A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
More than half the Islamic world is under the age of thirty, a crucial component of the epic upheaval taking place in so many Muslim countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. In a new book award winning journalist Robin Wright offers an in depth account of the political and cultural cross currents transforming the region. She argues that a counter jihad has emerged that rejects both autocratic regimes and the extremist ideologies of Al Qaeda. Author and journalist Robin Wright joins us to talk about rage and rebellion across the Islamic world and why she believes the next decade is likely to be both more democratic and more Islamic.
- Robin Wright journalist, foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and editor of "The Iran Primer."
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from “Rock the Casbah” by Robin Wright. Copyright 2011 by Robin Wright. Excerpted here by kind permission of Simon & Schuster:
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. The uprisings that began last winter in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and Syria and other countries in the Mid-East and North Africa are redefining politics, culture and security issues across the Islamic world.
MS. SUSAN PAGEIn a new book, award-winning journalist Robin Wright offers an on the ground perspective on the massive change under way. Her book is called "Rock the Casbah" and Robin Wright joins me in the studio to talk about the new order being shaped by young Muslims around the world. Robin, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTIt's great to be with you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send an e-mail at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Robin, what a great title for a book, "Rock the Casbah," and it really reflects what you think is a key fact in understanding the Islamic world today and that is young people.
WRIGHTAbsolutely. The uprisings we're seeing today are, in large part, a product of demographics in the region. You have two-thirds of the Arab world's 300 people who are between the ages of 15 and 29 and these are people who are just getting an education and trying to get jobs. And the interesting thing is for the first time, you have the majority of young who are literate and this includes women. And they are looking for a future that includes more than mere subsistence and so issues actually make a huge difference to them.
PAGEAnd when you talk about the Islamic world, it's really -- it has such a range in kinds of countries, even in parts of the world.
WRIGHTAbsolutely. We think of the Islamic largely in the Middle East and the Asia subcontinent, Pakistan and India, when, in fact, it expands well into China. There are more Muslims in China than there are in Iraq. There are as many Muslims in Russia as there are in Libya and Jordan combined. There are Muslims in -- among the Aborigines in Australia and Islam is growing in Trinidad and Tobago. Argentina has the largest Muslim population in Latin America, so this is a global phenomenon. This not something that is limited to certain parts of the world anymore.
PAGEIn fact, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States.
PAGESo all different kinds of countries around the world are affected by this. What are the things that have linked these big changes we've seen in the Islamic world, just in the past six months, nine months?
WRIGHTThere are a number of different factors. As I said, education is part of it, having access to the tools of technology, the role of women, but it's also a part of the global trend of the last 40 years where you see the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, the end of minority rule and apartheid in Africa, the collapse of military dictatorships in Latin America that people really understand what's happening more around the world.
WRIGHTThey understand globalization and they want to be a part of it. And so it plays out on the streets of Cairo or Tunisia, but it really reflects something that is common throughout the world in the early 21st century.
PAGEAnd they -- the Islamic world wants to be part of the globalization, but not just like the West. It's different. How's it different?
WRIGHTI think one of the things that we are likely to see over the next decade is the growth of the demand for political freedoms, free speech, right to assemble, free and fair elections. But that -- during the transition, which is likely to be a wild ride, there's a long way to go, that it's also likely to have an often Islamic identity.
WRIGHTNot in the kind of Islamic identity we associate with, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood or some of the violent groups on the other end of the political spectrum, but as -- like a tornado. When people go through , they go to the basement and they cling to the pillars and it's very much the same as they're going through this political tornado that people are clinging to the pillars of their identity.
WRIGHTAnd that's been true throughout history, that societies turn to their religion and their religious values as a way to identity, get them through the rough parts, get them to challenge autocrats or monarchs and provide ideals by which to define a new society, whether it's the Dalai Lama in Tibet standing up against the Chinese or Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town against apartheid that religion often is an idiom of opposition, but that doesn't necessarily mean that any of these states are looking for Islamic governments.
