The Written Word: Rock the Casbah

By: Dr. Dona J. Stewart

Ten years after 9/11, Robin Wright provides a fresh look at the Islamic world and how it has changed in the past decade. Her well-documented and in-depth account is informed by Wright's decades of experience covering the Middle East for a wide range of news outlets. This book is of great value to the counterterrorism community as well as others who seek a nuanced understanding of the region's population during this tumultuous revolutionary period.

Wright argues that two dramatic, related events currently define the region: the shattering of the old order in the Arab Spring and the societal rejection of extremism. She calls this "rejection of the specific violent movements as well as the principle of violence to achieve political goals" the counter-jihad (p. 3).

While acknowledging that violent extremism still poses a threat, Wright focuses on the actions, events, and attitudes that compose the counter-jihad. She reveals the lesser-known struggles of the population to shape their own destiny, often countering violent extremism in ways ranging from the mundane to the remarkable. In doing so, she grants insight into significant indigenous economic, political, and social factors that even the Middle East Studies academic community failed to accurately forecast in advance of the Arab Spring.[1]

For instance, in Egypt, the youth-led movement that overthrew Mubarak managed to achieve in 18 days a goal that had eluded Al Qaeda for decades. Indeed, the speed and success of the Arab revolts took Al Qaeda by surprise, leaving its leaders scrambling to adjust their narrative and embrace the revolts. Wright notes that in an era defined by Twitter, Al Qaeda's statement—released on video—seemed out of touch. She declares, "Al Qaeda is not dead, even with Bin Laden's death ten years after 9/11, but it is increasingly passé" (p. 5).

A major force driving the counter-jihad is the general disgust with the tactics of militant groups such as Al Qaeda. Muslims declared their rejection of Al Qaeda in venues from large-scale demonstrations in Mumbai, where thousands took to the streets to condemn the 2008 terrorist attacks, declaring "killers of innocents are enemies of Islam," to the hip-hop lyrics of Moroccan singer Soultana:

You bring hell to our world, you bring misunderstandin'...
Now you represent no Muslim, because al Qaeda is hell...
Shame on you, shame on your people.

In addition to ire over the group's tactics, opposition rose in response to bin Laden's leadership style, leading even some of his closest supporters to turn their backs on his movement. Noman Benotman, a founding member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and close associate of bin Laden, broke with Al Qaeda in 2003. He viewed bin Laden's strategy of targeting the United States as a miscalculation that would bring the full weight of American military power to bear on the group. Pettier reasons have driven others away; Sudanese informant Jamal al Fadl left because his pay scale was lower than that of the Egyptians.

Wright claims that the publication of Sheikh Salman al Oudah's open letter to bin Laden marked 2007 as the symbolic turning point for the counter-jihad. In his letter, as quoted by Wright, al Oudah offered some of the harshest public criticism of bin Laden:

I say to my brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed, maimed, or banished in the name of al Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands if not millions, of innocent people on your back?(p. 65)

Al Oudah went on to say that bin Laden has brought ruin to the entire Muslim world. This criticism from such a strong supporter of jihad carried much weight. Al Oudah, a Saudi sheikh, had issued a fatwa against the Saudi government in 1990 for allowing foreign, infidel troops to be stationed in the kingdom, a fatwa bin Laden used to justify his own activities. Al Oudah had also endorsed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and resistance against U.S. troops in Iraq, as both were "defensive jihads." Indeed, bin Laden's first fatwa condemned imprisonment of the sheikh by Saudi authorities from 1994 to 1999.

The 2007 renunciation of extremism by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, proved a further blow to the Al Qaeda movement. The former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and founding member of Al Qaeda, was considered Al Qaeda's chief ideologue. In a 1,000 page-long book, he provided justification for killing anyone, of any religion, who disagreed with Al Qaeda. But in 2007, al-Sharif reversed course, writing from an Egyptian prison that Muslims are prohibited from committing aggression against anyone of any religion and condemning the 9/11 attacks.

