The Arab world is poised for an era of political and cultural renewal. In dramatic succession, popular uprisings have toppled long-reigning dictators even as others cling to power. Amid these momentous events, scholars, journalists and politicians are scrambling to explain how these revolutions came about after years of political stagnation and dashed attempts at reform.
Robin Wright's “Rock the Casbah,” though it was mainly reported before this year's convulsions, tackles these questions directly. Wright, a veteran foreign correspondent, argues that the Arab world's younger generation is at the vanguard of a sweeping and seductive cultural revolution. Setting out to challenge the lazy trope that Islam is incompatible with modernity and democracy, she traveled across the Middle East — with forays into the wider Muslim world — to profile hip-hop artists, poets, playwrights, feminists, human rights activists, TV imams, comic book creators and comedians. Wright contends that these reformers are working toward a “counter-jihad” to reclaim Islam from militants who crave perpetual holy war. “For the majority of Muslims today, the central issue is not a clash with other civilizations. It is instead a struggle within the faith itself to rescue Islam's central values from a small but virulent minority,” she writes. “The new confrontation is effectively a jihad against the Jihad.”
Wright's protagonists include relatively well-known activists like the American Muslim comedians who formed the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour, the Islamic scholar and feminist Amina Wadud (who led Friday prayers at mosques in South Africa and New York) and Saudi clerics who developed a government-backed program to de-radicalize Islamic militants. But her best subjects are those who have not been profiled before, like Dalia Ziada, a 29-year-old Egyptian blogger and human rights activist who at the age of 8 underwent female genital mutilation (a practice that, as Wright points out, dates back to the age of the pharaohs in Egypt, long before Islam). Ziada, who is devout and wears the Islamic head scarf, started a blog in 2006 and joined a burgeoning movement nicknamed the “pink hijabis” — observant Muslim women campaigning against domestic violence, female genital mutilation and other social problems rooted in misogynistic interpretations of Islam. Inspired by a comic book called “The Montgomery Story,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Walk to Freedom, Ziada translated it into Arabic. “When I read this story, I learned that someone must take the risk for others to follow,” she told Wright. “I wanted to be the Martin Luther King of Egypt!” In 2008, she helped organize a film festival devoted to human rights — and eluded government censors by screening the films on a riverboat that cruised the waters of the Nile. In early 2011, Ziada joined the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square, who toppled the regime of President Hosni Mubarak after its 30 years in power.
Wright also recounts the tale of Hissa Hilal, an amateur Saudi poet and mother of four who appeared on a reality TV show in Abu Dhabi called “Poet of Millions” (imagine “American Idol,” but in verse, with the winner collecting a prize of over $1 million). Normally, contestants on these shows pad their poems with grandiose invocations of a proud Bedouin past and the romance of the desert. But Hilal, wearing the enveloping black niqab, with only two slits for her eyes, read a poem titled “The Chaos of Fatwas” — an attack on Islamic militants and established clerics for their many religious rulings that incite violence. “Extremist fatwas represent subversive thinking, terrifying thinking,” she told Wright, “and everyone should stand against them.” By doing so, Hilal became the first woman to reach the show's final round; she also received multiple death threats.