An article in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine argues that specialists failed to predict the recent, ongoing Middle East uprisings. One exception to that systematic failure is Robin Wright, veteran journalist and author. Wright’s 2008 book, “Dreams and Shadows,” profiled individuals who were offering “disparate experiments with empowerment in the world’s most troubled region.” If it didn’t anticipate the precise timing and nature of this year’s Arab Spring, it was at least prescient in previewing the people and movements that provided the intellectual and political background for the upheaval in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
Wright extends that analysis in her new book, Rock the Casbah (the title comes from the song by the punk rock band The Clash). The book contends that the Middle East is rebelling against autocrats but also against jihadism. “For most Muslims today, the real jihad is simply rescuing the moral struggle at the heart of the faith from extremists,” Wright argues. Wright has strong credibility when she contends that the region is turning away from illiberalism and extremism. Her first two books were early catalogs of radical Islam in the late 1970s and ’80s, works that offered insight into the ideology that captivated much of the region. When she now says the trend is toward democracy and freedom, she deserves to be listened to.
The first third of “Rock the Casbah” offers a history of the recent upheaval in the Middle East; the middle profiles the region’s novel artistic and cultural developments; and the last part looks to the future. For those unfamiliar with the Middle East revolutions, Part 1 acts as a one-stop shop, tracing the events in the Islamic world that have captured global attention. Little of it is based on original reporting, however, and none of it is new.
Part 2, however, is terribly fascinating as Wright details unfamiliar, subversive currents of music, literature, comedy, and entertainment throughout the Middle East. Here, original interviews and observations are interspersed with analysis, all of it relayed in Wright’s sober, judicious tone. “Hip-Hop Islam” reports on the youth embracing the Bronx-born art form in places as unlikely as the Palestinian territories and Morocco. “Satellite Sheiks and YouTube Imams” covers Islamic clergymen who are offering alternatives online and on television to the hard-line preachers the West is so familiar with. “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes” investigates Muslim-created plays that feature sex and homosexuality. All of this forms what Wright calls a “counter-jihad,” the attempt to win the war of ideologies away from extreme Islamists. She cautions that these developments are still far from dominant but suggests that history is on their side.
Not only do democracy and freedom offer most individuals in the Middle East a more attractive path than that of religious politics or autocracy, but young Muslims in particular are openly rebelling against the stultifying ways of their parents. The late scholar Samuel Huntington predicted soon after 9/11 that the Islamic world’s youth bulge – a full one-third of the entire Arab world is between the ages of 15 and 29 – would be a source of terrorism for years to come. “Young males are the principal perpetrators of violence in all societies:
[T]hey exist in over-abundant numbers in Muslim societies,” Huntington wrote in Newsweek. Wright in this book shows how those very youths are proving to be just the opposite – they are liberal torchbearers, attracted to freedom of expression and democracy rather than violence and dictatorship. “Stirred by the young and stoked by new technology, rage against both autocrats and extremists has been building steadily within Muslim societies,” she writes. New technologies and sky-high unemployment have combined with unfulfilled promises to cause great discontent among the Middle Eastern young.
Cumulatively, Wright’s book career works as a short history of modern Islamic ideologies. “I sometimes feel as if I’ve finally reached the climax – although not the end – of an epic book that has taken four decades to read,” she writes, aptly. Beginning with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the story of the Muslim Middle East seems to be taking on a decidedly different twist. The tale is not yet over, however, and “Rock the Casbah” confirms Wright’s status as one of our best storytellers.