Examining 'Rage And Rebellion' In The Islamic World

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Syria is just one of the many countries across the Arab world where citizens have taken to the streets for change, often at great cost to themselves. A book out this coming week looks at what may be roiling in the Middle East, from Tunisia to Tehran. It's called Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World. Host Scott Simon speaks with journalist and foreign policy analyst Robin Wright about her book.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Of course Syria is just one of many countries across the Arab world where citizens have taken to the streets for change, often at great cost to themselves. A book coming out this week looks at what might be roiling in the Middle East from Tunisia to Tehran. It's called, "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."

Its author, our friend and long-time correspondent, Robin Wright, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBIN WRIGHT: It's always nice to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And, Robin, striking off what we just heard Deb Amos say covering Syria. How is Syria different than Egypt, Tunisia, fill in the blanks?

WRIGHT: Tunisia and Egypt both saw regime change in less than 30 days. Syria has now been going on five months. And in many ways, Syria is the most surprising and the most difficult place because it is such a brutal regime and it's also geographically right in the middle of, whether it's Israel on one front, the Gulf states on another, Turkey to the north, the Mediterranean on another side, that it is so pivotal to what happens in so many other places. And if Syria goes - this is in many ways as important and, in some ways, even more important than Egypt.

SIMON: Now, Deb, of course, was also talking about the rise of electronic medians amongst the oppositions. And of course you write a lot in this book about the role of social media, Twitter, Facebook. Are they just facilitating media? Or in a sense are Facebook and Twitter the message itself?

WRIGHT: Well both the medium and the message have changed, and it's in part because of having the tools of technology. But it's also because of demographics. You have the majority of people in the region, vast majority are under the age of 30. They are also educated and literate for the first time and they want something beyond subsistence. They have ambitions about what they want to do with their life, and that includes women for the first time.

And so, because of numbers, because of literacy, because of the tools and because of globalization, the sense that change has taken place everywhere else in the world in the last 30 years that this part of the world wants to be part of that trend.

SIMON: You've got a fascinating, and speaking of that, fascinating chapter about Hip Hop Islam. Help us understand the influence that's been to so many of these movements.

WRIGHT: Well, half the book is actually about the culture of change. And when we look at this region, we tend to think of just the uprisings and the street demonstrations. And, in fact, what's happening is much deeper. Hip Hop Islam is about the young rappers who have used song as their means of getting around state control of the media, of getting their message of opposition out there.

And in Tunisia, which was the first country to see an uprising, a young rapper named El General - was his rap name - put out a song a month before the uprising began to challenge the president and in very specific terms talking about the way people had turned to eating garbage and the unemployment and the desperation. And it was in that context that the young Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire. And it was the El General song that was then sung by many of the people as the protest moved up to Tunis and eventually toppled the president.

SIMON: You read about what amounts to, you call it counter-jihad that's underway in the Islamic world.

WRIGHT: Again, this is something bigger than just simply uprisings against the autocrats. It's a challenge as well against extremism. One of the things that's happened a decade after 9/11 is the enormous shift among Muslims to proactively sieze control of their lives and to reject whether it's the extremism of al-Qaida or the autocracy of President Mubarak in Egypt. And this is what makes - the next decade will be defined by the counter-jihad in the same way that the last decade has been defined by 9/11.

SIMON: And what's the roll of religion in that?

WRIGHT: Well, the interesting trend is the fact that people will be pressing for more political openings, freedom of press, right to assemble, and so forth. But it also may happen in an Islamic context. But a different kind of Islam than the West fears. It's more something that is a cultural milieu, something that is comfortable in the same way that other societies have turned to religion, whether in South Africa when Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Cape Town became the face of the opposition when Nelson Mandela was arrested. Liberation theology in Latin America, the Dalai Lama in Tibet that religion offers a pillar to cling to cling to during transitions. But people are rejecting theocracy as well. No one wants religious, strict religious rule. The religious parties will do well, but they're not likely to be the majority. At least...

SIMON: It's a form of affiliation rather than definition of a political philosophy.

WRIGHT: It's a source of identity and it's a way of using the values of a religion to define what you're looking for. The same way where in Judeo-Christian societies use their own values to define what they're looking for in a political system.

HOST: A poll out by Zogby International this week, which is why I take it seriously, shows Arab approval of the United States lower under president Obama than it was under President Bush. Now, I think we all remember the speech in Cairo on how he invoked his middle name, so familiar in that area of the world. How do you explain this poll?

WRIGHT: I haven't seen the poll but I think there is concern about U.S. policy. There were 11 days in February where the Obama administration made a huge change, abandoning stalwart allies like President Mubarak in Egypt after 30 years, in which Egypt was important to our foreign policy objectives too. But, the United States has not done very much when it comes to Syria, the Gulf States, and we're still seen as hypocritical - in part because of our own preference for our own stability and our oil needs.

HOST: Robin Wright has reported from 140 countries and can name them. Her new book "Rock the Casbah." Thanks so much.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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