Robin Wright, acclaimed author and USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, discussed the rebellions taking place across the Islamic world—a trend she calls a “counter-jihad” that rejects both autocrats and extremists.
On July 13, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a book launch and discussion with Wright about her newly released book Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Wright provided an overview of the ongoing Arab rebellions, one of four major turning points for the Middle East over the past century. The other three included the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of Israel, and the Iranian Revolution. The counter-jihad, Wright explained, reflects the overwhelming preference for civil disobedience instead of violence. The new phase is in stark contrast to decades of wars, extremism and terrorist attacks. One example is the “big chill,” in which former allies of Osama bin Laden have turned against extremism. Al Qaeda, she said, is now seen as being “behind the curve” and its message is “unplugged from new realities.”
The first part of Rock the Casbah explores the political trends and the confluence of forces that together ignited revolts across the Middle East. The second part profiles emerging cultural trends that have also contributed to this “counter-jihad,” including the rise of “street clerics” and “satellite sheikhs,” rap artists, comedians, playwrights and poets. Among women, the trends are also reflected in the “pink hejab” phenomenon– females who want to be fashionable while also loyal to their Muslim identity. In another example, Wright outlined how playwrights are using the word “jihad” in the titles of plays, films and documentaries in a deliberate attempt to rescue the concept from the extremists. Others are redefining the medium and the message throughout the region, particularly among youth.
Wright also discussed the “new martyrdom” – people who are dying not in suicide bombs designed to kill leaders or large numbers of civilians but to shame their governments. She pointed to the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street fruit vendor whose act was more effective at bringing about change than any militant groups. Bouazizi was the first of many “new martyrs” who have emerged as symbols of the Arab revolts. Another well-known case is Khaled Said, a young Egyptian beaten to death by police in June 2010 outside an internet café for allegedly possessing incriminating information about the police. His controversial death was a trigger behind Egypt’s uprising. Another symbol of the revolts is Hamza Al-Khatib, the 13-year-old Syrian boy who was tortured and killed by police after nearly a month in custody for merely participating in demonstrations on April 29.
Wright closed by reviewing just-released public opinion polling in Tunisia by the International Republican Institute (IRI). The results show that despite recent upheaval, enthusiasm for democracy is still high although people are still unsure for whom to vote. Among adults, 86% of Tunisians said they are “very likely” to vote in upcoming elections, while 72% report that they “do not know” who they would vote for. Given a definition of secularism, 54% of those polled favored a secular government. But in a reflection of the new trends, Wright said the results show interest in greater democracy but in a comfortable cultural and religious milieu. Only 36% favored new political entities that are moderately or strongly secular, while 59% favored entitles that are moderately or strongly Islamist.
By Middle East Program
- USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow