Robin Wright Books


    New York Times, by Michiko Kakutani [jump]

    Los Angeles Times, by Wendy Smith [jump]

    Christian Science Monitor, by Jordan Michael Smith [jump]

    Publishers Weekly [jump]

    Huffington Post [jump]

Los Angeles Times Book Review, Wendy Smith

It might seem odd to appropriate the title of a song from an English punk band for a book of in-depth reporting about the evolving political situation in largely Muslim nations, but the Clash's understanding that culture and politics are inextricably intertwined is precisely Robin Wright's point. In "Rock the Casbah," she provides invaluable context for what she rightly terms "the epic convulsion across the Islamic world" by listening to voices we don't usually hear.

Wright focuses sections of her book on Islamic youth culture as an instrument of change. Young Muslims, she finds, do not believe their religion requires them to live by rules that have more to do with the practices of a patriarchal 7th-century society than the teachings of the Koran. But many of them are also "strikingly religious and observant." They want to lead modern lives, and they want democratic accountability from their governments, but that doesn't mean they think the secular West has all the answers.

"In this so-called war of civilizations, we're giving the finger to both sides," says Muslim punk rocker Michael Muhammad Knight. The comment clearly illustrates Wright's central contention.

Anyone seeking deeper understanding of the Arab Spring needs to read Wright's formidably well-informed book. A former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Wright has covered much of the Muslim world for four decades. She sees the political revolts in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a broader trend: "the counter-jihad, which is unfolding in the wider Islamic bloc of fifty-seven countries as well as among Muslim minorities worldwide." Muslim citizens are not only overthrowing autocratic regimes, she believes; they are also rejecting the violent extremism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the fundamentalist Islamic ideology that fuels terrorism and guides theocracies such as Iran.

Young Muslims — more than half of the Islamic world is under 30 — are at the forefront of this change, not just on the barricades in Egypt and Tunisia but on the concert stage in Marrakesh and on television in Saudi Arabia. Part 2 of the book, "A Different Tune," goes far beyond the usual platitudes about Facebook and YouTube (though it happens to be true that they empowered the Arab Spring revolts) to explore Islamic rap, "pink hejab" {the Islamic head scarf} feminism, "satellite sheikhs" who preach a more tolerant form of Islam, and Muslim poets, playwrights comic-book artists and stand-up comics who challenge stereotypes and restrictive theology while affirming their faith.

As Wright notes, their balancing act between religion and modernity can make Western observers uncomfortable. Her depiction of young Muslim women, "committed to their faith, firm about their femininity, and resolute about their rights," will spark some qualms in non-Muslim feminists. They may find themselves cynical about the assertion that "hejab is now about liberation, not confinement" and troubled by one activist's admission that "it's a deal between a Muslim girl and society. I agree that I will wear hejab in order to have more space and freedom in return." Wright is perhaps overly optimistic about female empowerment via Muslim modesty, a criticism that could also be made of her implicit suggestion that cultural ferment facilitates political progress. But her central contention is unassailable: it's not for outsiders to determine the shape of change in Islamic societies.

Wright's in-depth knowledge of those societies' cultures and histories informs every page of "Rock the Casbah." Even the first section, which chronicles the overthrow of Tunisia's and Egypt's rulers, as well as the sustained though ultimately fruitless protests against Iran's rigged 2009 election, furthers our comprehension of those well-known events by expanding to cover developments less familiar to Western readers. She cites a 2007 letter to Osama bin Laden from Saudi Sheikh Salman al Oudah as evidence that even conservative Wahhabist clerics such as Sheikh Salman have come to see Al Qaeda's murderous tactics as crimes that disgrace Islam. She chronicles homegrown revolts against Al Qaeda (in Iraq's Anwar province in 2006-07) and the Taliban (in Pakistan's Swat Valley in 2009) to back up her contention that support for extremism had plummeted among Muslims even before there was a political alternative other than U.S.-supported autocracies. "People are angry at America," comments Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but "radicalism doesn't have a policy for education or health or the economy. Nobody wants another Taliban state."