PAGEIn fact, you talk about how young Muslims often are not attracted to the traditional models we've seen before about Islam's political spectrum. What are the traditional models and what are the new ones? First, talk about the traditional ones that are now not appealing to many of the young Muslims you talk to.
WRIGHTWell, the ideologies that have been dominant in the last 30 years have been either the autocracies, clearly now unpopular everywhere, but also the ideologies of -- in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi's, in the Shiite theology of Iran, the extremist ideology of the Salafis and none of those are popular.
WRIGHTIn fact, one of the things that was so striking when I was in Saudi Arabia was how a father said, all of us today want to make sure that our kids have laptops and not rifles. And that's what people want. They understand that this an -- that there's something different and part of the phenomena and maybe the most important phenomena, a decade after 9/11, is the rejection of violence and militancy as an alternative, that people see that Iran has terribly divided right now, hasn't delivered to its people and that the extremism of al Qaida is not providing healthcare, education, jobs or housing and that it's not likely to be -- to provide the answers to everyday life.
PAGESo what does this mean for al Qaida, which of course, has been the focus for so many Americans since 9/11, in being concerned about the Islamic world? How much appeal does al Qaida continue to have with young people in the Muslim world?
WRIGHTI think we'll always have a tiny, tiny bit of appeal, whether it's among misfits or people who are angry about whatever their personal or political environment is, but it's decreasing and The Washington Post had a front page story today saying al Qaida is on the verge of collapse. I think that's true. It's becoming increasingly passé. The message today is no longer the clash of civilizations, it's increasingly the commonality of civilizations and we see that in places -- who would've thought, you know, that Syria would become a frontline for the fight for democracy in the Arab world.
PAGEIt's amazing. The people in Syria have been so brave with what they've doing with these protests.
WRIGHTEvery week, every Friday, which is the day off, you've seen larger and larger crowds get out. Even as the death toll becomes much higher and as the regime uses increasingly difficult or brutal tactics, it's quite inspiring. And Syria is in some ways the most important state now for transition because if Syria goes, this is the most brutal regime in the region today. It has survived two presidents, the Assad dynasty, for 40 years and if the protestors manage to prevail, even if it's a long road, this sends signals to a lot of other countries.
PAGEIn the -- and in fact, if you look at what seems to be happening in Syria, is it possible that the protestors will fail? Because it looks to me like you can't tell how this will unfold or when, but that some kind of line has been crossed there. Do you think that's right or is that too optimistic?
WRIGHTI think there a line has been crossed. Now, the Syrian government is clearly trying to follow the Iranian model from two years ago after the disputed Iranian election, when Iran witnessed six months of sustained protests on the street. The regime managed to put it down through real brutality, detaining thousands, putting some on -- in Stalinesque trials. There were wide spread reports of torture and rape of both men and women in prison and yet there is still a very large opposition movement inside the country.
WRIGHTIt has been blocked from coming out on the streets, but the fact is, the Syrians are looking that -- the Syrian government is looking at that as its model and getting reportedly some help from the regime in terms of both economic resources and how do you put down a rebellion. And yet the people keep coming out on the streets every week and I have to say, it's the country that has surprised me the most.
PAGEYou know, you wrote -- in thinking about the role of al Qaida moving forward, you've heard about the irony of -- when Mubarak fell in Egypt after just 18 days with these protests, these remarkable protests that we saw in Egypt. And where -- what was al Qaida's role in that? And of course, that was something al Qaida wanted, right? Al Qaida was opposed to Mubarak.
WRIGHTAl Qaida was opposed to Mubarak and the number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has taken over since Osama bin Laden's death, was head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was involved in trying to bring down the Mubarak regime. One of the striking things about that dramatic sequence of events was that shortly after Mubarak was ousted, a tape showed up, that was just an audiotape, not even video from Ayman al-Zawahiri that railed against democracy, talked about 19th and 20th century Ottoman history in Egypt.
