First Reaction: Rock the Casbah

Robin Wright’s Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (Simon and Schuster, 2011) is one of the first major books out on the Arab uprisings. Following on her predictions of significant political change in her 2008 Dreams and Shadows, Wright covers “the epic convulsion across the Islamic world” in the period since September, 2001 in particular. The post-9/11 narrative is being “twisted” by uprisings in the Middle East — “the greatest wave of empowerment worldwide in the early twenty-first century” and a Muslim world that is “increasingly rejecting extremism”. The short story is that the “Islamic world” is going through an “extreme makeover politically” (this is one of Wright’s favorite ways of describing political change) carried on by three sorts of rebellion among Muslims: Arab revolts, a “counter-jihad” against religious extremism and terrorism and a rebellion against “Islamic ideology, which is most typified by Iran”.

For readers who have opened newspapers in the last three years there is not much new here; most of the book has synthesized the dominant North American media narrative on the “Arab Spring” and the gist of optimistic assessments of the 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran; this is particularly the case with the first part of the book “Extreme Makeover.” It builds a civilizational construct about the Muslim world and filters these narratives into a series of chiefly generational and ideological conflicts. Culture,music and religious discourse is prioritized above economic conditions; authoritarianism is more of an -ism than an objective set of conditions: there is no discussion of big problems in Arab or “Muslim” political economy beyond the ideational realm. The narrative is direct though anecdotal: portraits of rappers, activists, poets, religious leaders and other thinkers illustrate the Wright’s counter jihad and the various uprisings and social trends she sees as driving change in the region. Unfortunately, most of these portraits are uncritical or incomplete. Her discussion of hip hop is a good example. There is a tendency to conflate “hip hop performed by Muslims” with something like “Muslim hip hop” or “Islamic hip hop”; even as Wright describes the particular backgrounds of various rappers who happen to be Muslims (and some of whom make this part of their identity a center piece of their music) their whole identities boil down into this one category; as she compares the growth of hip hop in the Arab countries to its role among downtrodden urban black Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, there is woefully little consideration of what role class or socio-economics plays in Arab hip hop, either in terms of who its audience is, how performers reach success or how individual rap groups (especially in Morocco) relate to the overall power structure in authoritarian societies or how it influences these artists. Though interesting, the chapter on hip hop is particularly descriptive, and avoids any comparison of hip hop with other historic forms of Arab music — for example rai or chaabi music. The portrait of Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada is an example of how the author cuts these profiles too thin; Wright spends many pages describing Ziada’s struggles without ever mentioning the NGO she works for (the American Islamic Congress) and under whose name many of the activities Wright describes take place, which points to a larger problem: too many of the individuals depicted in Rock the Casbah appear as individuals rather than as parts of political networks and the wider society.

And so Wright’s unit(s) of analysis often come across as both too large and too small. Too large because they attempt to construe Arab, Iranian and other political trends under the enormous banner of Islamic civilization; too small because it goes to great lengths to reduce the activities and world views of its subjects to their religious and confessional identities. There is scanty mention of religious minorities at all in Rock the Casbah; the sections dealing with Egypt mention Copts only in passing, first to note that they participated together with Muslims in the February uprising (and this in order to make a larger point about the reflection of a “commonality of civilizations” in the Arab uprisings and their appeals to universal values) and then as a backdrop to a story about an Egyptian activist. The public discourse about Copts in Egypt among Islamists and between them and liberal Egyptians is totally left out; Palestinian Christians are entirely unexamined. Religious minorities otherwise play no part in a book that reduces contemporary political activity in the Arab countries, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere to the political activities of Muslims in terms of their being Muslims.

Rock the Casbah also has a problem in that it completely ignores leftist and other non-centrist or Islamist movements in the Arab world. In Tunisia and Egypt organized labor and leftist factions played a significant role in mobilizing and publicizing dissent in the run up to the uprisings and in years previous. These people receive no mention at all. Although challenges to Arab authoritarianism are compared to the struggle against apartheid South Africa (Rock the Casbah like many books drawing this comparison glosses the key role of leftist/progressive forces in fighting and brining down apartheid) on repeated occasions Wright ignores the vital role of leftist groups in gestating significant numbers of youth and urban (and semi-) workers for protests and demonstrations. References to communism appear strictly in relation to the fall of the Soviet Union, never to the socialist and leftist groups that have formed in Egypt in the last decade or prominent activists like Hossam Hamalawy. There has been a growth in labor activism and leftist politics in the Arab countries in the last decade; but the reader will not learn of any of this in Rock the Casbah. Wright spends more time on hip hop and comedy tours than labor strikes or the Gaza War. “Rock the Casbah” is a fine song, and an appropriate title for a book on the Arab uprisings. But the Arabs and others in the “Islamic world” who might prefer another of The Clash’s songs, “Spanish Bombs,” get no say in this story (the two songs are, of course, on different albums).

Wright’s chapter on poetry is valuable because it introduces a subject to the English discourse on Arab politics that is too often ignored. Poetry competitions are one of the great products of the era of Arabic satellite television. And poets have suffered the wrath of governments in the the uprisings, in Syria and Bahrain, for example. This chapter’s faults are outweighed by its high value in introducing readers to the question of poetry in south-west Asian culture and especially Arab culture.

The book benefits from the author’s long experience in the region. Wright is genuinely sympathetic to the struggles she describes and does give a voice to activists and people of culture who would not otherwise encounter. The author’s warnings about the risks partisans of old regimes and authoritarian factions pose to the region’s democratic development are to be heeded. On the whole Rock the Casbah is an uncontroversial book and it is sure to please many readers (though its kitschy chapter titles may be too busy for some). This does not mean its primary assumptions are accurate or that it provides a clear picture of the revolt in Muslim countries to date. Published just months after the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya it is a reasonable introduction for the very general reader; but it may otherwise be worth a longer wait for books with more hindsight and fresher perspectives on Arab politics than Rock the Casbah.

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3 thoughts on “First Reaction: Rock the Casbah

  1. Who would trust a book clearly rushed to print for information about events still ongoing? I’d want to wait a minimum of five years, and preferably for one that looks only at one nation while acknowledging the impact left by other nations. Out of curiosity does she give any insight into the current and former regimes or are they treated as blank dictators?

    Aside from that I do have to wonder about the product description on Amazon: This new counter-jihad has many goals. For some, it’s about reforming the faith. For others, it’s about reforming political systems. For most, it’s about achieving basic rights. The common denominator is the rejection of venomous ideologies and suicide bombs, plane hijackings, hostage-takings, and mass violence to achieve those ends.

    A ‘counter-jihad’? I seriously doubt that Islamist terrorism or the rejection of it was the main spur to action in any of the nations. In fact I can’t see what suicide bombs or hijackings have to do with anything. The rejection of ‘venomous ideologies’ and mass violence might have something to do with it but I suspect that they were making more references to terrorism and not authoritarianism.

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