Wright does not minimize the challenges facing those seeking an authentically Muslim form of democracy. Her final chapters briefly scan post-revolutionary turbulence in Egypt and Tunisia, the ongoing rebellions battling brutal repression in Libya and Syria, and various forms of protest achieving various levels of success across the Islamic world; she does not attempt to forecast their final outcomes. "There is still a wild ride ahead," she warns. "No new government will be able to accommodate expectations of either jobs or social justice anytime soon — and probably for years to come."

The United States, after decades of unquestioningly supporting authoritarian Arab regimes, has yet to craft a coherent new policy to encourage democratic movements or sustain fragile emerging democracies. In addition, Wright bluntly comments, it has "consistently misread public sentiment in the Islamic world." We must do better, and President Obama appears to be trying, but in the end, as he has pointed out, it's not up to us. Wright's richly textured portrait of ancient cultures in the throes of wrenching but liberating transformation makes it quite clear that Muslims themselves will decide their future.

New York Times, Michiko Kakutani

When the longtime Middle East reporter Robin Wright’s last book, “Dreams and Shadows,” was published in 2008, her assessment — that “a budding culture of change” and empowerment had begun to permeate the region — was greeted as wildly optimistic. Three years later, given the wave of uprisings that began within the past year in Tunisia and Egypt and that has continued to roll through the Middle East, her views now seem extremely prescient.

Ms. Wright’s latest book, “Rock the Casbah” (which takes its title from a 1982 Clash song), builds on the arguments laid out in that earlier volume, not only looking at the causes and repercussions of the recent Arab Spring but also examining broader trends in the Islamic world. As she sees it, the revolts against autocratic rule in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are “only the beginning of the beginning,” and a positive new dynamic is grabbing hold.

The far wider Muslim world is increasingly rejecting extremism,” Ms. Wright argues. “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.” Rejecting the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” she argues that “even as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as ‘others,’ particularly after 9/11, most Muslims were increasingly trying to integrate into, if not imitate, a globalizing world.”

This change, Ms. Wright notes, is driven partly by technology (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and satellite TV), partly by demographics — the young now “make up the majority in all Muslim countries, in some places close to 70 percent.”

Ms. Wright writes with authority, drawing on her decades of experience reporting for publications like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker, and in these pages she uses her intimate knowledge of the region to look at how much-covered recent events (like the role an obscure Tunisian street vendor played in inciting the Arab Spring and the popular revolt that led to the fall of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak) are related, and to situate them within a larger historical and political context.

The main weakness of the book has to do with methodology: Ms. Wright’s tendency to focus on portraits of reform-minded protesters, women’s rights activists and daring, social-minded artists results in profiles of some remarkable individuals, but it can also lead to a heavily anecdotal narrative in which it can be difficult for the reader to tell just how widespread a given trend is, or what its prospects for taking root in the near future might be.

Like Peter L. Bergen in his recent book, “The Longest War,” Ms. Wright argues that Osama bin Laden miscalculated the consequences of the 9/11 attacks. Like Mr. Bergen, she points to the emergence of powerful new critics of Al Qaeda, who had jihadi credentials themselves, most notably Sheik Salman al-Awdah , whom she describes as “one of bin Laden’s earliest role models” and who in 2007 issued an open letter to that Qaeda leader, condemning him for spilling the blood of innocent people.

She, too, notes that several factors are proving detrimental to Al Qaeda’s long-term future, most notably its failure to offer any positive vision for building a society; its inability to provide constructive solutions for everyday issues like health care and jobs; its killing of Muslim civilians; and its ultrafundamentalist worldview.

But while Mr. Bergen worries that “many thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace bin Laden’s doctrine of violent anti-Westernism,” Ms. Wright is considerably more positive, asserting that a decade after 9/11, “the Islamic world is now in the throes of a counterjihad” aimed at routing “extremism in its many forms” and that this “counterjihad will define the next decade as thoroughly as the extremists dominated the last one.”