WRIGHTSeemed so totally out of touch and it'd clearly been taped several weeks before Mubarak's ouster. So in an era of warped speed, Twitter and, you know, Facebook, al Qaida seems kind of passé, out of it, losers, out of touch with the political realities. It was a very telling sequence.
PAGEYou were just finishing your book when Osama bin Laden was killed. What kind of impact do you think his death is having in the region?
WRIGHTLook, al Qaida has long been a franchise operation. It has, in many ways, its most deadly wing in Yemen today, which is undergoing its own rebellion and turmoil. It has a branch in the Maghrib, it has a branch in Somalia, so it is still alive as a franchise. The old al Qaida base is increasingly challenged, you know, a continent away from the Arab world unable to engage in the kind of attacks in the West that it had in the past.
WRIGHTSo bin Laden's death has a profound impact because they've lost the charismatic chief, but they've also been hurting for a long time because of their inability to communicate with their own people.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Robin Wright about her new book "Rock the Casbah." Stay with us.
PAGERobin Wright, tell us what we're listening to.
WRIGHTThis is the lyrics of a -- from a young rapper in Tunisia named El General. And one of the most striking things about the uprisings is the culture of change that it has produced or that has emerged around it. And in many ways, rap has become the rhythm of resistance in the Arab World. El General, because hip-hop was banned in Tunisia from being recorded or performed or heard on radio stations, wrote a song against the regime and put it on Facebook. And 20 percent of Tunisians are on Facebook and the song took off last fall.
WRIGHTAnd he -- in this song, he condemns the regime in ways that no politician dared to criticize a president who'd been in power for 23 years. He says, "Mr. President, today I am speaking in the name of myself and all the people who are suffering. There are still people dying of hunger who want to work to survive, but their voice was not heard. Get into the streets and see, people have become like animals. See the police with batons. They don't care since there's no one telling them to stop, even the law of the constitution. Put it in the water and drink it."
WRIGHTIt's astounding how rap has become a means of circumventing state control and putting out in public an agenda of change.
PAGESo these are very defiant words. What happened to El General after he posted this?
WRIGHTWell, El General was arrested in the -- as the uprising began, but what was striking was the sequence of events in Tunisia. He put out this song in November and it was immediately popular. This is a total unknown young man, but the song resonated among the young. Twenty-one years old, still with his family, unemployed, a nobody, but the song took off.
WRIGHTAnd it was in that climate that a young fruit vendor in a remote Tunisian town, who was harassed by a state inspector who demanded a bribe and then confiscated his produce and his electronic scale. The young street vendor than went seeking recourse trying to get his produce back and get the government to allow him to sell his goods.
WRIGHTWhen he was rebuffed time and time again, he stood in front of the governor's office, covered himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. And that triggered the street protests during which the young sang the song of El General. And the song then took off and was also sung in Egypt and Bahrain and beyond. So El General and others have become now the voice of the uprising.
PAGEYou know, one of the things that's so interesting about your book "Rock the Casbah" is the individual stories, the stories of individual peoples whose actions have these cataclysmic consequences. One of them is the woman Neda, am I saying her name right? In Iran. Tell us about her.
WRIGHTNeda Agha-Soltan was in her mid-20s, a young woman who had never been political before. And in 2009, she decided right on the eve of the vote that she wanted to get out, that she believed for the first time because of the first presidential debate, that there was a diversity and she went to polling station after polling station and they couldn't find her name. There weren't enough ballots. There was something fishy at each one. And so in the end, she didn't vote.
WRIGHTAnd the day, after when the regime announced that President Ahmadinejad had been re-elected, millions took to the street because they didn't believe that the vote had been honest, that there was wide spread and various types of fraud. And Neda took to the streets. She'd never been political and she was typical of so many who had either boycotted elections in the past, had been apathetic.
