Walk With Caution, Washington
Mobs of people hit the streets of the Middle East and remained there through the last day of 2011—the year that may go down in history as the most profound for the Arab World since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. And no one knows exactly what to make of it.
Highlighting one of the many transformations reverberating throughout the Middle East since the September 11 attacks is what journalist and author Robin Wright sets out to do in her new book, Rock the Casbah. While the last decade was defined by 9/11, Wright begins, this decade will be defined by two movements: a worldwide wave of empowerment and a revolt against extremism. The latter movement, Wright argues, is playing out in the Middle East today in the rejection of three institutions: Arab dictators, violent jihadis, and Islamic ideology.
That there is a revolt against Arab dictators is apparent. Across the Middle East and North Africa, populations have risen up against oppressive leaders to demand freedoms from their governing institutions or, sometimes, its complete overhaul. But not as obvious is the more quiet movement against Islamic radicalism—what Wright calls the “counter-jihad.” This movement is the main focus of Wright’s book, and she says it “will define the next decade as thoroughly as the extremists dominated the last one.”
Born from the 9/11 attacks, which forced Muslims to look beyond intolerant and violent interpretations of Islam, the counter-jihad movement is defining what it means to be Muslim in a modern world, Wright explains. The extremists could destroy, counter-jihadis realize, but they cannot build better societies or fulfill their utopian promises.
Wright fills her book with stories of encounters with people from across the region. From speaking with clerics to young adults to ideologues—Rock the Casbah lacks not in quotes from Muslims who reject the likes of al-Qaeda. Today across the Middle East, poetry, comedy, theater, and rap is incorporating anti-jihad and anti-dictatorial themes; young women of “the pink hejab generation” are demanding equal rights; and self-taught “satellite sheikhs” and “YouTube imams” are using new technology to spread “a gentler genre of Islam” with their message of tolerance.
What is not certain, however, especially in light of the Arab uprisings, is if this softer form of Islam will dominate Muslim thought or become the basis of new Middle Eastern governments, or if it will mean more positive relations with the West. Wright does not wrestle with these questions. In fact, Wright does not wrestle with how this counter-jihad movement affects the Arab uprisings very much at all.
Though billed as a book that “takes readers deep into rebellions against both autocrats and extremists,” Rock the Casbah has very little to do with the former. In fact, though there’s no way of knowing, it seems the book was written prior to the uprisings and that its thesis—there is a counter-jihad movement sweeping the Middle East—was simply couched within a discussion of the revolts to make the subject matter more timely. Indeed, perhaps the book’s greatest shortcoming is that it fails to connect its discussion of the counter-jihad movement with that of the Arab uprisings. Questions such as how the counter-jihad movement interacts with, impacts, or alters the Arab revolts, and vice versa, are left unanswered. In addition, the uprisings may actually discredit two of Wright’s arguments: that the Muslim World is rejecting Islamic ideology, and that the counter-jihad movement will dominate this decade.
In her discussion Wright emphasizes that the counter-jihad movement, while embracing Western ideals, is not a whole-hearted embrace of the West or the United States. It is an embrace of freedom and democracy, but as those values fit into Islam. “The counter-jihad is more vibrantly Islamic than ever,” Wright says. “Culturally, the counter-jihadis are deeply conservative in practices and appearance, even as their goal is to adapt to the twenty-first century.” Islam is considered “the organizing principle of life, politics, education, social mores, and dress.”
Does that mean the movement embraces Islamic ideology? Not necessarily. Unlike those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood types, counter-jihadis “want to use their faith…as a way to find answers rather than being the answer itself.” She continues, “…it is no longer about creating an ideal Islamic state or even voting for Islamic parties.”
Still, the Brotherhood and its affiliates are sweeping the post-Arab uprising elections. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda Party secured 41 percent of the seats in the assembly charged with writing the new constitution. In Morocco, the Islamist Justice and Development Party won 27 percent of the seats in parliament, affording the party the ability to lead a coalition government and field a prime minister to be chosen by the king. And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 47 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, while the ultraconservative Salafist Al-Nour Party claimed over 25 percent. Thus far, for a majority of Muslims who have gone to the polls, voting for a party that follows Islamic ideology but does not necessarily support all forms of individual freedom has proven more important than voting for a non-Islamic party that supports the freedoms the people are said to crave, including freedom of religion. Islamic ideology’s popularity does not seem to be waning.
Of course, the election results may be a product of a real issue in these countries discussed by many analysts in the run-up to voting in Egypt—that, because of the crushing rule under which these populations lived for so many decades, there are few organized Islamic and non-Islamic parties outside of Brotherhood affiliates to support. That is why many pro-democracy advocates supported delaying Egyptian elections to allow political groups to organize.
Nevertheless, elections were held and the people chose. That choice has made clear that the counter-jihad movement may not play the defining role in this decade that Wright anticipates. On the contrary, the Arab upheaval of 2011 could very well usher in the age of Islamic ideological rule in the Middle East under the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.
How Washington today chooses to respond to the Middle East’s new governments is crucial for the United States’ future in the region. Understanding the ideology that guides those who will comprise each government is key to creating smart policy. Thus far, the White House has chosen to open its arms to the region’s Islamist parties, stating it will base policies towards such groups on what they do rather than what they are called. But Washington must act with caution. Yes, there is a non-violent movement growing in the Middle East. Yes, that movement is less interested in creating the “ideal Islamic state” and more in reforming their states “in a conservative package.” But that is not the movement winning the majority of seats in new Arab parliaments.
Rock the Casbah is worth the read for those interested in learning about a movement in the Muslim World steering away from the jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda. Wright, however, leaves more questions for the reader than she answers. In light of the Arab uprisings, it remains unclear how, or if, this non-violent, non-ideological movement Wright calls the counter-jihad will make its mark on the region.
Samara Greenberg is a senior research associate at the Jewish Policy Center and deputy editor of inFOCUS. She is editor of the research project, GazaWatch.