Book of the week: Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World by Robin Wright

The author of Dreams and Shadows returns to the Middle East to explain the efforts of young Muslims to turn back the the rise of jihadist ideology and reshape their world.

(Simon & Schuster, $27)

When Robin Wright comments on trends in the Muslim world, “she deserves to be listened to,” said Jordan Michael Smith in The veteran journalist’s 2008 book, Dreams and Shadows, was “prescient in previewing the people and movements” that fomented this year’s Arab Spring uprisings. In Rock the Casbah, Wright returns to the region to explore what she calls the “counter-jihad”—a mass effort by Muslim youths to seize the levers of art and culture in order to turn back the rise of jihadist ideology. Though the democratic ideas that are fueling uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran are still “far from dominant,” Wright believes that they’re gaining strength. It’s only a matter of time, she says, before reform-minded young Arabs successfully reshape their world.

They’ve certainly got the numbers, said Wendy Smith in the Los Angeles Times. As Wright notes, half of the Muslim world is now under 30. She focuses on the cultural vanguard here: hip-hop artists whose songs have become anthems of protest, “pink hijab” feminists who’ve embraced the traditional head scarf as a tool of empowerment, “satellite sheikhs” preaching tolerant Islam on Saudi airwaves. These rebels’ end goal, Wright stresses, isn’t Western-style secularism but an authentically Muslim form of democracy. Though they’re fed up with the fundamentalism that powers theocracies like Iran and the violent extremism that animates al Qaida, reformist Muslims are distrustful of Western ideals. “We’re giving the finger to both sides,” exclaims one Muslim punk rock artist.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Wright does her best to reveal the depth of these changing attitudes, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Her “heavily anecdotal” approach, however, is a liability. Sure, it’s compelling to read about Hissa Hilal, who became a finalist on a Persian Gulf version of American Idol by reading an angry poem blasting entrenched clerics. Or about Naif al Mutawa, creator of a popular comic book featuring anti-jihadist superheroes. Still, “it can be difficult for the reader to tell just how widespread” any of these trends are. Wright’s optimism is both infectious and hard to square with reports of tanks rolling into Hama, Syria, or protesters feeling compelled to return to Tahrir Square. Here’s hoping that her predictions prove prescient again.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.