WRIGHTAnd one day, she was out on the street when she was hit by a sniper standing on the roof. And a picture of her dying was captured on a cell phone and made it around the world. There has never been anyone whose death has been so widely seen so instantaneously in history. And it was a defining moment. Television stations around the world, websites ran it.
WRIGHTAnd what was interesting about Neda was how she symbolized what I call the new martyrdom. The alternatives to people like Mohamed Atta, who was one of the 9/11 masterminds, one of the pilots who flew into the World Trade Center, that the new martyrs are not trying to kill other people. They are dying in the name of shaming their governments and they have been far more effective. And there are a host of others, the young street vendor in Tunisia, a 13-year-old boy in Syria, a young blogger in Egypt, who have all died in very brave acts, but again, not designed to kill other people, but as martyrs to the cause of political change.
PAGEAnd all this made possible by Facebook and Twitter and the cameras that are on cell phones. It is -- these are really digital revolutions that we're seeing.
WRIGHTThe first virtual revolutions indeed. And that's one of the many factors. Now, it's not the only one. There's a lot of debate about, are these really Twitter revolutions? But it's clear that in getting the word out, in Iran in 2009, where the press was banned, but we had images of Neda and the street protests day after day after day from the Iranians themselves, the first eye reporters, in effect, sending images of their protests.
PAGEYou know, this -- many of these developments sound very positive from the perspective of the United States, declining appeal of al Qaida, a move away from extremism and terrorism as the political tool or the focus of Islamic politics for some. Is it good news for the United States and U.S. interests?
WRIGHTThe United States for so long has sided with regimes in the name of stability for six decades and that clearly was not viable as a policy long-term. In February -- I have in one of my chapters the 11 days of February when President Obama changed policy, did an about face and began by saying, yes, Egypt has to go through some change, but was prepared to allow -- or push for Mubarak to be allowed to stay until there were natural elections. But by the end of the 11-day period, it was clear that the people in the streets were sending a much different message and it was no longer viable.
WRIGHTAnd so Obama had to walk away from a stalwart ally dating back 30 years, a man who had been essential to the peace process with Israel, which is a strategic U.S. interest. So the United States has taken some important steps in recognizing what's happened, but it's only gone so far. It's -- we are apparently willing to accept democracy across North Africa kind of into the Western Mediterranean -- or Eastern Mediterranean part of the Middle East, but not in the Gulf.
WRIGHTWe stop when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere. They're -- because of our economic needs, our fear of Iran and the Gulf as a buffer zone, we're not willing to push for democracy and this is where we are going to be vulnerable, I think, long-term.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation with their views and comments and questions. We'll go to Ben, he's calling from Miami. Hi, Ben.
BENHi, how are you?
PAGEGood, thank you.
BENThank you very much for the great program and the book. I did hear you mention that al Qaida is passé in most of the Middle Eastern countries, which is true. However, even after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, there's still groups of radical Islamic (word?) really creating problems. Lately in Tunisia, they've been patrolling the beaches, which -- preventing women from swimming in bikinis, as usual. And creates a lot of problems in the country and they doing this group (word?) just like al Qaida as well who has done that before.
BENSo it's not over yet. We're not out of the woods yet. And the (word?) to step up and be involved and not let these young democracies die after a tremendous effort they've made.
PAGEYeah, Ben, thanks for your call. You know, we've gotten a similar e-mail from Phil, who writes us from New York City. And Phil writes, "I had the opportunity to stay in Tunisia for four months just before the spark of the revolution last year. It is easy to understand why the frustration of the youth was so easily directed at Ben Ali once the cards started to fall and the elation that followed his departure from power.
PAGENow my biggest fear is that the frenzied anger and excitement will eventually fade into a sense of disillusionment if the people of -- young people of Tunisia begin to feel that for all the changes that have taken place, there's been no real progress in regard to how it's affected the common man." You know, you write about this, Robin, concerned that kind of the elation in the Arab world could turn to real unhappiness about the pace of change that follows.
