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Book Review: 'Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World'

Religious ConflictsReligion and BeliefRevolutionsSaudi ArabiaTunisiaMedia IndustryEgypt

Rock the Casbah

Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World

Robin Wright

Simon & Schuster: 320 pp., $26.99

It might seem odd to appropriate the title of a song from an English punk band for a book of in-depth reporting about the evolving political situation in largely Muslim nations, but the Clash's understanding that culture and politics are inextricably intertwined is precisely Robin Wright's point. In "Rock the Casbah," she provides invaluable context for what she rightly terms "the epic convulsion across the Islamic world" by listening to voices we don't usually hear.

Wright focuses sections of her book on Islamic youth culture as an instrument of change. Young Muslims, she finds, do not believe their religion requires them to live by rules that have more to do with the practices of a patriarchal 7th-century society than the teachings of the Koran. But many of them are also "strikingly religious and observant." They want to lead modern lives, and they want democratic accountability from their governments, but that doesn't mean they think the secular West has all the answers.

"In this so-called war of civilizations, we're giving the finger to both sides," says Muslim punk rocker Michael Muhammad Knight. The comment clearly illustrates Wright's central contention.

Anyone seeking deeper understanding of the Arab Spring needs to read Wright's formidably well-informed book. A former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Wright has covered much of the Muslim worldthatfor four decades. She sees the political revolts in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a broader trend: "the counter-jihad, which is unfolding in the wider Islamic bloc of fifty-seven countries as well as among Muslim minorities worldwide." Muslim citizens are not only overthrowing autocratic regimes, she believes; they are also rejecting the violent extremism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the fundamentalist Islamic ideology that fuels terrorism and guides theocracies such as Iran.

Young Muslims — more than half of the Islamic world is under 30 — are at the forefront of this change, not just on the barricades in Egypt and Tunisia but on the concert stage in Marrakesh and on television in Saudi Arabia. Part 2 of the book, "A Different Tune," goes far beyond the usual platitudes about Facebook and YouTube (though it happens to be true that they empowered the Arab Spring revolts) to explore Islamic rap, "pink hejab" {the Islamic head scarf} feminism, "satellite sheikhs" who preach a more tolerant form of Islam, and Muslim poets, playwrights comic-book artists and stand-up comics who challenge stereotypes and restrictive theology while affirming their faith.

As Wright notes, their balancing act between religion and modernity can make Western observers uncomfortable. Her depiction of young Muslim women, "committed to their faith, firm about their femininity, and resolute about their rights," will spark some qualms in non-Muslim feminists. They may find themselves cynical about the assertion that "hejab is now about liberation, not confinement" and troubled by one activist's admission that "it's a deal between a Muslim girl and society. I agree that I will wear hejab in order to have more space and freedom in return." Wright is perhaps overly optimistic about female empowerment via Muslim modesty, a criticism that could also be made of her implicit suggestion that cultural ferment facilitates political progress. But her central contention is unassailable: it's not for outsiders to determine the shape of change in Islamic societies.

Wright's in-depth knowledge of those societies' cultures and histories informs every page of "Rock the Casbah." Even the first section, which chronicles the overthrow of Tunisia's and Egypt's rulers, as well as the sustained though ultimately fruitless protests against Iran's rigged 2009 election, furthers our comprehension of those well-known events by expanding to cover developments less familiar to Western readers. She cites a 2007 letter to Osama bin Laden from Saudi Sheikh Salman al Oudah as evidence that even conservative Wahhabist clerics such as Sheikh Salman have come to see Al Qaeda's murderous tactics as crimes that disgrace Islam. She chronicles homegrown revolts against Al Qaeda (in Iraq's Anwar province in 2006-07) and the Taliban (in Pakistan's Swat Valley in 2009) to back up her contention that support for extremism had plummeted among Muslims even before there was a political alternative other than U.S.-supported autocracies. "People are angry at America," comments Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but "radicalism doesn't have a policy for education or health or the economy. Nobody wants another Taliban state."

Wright does not minimize the challenges facing those seeking an authentically Muslim form of democracy. Her final chapters briefly scan post-revolutionary turbulence in Egypt and Tunisia, the ongoing rebellions battling brutal repression in Libya and Syria, and various forms of protest achieving various levels of success across the Islamic world; she does not attempt to forecast their final outcomes. "There is still a wild ride ahead," she warns. "No new government will be able to accommodate expectations of either jobs or social justice anytime soon — and probably for years to come."

The United States, after decades of unquestioningly supporting authoritarian Arab regimes, has yet to craft a coherent new policy to encourage democratic movements or sustain fragile emerging democracies. In addition, Wright bluntly comments, it has "consistently misread public sentiment in the Islamic world." We must do better, and President Obama appears to be trying, but in the end, as he has pointed out, it's not up to us. Wright's richly textured portrait of ancient cultures in the throes of wrenching but liberating transformation makes it quite clear that Muslims themselves will decide their future.

Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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