The Clash

Music serves as a metaphor for change in Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World. Rap and hip-hop challenge religious taboos and provide “the rhythm of resistance” in Muslim societies, journalist Robin Wright contends in her wide-ranging study of the culture and politics of modern Islam. Can the same music provide a rhythm for moderation and reform?

Wright reports on a new spirit sweeping the Muslim world: extremism is dead, and a counter-jihad is underway, with Muslims pushing back against radical ideologies that have left death and destruction in their wake. The desire to join the twenty-first century is the strongest force now animating Muslims. It’s evident in both the political rebellions spreading across the Middle East and the larger rejection of violence within Muslim societies globally. 

The two phenomena get equal billing in Rock the Casbah. The first chapter begins with an account of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which started in December 2010; Wright then segues to the revolution in Egypt, and then more briefly describes the other uprisings of the Arab Spring. Chapter 2 focuses on Wright’s other theme, the struggle Muslims are waging to rescue their religion’s core values from a small minority of religious extremists. The jihad against the jihad is a new phase in the Islamic resurgence that began in the late 1920s with the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the development of political Islam. Wright documents this new phase anecdotally, in interviews with poets, playwrights, musicians, feminists, and clerics in different Muslim societies. If Osama bin Laden was a hero to some Muslims for attacking the United States in 2001, Wright notes that by 2007 his reputation had plummeted. Even some longtime supporters turned against him, shocked and angered by the violence he unleashed on other Muslims. Al Qaeda is now deeply unpopular, if not irrelevant. Wright quotes an Egyptian poet and activist, Ghada Shahbender: “Today, Al Qaeda is as significant to the Islamic world as the Ku Klux Klan is to Americans—not much at all.”

The subsequent chapters hopscotch back and forth between Wright’s two themes. She argues that three rebellions are occurring concurrently: one against extremism, another against autocrats, and a third against Islamic ideology. A chapter devoted to Iran’s Green Revolution, when thousands of citizens took to the streets in 2009 to protest what they suspected was a rigged presidential election, notes that Iran was one of the first countries in the Muslim world to modernize, the first to adopt political Islam as an ideology of state, the first to face a severe challenge from peaceful protesters, and the first to experience a massive public rejection of radical Islam. Today Iran continues to be a trendsetter in the region.

Even Saudi Arabia, home to bin Laden and many of those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, has changed. Wright has visited Saudi Arabia dozens of times over the past thirty years as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East. She notes that while Wahhabi xenophobia and arrogance continue, the government, Saudi clerics, and private citizens are taking measures to reverse the kingdom’s long mix of militancy and religion. An interesting section of Rock the Casbah looks at Saudi Arabia’s successful rehabilitation program for terrorists, which uses sheikhs, clerics, and religious scholars, backed by psychologists and social workers, to re-educate militants. Ironically, Wright reports, Saudi jihadists often know little about Islam, despite living in the country that is home to the religion’s two holiest sites. Wright’s own interviews with Saudis accused of terrorism paint a picture of hapless young men who joined Al Qaeda more on a whim than out of deep conviction. “They struck me as adventure-seekers in search of a mission, a job, an identity, a sense of purpose, or escape from personal problems or the law. Anger and emotional issues often influenced decisions far more than any militant ideology,” she writes.

The models that have until recently defined political Islam—the Salafism of Al Qaeda, the Shiite theocracy of Iran, and the rigid Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia—have lost their appeal. Wright reports that today’s Muslims reject both Islamic extremism and the secularism of the West. They have become less concerned with ideology—with the creation of an ideal Islamic state or ideal Islamic parties—and more concerned with values. While culturally conservative in practice and appearance, the counter-jihadis are reformers who seek an Islam adapted to modernity. The “soft revolution” they support is pluralistic, pragmatic, democratic, and peaceful.

All this will be welcome news to American readers, though it may seem too good to be true. Extremism may be on the decline, but does it ever really go away? The conditions that have bred extremism in the past—repression by autocratic governments, which then use the threat posed by extremists as an excuse for further repression—are unlikely to disappear. More than a year after the rebellions in the Arab world broke out, the future of the countries in which they occurred is uncertain. Whatever governments come to power will face enormous challenges. The public that elected them will want sweeping change and immediate rewards for their courage in toppling dictators. Neither is likely. “No new governments will be able to accommodate expectations of either jobs or social justice anytime soon—and probably for years to come,” Wright observes. She notes that new governments will face public demands for subsidized food, adequate health care, access to education, and guaranteed employment, yet “economic growth in a globalizing world means privatization, competition, efficiency, and personnel cutbacks that may most hurt the young whose unemployment and outrage at political abuse flamed the unrest.”

Rock the Casbah is really two books trying to be one. Wright’s depiction of the Arab spring revolts, their aftermath, and the challenge to U.S. policymakers who will have to contend with new and fragile democracies offers sound and solid information and analysis. Readers will find a helpful, easy-to-read account of how the uprisings began and unfolded and a nuanced and instructive discussion of their policy implications. Her reporting on the counter-jihad ranges from the efforts of the “pink hijab generation” to win equality for women to the alternative subculture hip-hop is creating among the young to the emergence of Western models of religion and “feel-good Islam.” The cultural reportage is fresher and more original than the political analysis, but because of its anecdotal character and its general focus on change in the whole Muslim world rather than specific societies, the book occasionally comes across as strained or sketchy.

A bigger shortcoming is Wright’s tendency to dodge questions about what constitutes “extremism,” which becomes a convenient catch-all term. Wright divides the world into pacifists and extremists. The growth of pacifist Islam is heartening, but will pacifism win more converts among Muslims than it has among Christians? It’s certainly not about to win over all Muslims. In any case, we can be sure that if hawks in this country are successful in pushing for war, it will provoke resistance from others. Can all such resistance to aggression be labeled as extremism?

Such questions are not answered by this book, which celebrates a new moderation and maturity in the Muslim world but rarely pushes Americans to think beyond simple constructs in their own. That’s a pity, but Rock the Casbah remains an enlightening look at how Muslims are reshaping their religion, culture, and societies.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

Margot Patterson is the author of Islam Considered: A Christian View (Liturgical Press).

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