‘Rock the Casbah’ Author: Hip-Hop Has Been the Rhythm of Arab Spring

July 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Journalist Robin Wright chronicles the cultural and social forces behind this year's Arab revolt in her new book, "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.' Margaret Warner and Wright discuss her book and the new wave of empowerment in the Arab world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a new book examines some of the cultural and social forces behind the Arab revolt.

Margaret Warner has our conversation.

MARGARET WARNER: The year 2011 is only half over, but it’s sure to go into history as the year of the Arab spring, a wave of popular revolt in the Middle East that has already brought down two governments and shaken many others.

Reporter and author Robin Wright, a longtime student of the Muslim world, says these uprisings didn’t come out of the blue. They reflect new social and cultural trends that are the subject of her new book, “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”

And Robin Wright joins me now.

And welcome back.

ROBIN WRIGHT, “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World”: Nice to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: So, first of all, the title, “Rock the Casbah,” where did that come from; why did you use it?

ROBIN WRIGHT: “Rock the Casbah” was a song performed by the British band the Clash in 1982.

But in trying to describe this extraordinary phenomena, which is both political and cultural, “Rock the Casbah” really captured this movement that challenges both authority, extremists, as well as autocrats.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in that sense, it’s really counter to our image of where rage and rebellion — what rage and rebellion is about in the Arab world. It’s not, you’re saying, just directed even at the West or even their own regimes.

ROBIN WRIGHT: No, I think one of the extraordinary things is that it is the most proactive in terms of trying to define a different future, to take back the idea of what is jihad, that is the struggle to be a good Muslim, not to kill the outside world, not to be engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s really to craft a different future.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go now to some of your fabulous examples from young people in the Muslim world.

And the first I would like to talk about is the Tunisian hip-hop artist whose name is El General. That’s the name he gave himself. And you say he really set the stage for the Jasmine Revolution that ousted President Ben Ali.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, hip-hop has become the rhythm of the resistance, and he was the first. He posted a song last November at a time that hip-hop was basically banned in Tunisia on his Facebook page. And it captured the first real challenge at a time that politicians don’t — didn’t dare criticize the regime.

MARGARET WARNER: I think we have a short clip from YouTube. Let’s just play a little.


MARGARET WARNER: So, what kind of thing was he saying?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, he said to the president: We’re suffering like dogs, half the people living in shame, misery everywhere. People are eating from garbage cans. Today, I’m speaking for the people crushed by the weight of injustice.

It’s that kind of challenge that just wasn’t found anyplace in Tunisia and in most other parts of the Arab world.

MARGARET WARNER: And I think you wrote that this really became almost an anthem to revolution, not only in Tunisia, but elsewhere.

ROBIN WRIGHT: It was sung by many of the protesters across Tunisia as the revolution spread and then picked up in places from mighty Egypt to tiny Bahrain.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, other hip-hop artists are rapping not just about their rulers, but also about which direction Islam is going, against extremism.

ROBIN WRIGHT: In places like Morocco, in Iran, you find the young who are challenging religious rule, challenging the extremist ideologies of all kinds of groups.

And this is fascinating. It’s trying to recapture what it is that Islam is about and the direction of their society.

MARGARET WARNER: Another whole trend you identified is among young women. And you called them the “Pink Hijab” generation.

But let’s talk about Dalia Ziada in Egypt.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Dalia Ziada was…

MARGARET WARNER: Ziada. Excuse me.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Dalia Ziada was 8 years old when she became an activist, after her mother told her to dress in a party costume and took her instead to be circumcised.

She went through genital mutilation. And she became very active in her family arguing against it and then as a teenager on women’s issues. And then she engaged in human rights activities. She organized the first Arab human rights festival in Egypt, and became very instrumental in translating a comic book about civil disobedience that came from the story of Martin Luther King.

So, this trend, the Arab uprisings, has been coming for a long time, but it’s in the young generation which makes up the majority — two-thirds of the Arab world population is under 30. This is where the young came from. And they’re educated for the first time, the majority of them. And they have aspirations that exceed just daily subsistence.

MARGARET WARNER: And what did you find about why more and more of them are wearing the hijab, the head covering?

ROBIN WRIGHT: In Egypt 40 years ago, the majority of women didn’t wear hijab. Today, over 80 percent of them are.

And instead of wearing them in black, they’re wearing in bright pink colors, pastels. Some of them have sequins, feathers. They tie them in the back in a way that they call the Spanish wrap, because it is modeled on the way flamingo dancers wore their hair in buns.

And it’s to express their Islamic identity, not an extremist one, but saying we want change that is familiar to our culture and to our faith.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are also incredibly strong counterforces, are there not, of religious orthodoxy and of still extremism and anti-Western feeling.

Is this a phenomenon really just among educated young people? Do you think it is an inexorable trend, or could still these — the other forces could beat them back?

ROBIN WRIGHT: There’s no question that this is the greatest wave of empowerment in the early 21st century, but it also faces the same obstacles that change did elsewhere in the world.

A generation after the Soviet Union’s demise, you still have a former communist and KGB chief in power in Moscow. In South Africa, many blacks are worse off than under apartheid. So it’s a long struggle ahead. But there’s no holding it back.

MARGARET WARNER: Robin Wright, congratulations on your book. Thanks.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.