WRIGHTYes. The early euphoria is followed by raw realities and this is particularly true when it comes to the rewards that a lot of these people want. And freedom means not just the right to vote, but it also means the right to opportunity to have a sense of future. And in all of these countries, part of the story is the economy. You know that old line, it's the economy, stupid.
WRIGHTAnd in places like Tunisia there is greater job insecurity today than there was on the eve of the revolution because tourism has died, people are not willing to make trips there and tourism was a big part of the -- of their revenues.
WRIGHTThe same problem in even larger numbers in Egypt. There's a very poignant story about a camel -- a guy who owned a camel at the pyramids and he would take tourists around. And he said that he couldn't feed his family and he couldn't feed the camel. And to survive, he might have to feed the camel to his family. And you get the sense of just how desperate they are. People have cut into whatever small reserves they have and they can't live indefinitely without the prospect of some kind of income.
WRIGHTAnd the real danger is that the West is willing to put in a lot of money in fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in using its resources to prop up fledgling new democracies to help create whether it's job opportunities or nation building. And we are -- for example, in Egypt, we're still providing the vast bulk of our aid to the Egyptian military, which is now actually the target of some of the protestors because it has failed to lift emergency law. It has -- not going to allow international observers in its elections in the fall.
WRIGHTThere are a lot of steps that have made the protestors angry in terms of failed promises. And so because the United States is seen as the main prop for the Egyptian military, we then become targets as well. And the good thing about so many of these uprisings is they're not anti-Western, they're not anti-American so far. And interestingly enough, they're not anti-Israel. The Arab/Israeli conflict is not part of the equation so far.
PAGEWe have a caller from McLean, Va. who I think would like to ask a related question. Ben, hi, thanks for joining us.
BENThank you very much. My question for Ms. Wright concerns the impact of the Arab Spring on Israel and on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, especially in light of two recent developments. And the first is the growing reliance of Palestinians on nonviolent resistance. And two is the sit-ins and demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which seem to have started with cost of living and cost of housing protests and have moved to some extent to calls for Prime Minister Netanyahu's resignation and for quote "regime change," end quote.
PAGEAll right, Ben. Thanks very much for your call.
WRIGHTWell, as I said, Israel has not been a part of the equation, but it is interesting that -- I've covered six -- all six Arab/Israeli conflicts since 1973. I've covered the two Palestinian intifadas. And it is very striking that you find the majority of Palestinians today looking for nonviolent ways to make their point about the need for an independent state, that they're talking about going to the United Nations, not launching a war. That's an important shift. It's -- the violence is far from over, but the fact is, that's the main tactic and it's a startling contrast.
WRIGHTBut it's also interesting, as he points out, the way that the Israelis themselves are imitating the Arab form of protests by setting up their own tented protest centers over housing issues, which I thought was quite interesting.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850 and reading your e-mails at firstname.lastname@example.org. Well, Robin, I know you've covered this region for a long time. When did you take your first trip?
WRIGHTI landed in the Middle East on October 6, 1973, which was the day the war broke out and I was a young reporter and had -- who had no business covering a war at that point, but the Middle East is an addictive place. And once you've been there, the sense of history and the stakes really reel you in and it's hard to leave.
PAGEAnd did you feel that inevitably, we would come to this day? Are you surprised about where we are today when it comes to the Arab world and the Islamic world?
WRIGHTNot completely. I mean, I wrote a book three years ago that talked about the dreams and shadows and first identified the YouTube generation. And a couple of years ago, I wrote a big piece for Time Magazine on what I called The Soft Revolution. You could see that the young particularly were mobilizing and using tactics.
WRIGHTI tell the story in the book about a young Egyptian woman named Dalia Ziada who was in many ways typical how long they had been thinking about engaging in change. She began when she was eight years old. Her mother told her to go to a -- she was going for a party and to put on her best dress. And it was for her circumcision. And she decided -- she was so angry, she started mobilizing her father and her uncles to try to stop this from happening to the other female children in the family.
