwhelmingly young population.

After this, Nasr shifted a bit into discussing extremism and religious extremism in relation to poorer communities. Due to a need for basic life sustaining elements, the poorer communities can often be hubs for radical action. Although this radical action can sometimes turn negative – into robbery, murder, or even planned terrorism – it could also inspire passion for a better community and world. This is the radicalism that Nasr spoke of when he introduced the fruit-seller who ignited the Arab Spring – although the man’s action was violent, he subjected only himself to this violence with the aim of freeing the nation politically. And then, the social movement which followed shifted from the radical to the more moderate, being taken up by the wealthier, more educated middle class. Nasr spoke of this trend – of a movement starting in the lower class and being upheld and animated by a middle class – as being normal for political revolutions, and he used the Arab Spring as a specific example.

The image of the fruit-seller spread like fire through the use of social media outlets, which, according to Nasr, makes sense because 20% of the Tunisian population is on Facebook (a surprisingly large number). Because this requires technology, this spread of the fruit-seller’s protest required the involvement of the middle class. Because the middle class is able to think beyond the next meal, they were able to build and support ideals beyond mere survival. This point that Nasr hit on made clear the ability for the middle class to have supported this one, desperate man’s actions.

To me, it seems that Nasr made two outstanding statements during his lecture. First, he mentioned the idea of innovative breakthrough, as he revealed the problem of a population overwhelmed with youth. Secondly, he discussed the politics of a revolution, and spoke of the fight for democracy and equality in the region today. Although he did not directly connect these points, I believe he was inferring a sort of potential innovation or breakthrough politically via the restructuring of education. By taking what the Middle East has, 60%-65% youth, and using the youth’s abilities efficiently through the reinvention of an education system, these youth can grow to gain from graduating college and can positively impact the region with their knowledge. I believe that Nasr was perhaps inferring that the education in the region needs immediate re-invention and innovation. And, although an immediate transformation may not be easy, the attempt to implement positive change could bring drastic benefits to the Middle East and Arab region in the near future.