When the longtime Middle East reporter Robin Wright’s last book, “Dreams and Shadows,” was published in 2008, her assessment — that “a budding culture of change” and empowerment had begun to permeate the region — was greeted as wildly optimistic. Three years later, given the wave of uprisings that began within the past year in Tunisia and Egypt and that has continued to roll through the Middle East, her views now seem extremely prescient.
Ms. Wright’s latest book, “Rock the Casbah” (which takes its title from a 1982 Clash song), builds on the arguments laid out in that earlier volume, not only looking at the causes and repercussions of the recent Arab Spring but also examining broader trends in the Islamic world. As she sees it, the revolts against autocratic rule in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are “only the beginning of the beginning,” and a positive new dynamic is grabbing hold.
“The far wider Muslim world is increasingly rejecting extremism,” Ms. Wright argues. “The many forms of militancy — from the venomous Sunni creed of Al Qaeda to the punitive Shiite theocracy in Iran — have proven costly, unproductive and ultimately unappealing.” Rejecting the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” she argues that “even as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as ‘others,’ particularly after 9/11, most Muslims were increasingly trying to integrate into, if not imitate, a globalizing world.”
This change, Ms. Wright notes, is driven partly by technology (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and satellite TV), partly by demographics — the young now “make up the majority in all Muslim countries, in some places close to 70 percent.”
Ms. Wright writes with authority, drawing on her decades of experience reporting for publications like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker, and in these pages she uses her intimate knowledge of the region to look at how much-covered recent events (like the role an obscure Tunisian street vendor played in inciting the Arab Spring and the popular revolt that led to the fall of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak) are related, and to situate them within a larger historical and political context.
The main weakness of the book has to do with methodology: Ms. Wright’s tendency to focus on portraits of reform-minded protesters, women’s rights activists and daring, social-minded artists results in profiles of some remarkable individuals, but it can also lead to a heavily anecdotal narrative in which it can be difficult for the reader to tell just how widespread a given trend is, or what its prospects for taking root in the near future might be.
Like Peter L. Bergen in his recent book, “The Longest War,” Ms. Wright argues that Osama bin Laden miscalculated the consequences of the 9/11 attacks. Like Mr. Bergen, she points to the emergence of powerful new critics of Al Qaeda, who had jihadi credentials themselves, most notably Sheik Salman al-Awdah , whom she describes as “one of bin Laden’s earliest role models” and who in 2007 issued an open letter to that Qaeda leader, condemning him for spilling the blood of innocent people.
She, too, notes that several factors are proving detrimental to Al Qaeda’s long-term future, most notably its failure to offer any positive vision for building a society; its inability to provide constructive solutions for everyday issues like health care and jobs; its killing of Muslim civilians; and its ultrafundamentalist worldview.
But while Mr. Bergen worries that “many thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace bin Laden’s doctrine of violent anti-Westernism,” Ms. Wright is considerably more positive, asserting that a decade after 9/11, “the Islamic world is now in the throes of a counterjihad” aimed at routing “extremism in its many forms” and that this “counterjihad will define the next decade as thoroughly as the extremists dominated the last one.”
“For the majority of Muslims today,” she says, the central issue is not a war with the West, but “a struggle within the faith itself to rescue Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority.” She argues that for a growing number of Muslims, “Islam is often more about identity than piety, about Muslim values rather than Islamic ideology.” A 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey, she reports, found that far more people in a sampling of Muslim countries “identified with modernizers — by two to six times — than with fundamentalists.”
The depth of changing attitudes, Ms. Wright contends, can be measured by the flowering of new art forms in the Islamic world that challenge the political, religious and social establishments. In 2010, she writes, a Saudi woman named Hissa Hilal became a finalist on a Persian Gulf reality show called “The Million’s Poet” (“a local version of ‘American Idol,’ only in verse”), and recited an angry, groundbreaking poem that assailed extremist groups and established clerics.
A popular comic-book series about a group called the 99 — created by a Kuwaiti psychologist named Naif al Mutawa — features superheroes who are anti-jihadis, preaching a code of nonviolence and pluralism. And members of a new generation of Muslim playwrights and filmmakers are turning their art forms into forums for the counterjihad, helping to bridge East and West even as they provide an expression, in Ms. Wright’s words, of “what it is like to be an ordinary Muslim in an era of Islamic extremism.”
Rappers, too, Ms. Wright says, are “among the most potent new messengers of political change”: hip-hop has emboldened the young — in places like Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Palestinian villages in Israel — “to lash back at both extremists and autocrats,” and “its songs have become the anthems of protests across the Arab world.”
Optimistic as Ms. Wright is, she acknowledges that Islamic change agents face a host of obstacles and uncertainties in the years to come. Though the Green Movement challenged the Iranian regime in 2009, it “lost the first round to the theocracy’s thugs,” and that country, where political Islam first seized power, she writes, “may prove the toughest to change.”
As for nations that have experienced the sudden collapse of authoritarian rule, Ms. Wright goes on, they confront delicate transitions in which “conflicting demands for both social justice and economic growth” will have to be balanced, and political predators — including members of old ruling parties and Islamist extremists — will try to take advantage of public frustration with the pace of change. Lasting political and social transformation will be further complicated in many countries by high levels of unemployment, a pervasive lack of education and sectarian and ethnic divisions.
Yet, in the end, Ms. Wright believes that “Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Jordanians, Moroccans and many others” are part of a broader historical pattern that includes the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the end of military dictatorships in Central and Latin America.
“The drive,” she concludes, “to be part of the 21st century — rather than get stuck in the status quo of the 20th century or revert to the ways of the 7th century — now consumes the Islamic world.”