WRIGHTAnd she failed and failed and failed again until she got to the last child. And with her uncle, she stayed up all night talking to him, convinced him not to do it and then began to think, maybe if I can change one person's life, I can change others. And as a teenager, she translated a story about Martin Luther King, Junior and his walk to freedom in Montgomery, Ala. She translated it into Arabic and began passing it around to her friends and then to Arabs in other countries. She's a young blogger.
WRIGHTIn her 20s, she started the first Arab Human Rights Film Festival ever held in Egypt, went up against the authorities over and over again. When her -- the censorship board tried to ban her when the theater where she was showing the films had its permit revoked to prevent her from showing them. So she hired a riverboat cruiser and got everyone out there. And as soon as the riverboat cruiser took off from the Nile, they showed the first film. And she did all of this before the age of 27 years old. And this was on her -- you know, largely on her own steam.
WRIGHTSo there are young activists who've had ideas and have been going out and doing things. It's the confluence of people getting together and seeing that it's actually possible to bring down regimes that's new.
PAGEWe’re going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Robin Wright about her new book "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." And we'll go back to the phones. We'll take some of your questions, we'll read some of your e-mails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Robin Wright, she's talking about her new book "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." You know, the transformation that you write about is not only political, it's also cultural in things like that you see reflected in playwrights and even comedians.
WRIGHTWell, the playwrights are interesting. Many of them are using the word jihad in the title of their works, but using jihad in a very different way, to try to reclaim the original idea, which was to be a good Muslim. It was not to kill Westerners or be violent, it was to be a decent human being. One of my favorite plays is called "Till Jihad Do Us Part," which is actually a romantic comedy written by an Indian Muslim.
WRIGHTThere's another one written by an Egyptian born playwright called "Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes," and it's a raucous satire. And the idea of all of them is to reclaim the idea from the militants to take back the word so that it does not define the anger and the split among societies. It is something that has a positive connotation. The comedians are in some ways the most interesting because they are using humor to ridicule extremism. And this is where I get into what I call the counter jihad, the movement to refute jihad for its extremist values.
WRIGHTAnd one of my favorite jokes, which I'll read from the book, comes from Maz Jobrani, who's an Iranian born comedian. And he says, up on stage, "'You know, one guy can really mess it up for the rest of us. Look at the Christmas bomber, the guy who tried to blow up the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, this Abuabumustafabooboo (sp?) or whatever his name was. I say this guy was crazy. After all, where was the bomb?' He looks incredulously at the audience. 'Yeah, right, in his underwear. I mean, really, any normal man would surely question that instruction.'
WRIGHTAnd then he switches to a Mid-East accent, assuming the role of the terrorist in a final discussion with his masters. 'Excuse me, I have one last question for you. You say my reward in heaven is going to be 72 virgins. So do you think maybe we could put the bomb someplace else? I mean, I think I'm really gonna need my penis.'" Which is, you know, this is not the kind of humor one would anticipate, but it's very interesting how humor has become such an important vehicle. And many of the Muslim American comedians are actually taking comedy back to the region, teaching standup as a way to be skeptical, cynical, to challenge politics.
WRIGHTIn Egypt now Bosom Yusuf (sp?) is the new John Stewart of Egypt and he has his own program with -- he's a mock news anchor with mock reporters who got out during the uprising and did a skit about a prominent Egyptian actress who was complaining that she couldn't get pizza home delivered because of the chaos on the streets, so there's a -- humor is an unlikely tool in the counter terrorism campaign.
PAGESam has written us an e-mail from Terre Haute, Ind. He writes, "I believe that Mark Zuckerberg has done more for Middle East democracy than Bush and Obama combined." It goes to the social networks that we were talking about before. Do you think that George W. Bush who talked about democracy in the Arab World, does he deserve some credit for what's happened there?