“For the majority of Muslims today,” she says, the central issue is not a war with the West, but “a struggle within the faith itself to rescue Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority.” She argues that for a growing number of Muslims, “Islam is often more about identity than piety, about Muslim values rather than Islamic ideology.” A 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey, she reports, found that far more people in a sampling of Muslim countries “identified with modernizers — by two to six times — than with fundamentalists.”

The depth of changing attitudes, Ms. Wright contends, can be measured by the flowering of new art forms in the Islamic world that challenge the political, religious and social establishments. In 2010, she writes, a Saudi woman named Hissa Hilal became a finalist on a Persian Gulf reality show called “The Million’s Poet” (“a local version of ‘American Idol,’ only in verse”), and recited an angry, groundbreaking poem that assailed extremist groups and established clerics.

A popular comic-book series about a group called the 99 — created by a Kuwaiti psychologist named Naif al Mutawa — features superheroes who are anti-jihadis, preaching a code of nonviolence and pluralism. And members of a new generation of Muslim playwrights and filmmakers are turning their art forms into forums for the counterjihad, helping to bridge East and West even as they provide an expression, in Ms. Wright’s words, of “what it is like to be an ordinary Muslim in an era of Islamic extremism.”

Rappers, too, Ms. Wright says, are “among the most potent new messengers of political change”: hip-hop has emboldened the young — in places like Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Palestinian villages in Israel — “to lash back at both extremists and autocrats,” and “its songs have become the anthems of protests across the Arab world.”

Optimistic as Ms. Wright is, she acknowledges that Islamic change agents face a host of obstacles and uncertainties in the years to come. Though the Green Movement challenged the Iranian regime in 2009, it “lost the first round to the theocracy’s thugs,” and that country, where political Islam first seized power, she writes, “may prove the toughest to change.”

As for nations that have experienced the sudden collapse of authoritarian rule, Ms. Wright goes on, they confront delicate transitions in which “conflicting demands for both social justice and economic growth” will have to be balanced, and political predators — including members of old ruling parties and Islamist extremists — will try to take advantage of public frustration with the pace of change. Lasting political and social transformation will be further complicated in many countries by high levels of unemployment, a pervasive lack of education and sectarian and ethnic divisions.

Yet, in the end, Ms. Wright believes that “Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Jordanians, Moroccans and many others” are part of a broader historical pattern that includes the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the end of military dictatorships in Central and Latin America.

“The drive,” she concludes, “to be part of the 21st century — rather than get stuck in the status quo of the 20th century or revert to the ways of the 7th century — now consumes the Islamic world.”" [link]

Christian Science Monitor, Jordan Michael Smith

An article in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine argues that specialists failed to predict the recent, ongoing Middle East uprisings. One exception to that systematic failure is Robin Wright, veteran journalist and author. Wright’s 2008 book, “Dreams and Shadows,” profiled individuals who were offering “disparate experiments with empowerment in the world’s most troubled region.” If it didn’t anticipate the precise timing and nature of this year’s Arab Spring, it was at least prescient in previewing the people and movements that provided the intellectual and political background for the upheaval in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Wright extends that analysis in her new book, Rock the Casbah (the title comes from the song by the punk rock band The Clash). The book contends that the Middle East is rebelling against autocrats but also against jihadism. “For most Muslims today, the real jihad is simply rescuing the moral struggle at the heart of the faith from extremists,” Wright argues. Wright has strong credibility when she contends that the region is turning away from illiberalism and extremism. Her first two books were early catalogs of radical Islam in the late 1970s and ’80s, works that offered insight into the ideology that captivated much of the region. When she now says the trend is toward democracy and freedom, she deserves to be listened to.

The first third of “Rock the Casbah” offers a history of the recent upheaval in the Middle East; the middle profiles the region’s novel artistic and cultural developments; and the last part looks to the future. For those unfamiliar with the Middle East revolutions, Part 1 acts as a one-stop shop, tracing the events in the Islamic world that have captured global attention. Little of it is based on original reporting, however, and none of it is new.