Wright emphasizes that any societal rejection of Al Qaeda should not be misinterpreted as an embrace of the United States or the West. The Western model, epitomized by leaders such as Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali, fails to meet the needs of the region's growing, and extremely youthful, population. The incident in Tunisia that sparked widespread revolution was rooted in the rampant corruption and daily hopelessness that marked peoples' lives under these largely secular and pro-Western regimes. When an inspector confiscated Muhammad Bouazizi's wares from his fruit cart because he did not have a permit, Bouazizi sought redress at the town hall and governor's office; he was turned away at both. The sole breadwinner for an extended family of eight, he lit himself on fire, declaring, "How do you expect me to earn a living?"

At age 25, Bouazizi was a member of "Generation U," Muslim youth under the age of 30 who, Wright says, are "unfulfilled, unincluded, underemployed or underutilized, and underestimated" (p. 91). Though they may reject Al Qaeda, they have strong reservations about the West and are likely to want their countries to take a more independent course in their external relations. Many of them have studied the West and share values that align with American ideals. At the same time, they may embrace Islamist parties, drawn by the latter's effective organization and strong social justice message, a marked contrast to the corruption-riddled old guard. But this generation is also not seeking a new set of authoritarians operating under the guise of religion.

Wright's anecdotes and interviews, especially with the youth, and recounted in chapters titled "Hip-Hop Islam," "The Living Poets Society," and "Satellite Sheikhs and You Tube Imams," illustrate the energy and idealism that has rocked regimes long thought stable. For example, there is 29-year-old Dalia Ziada, an activist who translated into Arabic a comic book about Reverend Martin Luther King's 1955 civil disobedience campaign. A total of 2,000 copies containing accounts about acts like Rosa Park's refusal to move to the back of the bus were distributed across the Middle East. Ziada also defied Egyptian authorities by hosting the Cairo Human Rights Film Festival, secretly screening the banned movies on a dinner cruise boat. At the same time, Dalia is also a survivor of female genital mutilation, and her first protests were against her own family's embrace of this cultural—not Islamic—tradition, a reminder that nearly every facet of economic, social, and political life in the region is currently contested.

Another individual Wright discusses is Hamada Ben Amor, a 21-year-old Tunisian rapper. His songs, posted on Facebook and YouTube shortly before the Jasmine Revolution, took Tunisian President Ben Ali to task, stating what many felt, but few dared to say:

They steal in plain sight,
No need to name them,
You know very well who they are.
A lot of money should have gone to development,
To schools, to hospitals, to housing.
But the sons of dogs,
Are instead filling their stomachs.
Mr. President, your people are dead.

Another refrain called on Ben Ali to:

Go down to the street and look around you,
People are treated like animals.
Look at the cops,
Their batons beat everyone with impunity,
Because there is no one to say no,
Not even the law or the constitution.

Although the outcome of the Arab Spring remains unclear, members of Generation U are bound to form a large part of the region's future leadership. As such, they will influence the direction of their countries' foreign policies and positions on a wide array of issues, to include partnerships in the fight against terrorism and extremism. A greater understanding of the grievances, hopes, and goals of this generation is essential to forming effective and lasting partnerships.

The title of Wright's book, Rock the Casbah, alludes to a song by the English punk band, The Clash. A fictitious Middle Eastern king bans rock music. The people revolt, so the king calls out his jet fighters to bomb them, but the pilots refuse and instead play rock music in their cockpits.

Nearly 30 years after this song was released, the Tunisian military refused to fire on civilians and pledged to support that revolution.[2]

About the Author(s): Dr. Dona J. Stewart is a Senior Resident Fellow at Joint Special Operations University. She is a specialist in the human and political geography of the Middle East, a former Fulbright scholar to Jordan, and the author of The Middle East Today: Political, Geographical and Cultural Perspectives (Routledge). Robin Wright, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4391-0316-6.


[1] G. Gause, "Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring: The Myth of Authoritarian Stability," Foreign Affairs, (July/August, 2011).

[2] D. Kirkpatrick, "Chief of Tunisian Army Pledges His Support for ‘the Revolution'," The New York Times, January 24, 2011.

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