It is no coincidence that Islamic extremism takes root in impoverished societies. Nor is it coincidental that young men who feel hopeless about their lives make ideal recruits for al Qaeda, ISIS and like organizations. And today, too many influential Muslims support, abet, or fail to prioritize these troubling realities. Either through anger at Western foreign policy, or discomfort with Western cultural sympathies, or in fear of angering violent organizations, too many do too little to rebut the distraction-grievance agenda that sustains Islamic extremist recruitment.
Yet there’s hope. An ever-growing movement of Muslims is offering an alternative vision to the extremist lie of false purpose. And in their endeavor, they’re employing capitalism.
Consider Tunisia. In 2011, the North African nation gave birth to the Arab spring when a young businessman named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt officials. In the aftermath of the ensuing revolution, Tunisia has shown that democracy and Islam can co-exist peacefully. And while the young democracy continues to face problems — a sluggish economy, political instability and the persistent threat of ISIS attacks — it exemplifies the possibilities born of indigenous democracy.
The ISIS threat is especially relevant in this regard. Two attacks targeting Western tourists — the March 2015 Bardo Museum attack and the June 2015 Sousse beach attack — prove the degree to which ISIS and other violent Islamic extremists fear Tunisian democracy. They fear it partly because they hate democracy, but also because they know that an opportunity-driven Tunisian economy would drain the pool of disenfranchised young men.
Alternatively, consider the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A close foreign policy partner of the United States, the UAE in recent years has distinguished itself by aggressively confronting private citizens who raise money for Islamic extremists. The UAE has also taken an increasingly robust role in challenging efforts by Qatar to support violent Islamist movements around the Middle East. But beyond security issues, the UAE has a highly impressive economic record.
Unlike many Middle Eastern nations, the UAE has diversified its economy so as to prepare for the day (I would say already arrived) that oil ceases to be the perpetual gold mine of revenue. The best example of this diversification is Dubai. Once an important trading town made useful only by its coastal geography, Dubai is now one of the world’s capitols of tourism. Every year, it welcomes the money of hundreds of thousands Europeans and Middle Easterners seeking sand, sun and fun. This matters in the sense of greater economic growth. But as I’ve argued in regards to Saudi Arabia, economic diversification is equally crucial for Middle Eastern stability. Absent that diversification, extremists will take advantage of young populations (most Middle Eastern nations have exceptionally high youth representation in demographics) newly devoid of traditional financial payments from government.
Tunisia has shown that democracy and Islam can co-exist peacefully and it exemplifies the possibilities born of indigenous democracy
Then there’s Indonesia. In October 2014, following years of endemic corruption and popular disenchantment with politics, Joko Widodo was elected President. And Widodo has embraced the Islamic tradition of frugality and honesty as the key tenets of his leadership. But he’s no demagogue. Widodo is determined to modernize his nation of 260 million people. So far he has taken tentative action to reduce subsidies — a politically toxic but long-term necessity for efficiency — and has boosted infrastructure and anti-corruption efforts.
Looking toward a global marketplace, Widodo has also successfully encouraged an increase in foreign direct investment. Widodo’s agenda is a good sign for reformation in political Islam. Campaigning and now governing as a politician focused on boosting the economy and transparency in government, Widodo illustrates how Islam and effective governance deserve to be partners rather than foes.
Last but not least, there’s my friend Kashif Mahmood. A Briton of Pakistani descent, Kashif is a small business owner in the English town of Cambridge. We became friends after successive years of working together at the annual Wimbledon tennis championships! But I mention Kash (as his friends call him) because to me he represents all that is good about Muslims. A devout adherent to his faith, Kash is also an incredibly loyal servant to his country and his friends. And his determined focus on running a family business known for quality and reliability speaks to his living example of Islam as a religion of honor.
To be sure, Kash is not leading a nation or changing the structure of a national economy. In providing a service in return for a profit, and doing so with the respect of an ever-growing customer base — Christian, Muslim, those of other faiths and those of no faith at all — Kash simply represents an Islamic capitalist. And in that limited but exceptional endeavor, he is a representative for many other Muslims who give much toe the better future of Western societies. These men and women are the living juxtapositions against those who claim Islam and the west need always be at odds.
Ultimately, the reform of political Islam will take many years. Many obstacles await. But Islamic extremists do not define the Muslim world. On the contrary, as those who offer a path to human fulfillment gain more power and influence, the extremists will struggle to overcome the existential lack of opportunity that they represent. And just as the Vietnamese people transitioned from Communist orthodoxy to become the world’s most pro-capitalist population, so too are Muslims realizing the unparalleled and unconfined virtue of free-market capitalism. A marketplace that welcomes their faith, their opportunity for social mobility and the benefits that opportunity will bring to others.