With the Arab Spring still unfolding, former Washington Post reporter Robin Wright’s latest book puts the popular uprisings that have swept the Arabic-speaking Middle East from North Africa and the Levant to the Persian Gulf in the context of a larger movement: counter-jihad. Muslims around the world, she writes, are “increasingly rejecting extremism. The many forms of militancy — from the venomous Sunni creed of al Qaeda to the punitive Shiite theocracy in Iran — have proven costly, unproductive, and ultimately unappealing.”
In other words, Osama bin Laden’s efforts produced a result contrary to his intentions. After 9/11 dragged the United States into the Middle East in force, Muslims turned not toward extremism but moderation. According to Wright’s survey of the Muslim world, bin Laden’s message was dead long before the Navy SEALs brought him down in May. “Rock the Casbah,” then, is an introduction to the Muslim world 10 years after 9/11, and the author’s purpose is partly to illuminate and partly to instruct.
From Wright’s perspective, Americans’ view of Muslims and Islam hasn’t caught up to the reality. In spite of developments in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world, she argues, the past decade here in the United States was “shaped largely by fear of everything from a global clash of civilizations to a new neighborhood mosque.” What’s now required of Americans and their elected officials “is moving beyond fear as the most influential factor in decisions.” And that, she argues, “means more exposure to Muslims or education about Islam.”
Regarding this last, Wright’s book succeeds handsomely. As one of this country’s top Middle East reporters for more than four decades and the author of five other books about Islam and the Middle East, she deftly escorts her readers around the region. Wright introduces significant, albeit lesser-known, figures such as Saudi feminist Wajeha al Huwaider and breathes life into the stories that have made the news over the past couple of years. For example, she provides biographies of the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation last December kicked off the Arab Spring, and Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old woman whose June 2009 murder at the hands of Iranian security services continues to galvanize Iran’s Green Revolution.
And then there are considerably more controversial characters. For instance, in Saudi Arabia Wright interviews a prominent sheikh, Salman al Oudah, formerly an ally of al-Qaeda. “One of bin Laden’s earliest role models,” as Wright notes, Oudah eventually turned on his onetime colleagues and became instead a driving force in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s jihadi reeducation program.
In its efforts to reeducate extremists, the Saudi government recruited 150 “sheikhs and religious scholars to counsel its militant inmates,” who numbered in the thousands. None of the clerics was more important than Oudah, who endorsed the program and who “in his 2007 open letter to bin Laden” praised those with “ ‘brave hearts’ and ‘courageous minds’ who had defected from al Qaeda.”
Other standard-bearers of the counter-jihad lead Wright on an even more idiosyncratic journey. Hip-hop performers in the West Bank and in Tunisia, along with another who was once a child soldier in Somalia, are “providing the rhythm of resistance.” Like other contemporary forms of art practiced by Muslims, “Islamic hip-hop,” she explains, “reflects the counter-jihad” because it does not embrace American or Western culture, even as it embraces its musical forms.
Wright runs into a little more trouble when she tries to apply this distinction to Muslims here in the United States. From the comics who form the Axis of Evil tour to Egyptian-born playwright Yussef El Guindi (whose post-9/11 comedy, “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes,” was his reaction to Muslim extremism and “Western perceptions of Islam”), these American artists have chosen to embrace American culture, its promises as well as it problems. While the attacks and their fallout are no doubt significant in shaping the reality of Muslim Americans, as these artists themselves note, the general form of the Muslim American experience isn’t altogether different from that of any other immigrant community.
Consider, for instance, the two-man show put on by Ashar Usman and Rabbi Bob Alper, which Wright discusses at some length. It’s not just the men’s religious differences or their opposite takes on the Arab-Israeli conflict that make the show funny. Another reason for the collaboration’s success is that they share so much of the same experience, as Americans and as minorities.
On the other hand, it’s not clear what that same Muslim comic shares with, say, Sheikh Salman al Oudah, the onetime Saudi enabler of jihadi youth. The role the comedian plays in the counter-jihad is clearly a manifestation of deep personal reflection. The sheik, on the other hand (as Wright suggests without spelling it out), was pressured by his government to change his tune as part of Riyadh’s ongoing war against its extremist domestic adversaries, of whom bin Laden is only the most famous. Surely, the quasi-government officials of repressive Arab regimes are not similar to American artists just because they’re both Muslim.
Wright paints broad strokes across a very wide canvas, and so it’s inevitable that the picture will have an occasional distortion. To be sure, her fellow Americans would do well to learn more about the faith of their Muslim neighbors. But the fact is that, as Wright herself notes, Islam has been a part of the American story from the beginning. Since 9/11, Americans and their elected officials have made a point of noting the invaluable contributions Muslims have made to American life, including in politics and the military, where most recently they’ve served in two foreign wars in Muslim countries. As we’ve all been witness to this past decade, and as Wright’s book reminds us, Muslims are already part of the fabric of this country.
ROCK THE CASBAH
Rage and Rebellion
Across the Islamic World
By Robin Wright
Simon & Schuster. 307 pp. $26.99