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The Irresistible Rise of the Muslim Middle Class

LAHORE – 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 not only to find its voice, but also 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 Mohamed 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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan 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.