Squaring Off

Run DaMasCus

Robin Wright on the New Wave of Islamic Resistance

In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five probing questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to Robin Wright, author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.

The Islamic world has experienced a tremendous wave of change in the past year alone, from the toppling of oppressive leaders to the rise of the new counter-jihad. Wright, acclaimed foreign correspondent and television commentator, has been covering that region for four decades, witnessing that full cycle of change.

1) Why did you borrow the title of your book from a song by The Clash?

Somewhat playfully, Rock the Casbah captures the substance and spirit of my book about the most important wave of empowerment in the early 21st century. Casbahs are old Arab city centers; many are now rocked by protests trying to kick out dictators in power for decades. But the title also taps into the irreverent new culture of change-the new Muslim hip-hop artists, comedians, playwrights, comic book creators and poets who are as important as the street protesters in generating change. Rap now provides the rhythm of resistance across the Islamic world, for example, with hip hop issuing cheeky challenges to regimes that politicians would not dare.

The theme of the 1982 song by the British punk band The Clash mirrors exactly what is happening in the Middle East today. The song tells a story about people who defy the king’s ban on rock music by performing in public. When the king orders his air force to bomb the crowds, they too defy him -and instead play rock on their cockpit radios.

In Tunisia, where the first uprising began last December, the regime had banned hip-hop. I tell the story of a rapper whose song challenged Tunisia’s notorious dictator; he got around the ban by posting it on Facebook and YouTube. It became the protest anthem as demonstrations spread throughout the country. When President Ben Ali ordered his military to fire on the crowds, the army instead turned on him-and he was forced to flee.

2) Why do you think rap and hip-hop-of all genres of music and forms of expression-resonate so strongly with those in the Islamic world?

For young Muslims, hip-hop serves the same function that rap did when it emerged in the 1970s among young American blacks in the South Bronx. The original hip-hop street parties were a reaction to years of gang violence. They provided non-violent outlets for pent-up anger and energy. It’s the same in the Islamic world today.

Hip-hop is a way to protest hardships, injustice and oppression-without resorting to suicide bombs, rockets or Molotov cocktails. It has spawned a bad-ass sass in countries with state-controlled media. The angry lyrics, in-your-face moves, and irreverent words have redefined the way young Muslims express themselves on politics.

And there is a lot to rap about. Problems abound for millions of young people in some of the world’s most troubled countries. Two-thirds of the Arab world, for example, is under 30. But it also boasts the world’s highest youth unemployment rate,. Hip-hop is not only a radical departure in music and message; it can also be a radical challenge to religious taboos too.

3) You’ve covered the region for four decades. Why do you think this profound counter-jihad movement is coming to fruition now?

The counter-jihad – which is a rejection of both dictators and extremists – reflects an unprecedented convergence. Numbers and education are huge factors. Some two-thirds of the Arab world’s 300 million people are under 30. For the first time, the majority of people, including women, are also literate. They are 21st century savvy. Many now have ambitions beyond daily subsistence.

Tools are another key. Satellite television has exposed all generations to the outside world and patterns of change elsewhere. Al Jazeera was the first independent satellite station in the mid-1990s. Today there are over 500. The Internet and social media contributed, too. Some 20 percent of Tunisians were on Facebook-which the government could not censor, as it did other sites-when the uprising was launched last December.

Politically, every recent poll shows plummeting support for violence, especially groups like al Qaeda, and suicide tactics. Extremists have been unable to provide tangible solutions to everyday problems, including unemployment, housing shortages, and poverty.

In Saudi Arabia, a prominent editor told me, “Every mother in Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf country wants his son or daughter to carry a laptop rather than a rifle or a dagger.”

4) How do you see the future of the Arab uprisings?

We’re in for a wild ride ahead. The uprisings this year – in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen-are only the beginning of the beginning. Every one of the 22 Arab states will witness some kind of change as a result of the protests. And every one of the 22 leaders in the Arab world will have their powers significantly changed, even if most of them hold on to their jobs-at least for now.

But the Egyptian model-of toppling a longstanding autocrat in 18 days-is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. A generation after the Soviet Union’s demise, a former communist and KGB spy chief is still in power. Real institutional change takes a long time.

The Egyptian and Tunisian presidents are now gone, and the next two in the greatest danger of losing their jobs are President Saleh in Yemen and Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi (whom I’ve interviewed twice). President Assad-part of a dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades-is also in profound trouble. In some ways, the perseverance and resilience of the Syria opposition is the most remarkable given the regime’s brutality.

Many countries will also witness sequels. Egypt is now witnessing Part II of its uprising-this time taking on the military establishment that replaced President Mubarak. The period ahead will be inspiring but also unnerving-both for people in the region and those of us outside.

5) So we now have a prediction of the fate of Arab leaders. What about the civilians-among them the hip-hop rappers, the stand-up comedians, the pink hejabis? What does the sequel have in store for them?

The issues that sparked rebellions are similar in each country. But the fate of the cultural counter-jihadis will often vary short-term. Rappers are gaining greater fame as the voice of the uprisings, a trend almost certain to increase. The comedians – many of whom learned at the feet of Muslim American comedians – are also challenging elites, introducing cynicism, and openly questioning the status quo.

In Cairo, Bassem Youssef has an Arabic version of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show ” with millions of viewers on YouTube. Fahad Albutairi calls himself the Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia. He tells jokes about the inanities of local life. “Comedy in the Middle East,” Palestinian comedienne Maysoon Zayid told me, “is just as much about giving people a voice as giving the audience a laugh.”

Along with youth, women are one of two major engines of change in the region. But they are facing huge obstacles from conservative men. After President Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptian women tried to hold a million women’s march in Tahrir Square to demand their own rights, but they were blocked and roughed up by men. Change is not going to be easy in the Arab world, and it will be especially hard for women.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

*Photo courtesy of badhatstand.