In the half-year since Arab Spring revolts erupted across the Middle East, the same fears that prompted Western leaders to back the region’s autocrats for so long have continued to percolate: What if democracy gives militant Islamists the upper hand? What will happen to human rights if Islam emerges as the dominant cultural force? What about relations with us?
As Islamic parties gain supporters in the run-up to elections in Egypt and Tunisia, anxiety about how it will all pan out continues to grow.
In Rock the Casbah, veteran journalist and Middle East analyst Robin Wright seeks to ease these worried minds. A “counter- jihad” movement has arisen in recent years that preceded – and continues to inspire – the reformers who took to the Arab street, Wright says. This counter- jihad can be felt across all 57 predominantly Muslim countries and includes the powerful constituencies of clerics, women and youth under 30, who make up more 60 per cent of the globe’s 1.57 billion Muslims.
As a worldwide trend, Muslims are “increasingly rejecting extremism” and violence, Wright says. Al-Qaeda may not be dead yet, but it was “increasingly passé,” even before the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. While the rest of us were distracted by the global economic crisis, a grassroots reassessment was taking place that rejects not only the West’s model but homegrown options for Islamic society as well. Something fundamental – and pluralistic – is indeed rocking the Casbah, Wright asserts, a nod to British band the Clash for its 1982 song.
Wright, a former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post who has written five other books on the Middle East, has set out to take the pulse of the Muslim world a decade after 9/11. As her manuscript was nearing its publication date, political upheaval that spread across 10 of 22 Arab countries this year prompted her to expand her thesis to encompass those events.
The result is a colourful recap of the past year’s news as well a close-up view of religious trends, from Islamic Internet dating sites to those speaking out against female genital mutilation. A whole chapter is devoted to the rise of Muslim comedians, mostly American.
Wright says the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq caused a backlash in the first half of the decade that attracted new holy warriors. But the appeal waned, largely because terrorists have killed 10,000 fellow Muslims and because jihadist ideology failed to bring economic prosperity any closer than secular nationalism did. She also cites disillusionment with Iran as a model for Islamic-style government. And she traces the rise of non-violent resistance as a newly popular tactic, even among Palestinians.
We meet graduates of the Saudi re-education program for former Guantanamo Bay prisoners and we meet observant Muslim feminists demanding more rights. We hear from hip-hop stars who exploited new digital media to get their message out in repressive states. (Canadians might appreciate the five pages devoted to Somali-born musician K’naan.)
These days, every mother wants her son or daughter “to carry a laptop rather than a rifle or a dagger,” Khaled al Maeena, editor of Arab News, told Wright in reference to Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, among the most religiously conservative of all.
Most significantly, Wright recounts a repudiation of militant Islam by the very clergymen who had been its ideological pioneers. In 2007, Saudi Sheik Salman al-Ouda condemned his protégé bin Laden in an open letter and issued a fatwa renouncing violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims. In Egypt, al-Qaeda’s chief ideologue, a physician known as Dr. Fadl, also reversed course, saying that sharia (Islamic law) “prohibits” killing Christians and Jews. He called the Twin Tower attacks a “catastrophe.”
With examples such as these, Wright hopes to put to rest the “clash of civilizations” argument backed by scholars such as Bernard Lewis and activists such as Somali-Dutch author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who believe Islam is inherently resistant to tolerance and modernization.
Wright isn’t saying that Muslim youth want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with their fellow texters and Twitterers in the West. She describes the counter- jihad as an authentic 21st-century renewal of Islam that thumbs its nose at secularism as much as extremism. Young people are becoming more pious and turning to televangelist-like satellite-TV imams. University-educated women are increasingly donning the head scarfas part of their new-found confidence.
Such nuances are lost on many Westerners who have trouble noticing the gradations of Islamic expression that will probably flourish in a new, unpredictably more open era. It is here where Rock the Casbah becomes a must-read, introducing us to individuals who personify these more moderate attitudes within an Islamic context.
If the book has a flaw, it is perhaps that so many of Wright’s interview subjects are urban and educated, forming a subculture whose influence is difficult to gauge. There is little discussion of the mass of rural poor who are often left outside progressive trends but wield great electoral power. We are left to infer that the more Internet and cell phones penetrate the countryside, the more Muslims will adapt their faith to today’s world.
Neither does Wright sugar-coat the coming era, which she admits will be “messy” and will require huge investment in job creation and civil society to prevent new regimes from going off the rails. But her main premise, that our fears are not supported by the latest trends, is an important one.
It’s too early to tell whether the counter- jihad will carry the future. But it’s heartening to know that someone with Wright’s expertise believes it constitutes a historic shift – not just a fringe or a blip.
Nomi Morris, a writer and university lecturer in California, is a former Middle East correspondent for the Knight Ridder newspaper company.
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