Part 2, however, is terribly fascinating as Wright details unfamiliar, subversive currents of music, literature, comedy, and entertainment throughout the Middle East. Here, original interviews and observations are interspersed with analysis, all of it relayed in Wright’s sober, judicious tone. “Hip-Hop Islam” reports on the youth embracing the Bronx-born art form in places as unlikely as the Palestinian territories and Morocco. “Satellite Sheiks and YouTube Imams” covers Islamic clergymen who are offering alternatives online and on television to the hard-line preachers the West is so familiar with. “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes” investigates Muslim-created plays that feature sex and homosexuality. All of this forms what Wright calls a “counter-jihad,” the attempt to win the war of ideologies away from extreme Islamists. She cautions that these developments are still far from dominant but suggests that history is on their side.

Not only do democracy and freedom offer most individuals in the Middle East a more attractive path than that of religious politics or autocracy, but young Muslims in particular are openly rebelling against the stultifying ways of their parents. The late scholar Samuel Huntington predicted soon after 9/11 that the Islamic world’s youth bulge – a full one-third of the entire Arab world is between the ages of 15 and 29 – would be a source of terrorism for years to come. “Young males are the principal perpetrators of violence in all societies:

[T]hey exist in over-abundant numbers in Muslim societies,” Huntington wrote in Newsweek. Wright in this book shows how those very youths are proving to be just the opposite – they are liberal torchbearers, attracted to freedom of expression and democracy rather than violence and dictatorship. “Stirred by the young and stoked by new technology, rage against both autocrats and extremists has been building steadily within Muslim societies,” she writes. New technologies and sky-high unemployment have combined with unfulfilled promises to cause great discontent among the Middle Eastern young.

Cumulatively, Wright’s book career works as a short history of modern Islamic ideologies. “I sometimes feel as if I’ve finally reached the climax – although not the end – of an epic book that has taken four decades to read,” she writes, aptly. Beginning with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the story of the Muslim Middle East seems to be taking on a decidedly different twist. The tale is not yet over, however, and “Rock the Casbah” confirms Wright’s status as one of our best storytellers. [link]

Publishers Weekly

To tell the story of the new world order forming in many Islamic nations, Wright begins in Tunisia, where the self-immolation of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi inspired his angry fellow citizens to oust President Ben Ali in what is now referred to as "The Jasmine Revolution." Just a few weeks later, bloggers and activists in Egypt used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak. Similar protests broke out in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Wright posits that the Muslim world is currently experiencing a sentiment of counter-jihad, "a struggle within the faith itself to rescue Islam's central values from a small but virulent minority." In Part Two of the book, Wright examines the cultural significance of anti-extremism, from the lyrics of the Tunisian hip-hop artist El General, to the feminist interpretations of the Koran by Amina Wadud. Maz Jabroni and other comedians on the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour are "waging their own often quirky campaigns against extremism," and creating alliances across cultural and religious lines. Part Three sums up what is at stake for these nations in turmoil and questions the Obama administration's wavering policies in addressing these international uprisings. Wright is an expert on the subject and this book is an accessible and riveting account for readers looking to learn more about the post-9/11 Islamic world. (July)

Huffington Post

The idea of the inevitable convergence of the Islamic world toward modern/Western norms has been advanced mostly prominently by Emmanuel Todd since the 1990s (see Youseff Courbage and Emmanuel Todd's new book from Columbia University Press, A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World). This thesis is ignored in the mainstream American media, to the detriment of relations with the Muslim world. As the middle-class broadens and standards of living rise (along with education for women and decline in fertility), the appeal of jihad will be entirely lost and there is every hope for internal reformation toward greater openness and democracy. Wright is one of the most capable observers of the Middle East, with much experience in Iran in particular, and here she writes: "First, from mighty Egypt to Islamic Iran, tiny Tunisia to quirky Libya, new players are shattering the old order" and "Second, the far wider Muslim world is increasingly rejecting extremism." She's totally right, and her chronicles of counter-jihad, anti-militancy, and women's mobilization are a timely contribution. In the late 1990s, fundamentalism was collapsing all over the Muslim world, including Iran and Pakistan; George Bush desperately sought to revive it to have a convenient external enemy to fight; nevertheless, history will have the last word, and the convergence has picked up steam again.