WRIGHTWell, look, Bush gave a speech in 2003 that was the first time an American president had specifically challenged both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to change, but George Bush never did anything beyond that. And because of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, generated enormous antipathy toward the United States. It was stunning how the popularity of the United States plummeted because of our interventions in the Muslim world.
WRIGHTThere was deep suspicion about what our intentions were, not weapons of mass destruction, but really oil. And as a result, much of the activity you see today is an attempt to say we don't want you to decide our futures, we wanna be the ones to do it.
WRIGHTAnd it's striking that for the first time in the Arab world, you see a kind of proactive effort to determine their fate in a way that in the past it was reactive to the Arab Israeli conflict, to foreign intervention, to some flashpoint domestically. Now they're saying, and I think it's partly a reaction to Iraq, we want something different.
PAGEAnd does President Obama deserve any credit for what's happened or did this just happen to occurred while he was in office?
WRIGHTThe forces of history were moving in this direction decisively and I don't think that President Obama can claim any credit for it, either. He gave decent speeches in Turkey and Cairo and Indonesia, but again, actually didn't do much more tangibly than President Bush had done in reaching out and changing, for example, the amount of aid we gave to civil society or fledgling Democrats in Egypt.
WRIGHTWe continued to give the majority of our money to the Egyptian military. So there wasn't as much of a tangible effort to change the status quo. The people in the region forced us to change our own policy, so I'm not sure either president can claim much benefit.
PAGEYou know, it reminds me a little of the end of the Cold War when we saw the transformation of countries that had been -- the transformation of the Soviet Union and some of the other countries in Eastern Europe where we mostly tried not to screw it up as this was happening.
WRIGHTI think there is a historic parallel. That's why I say I think the Arabs see this very much as a continuation of what's happened elsewhere. They just haven't had their opportunity until now.
PAGELet's go to Cleveland, Ohio and talk to Frank. Frank, thank you for holding on.
FRANKYes, thank you. Good morning. Libya, we're pouring billions into Libya. I don't know if it's for the oil or what it is, but no other country are we putting that much of our money into. And what part does Mossad and CIA play in all these regime changes?
PAGEAll right. Frank, thanks for your call.
WRIGHTLook, I'm not sure that Mossad or the CIA have anything to do with what's happening on the ground. This is very much something that was spontaneous that, in fact, the intelligence communities around the world failed to see coming. In terms of Libya, it's a very interesting question because it's the one place where the US has become involved militarily through NATO. Libya is a quirky case. It's a country with only 6.5 million people. It's a large country physically, but most of the towns are stretched along the Mediterranean coast.
WRIGHTAnd because of Gadhafi's longstanding support for extremism, because of his reported role in the bombing of Pan Am 103, taking action against him was more acceptable and the Arab World stood up and said as one that he had to be blocked from using force against his own people. Then the United Nations passed a resolution and then NATO decided to move you together. So it's not just the United States that's involved. It really is the largest Western -- the world's largest military alliance.
PAGEAnd yet unlike some of the other places you talked about, things seem pretty stalemated there.
WRIGHTChange takes a long time. And Gadhafi is clearly prepared, as is President Assad in Syria, to take whatever steps to prevent change, to kill as many of his own people. There's a very moving story in The Washington Post today about the number of land mines that the Libyan rebels are unearthing every day, dozens and dozens, hundreds and hundreds, that the government has laid not against outside armies, NATO, because NATO is only bombing from the air, but against his own people.
PAGEWe're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's talk to Joe. He's calling us from Dulles, Va. Hi, Joe.
JOEHello there. Ms. Wright mentioned something earlier that really struck me and it was regarding the higher literacy of most of the young people throughout the Arab world, which is a key component to the new insights and the actions that are being taken. Now, what struck me is even in the West, the scientific revolution over the last few centuries pulled more and more away from the domination of the church and eventually evolved into even the representation of the United States government and also changes in governments in Europe.
JOEAnd this efficacy and efficiency of social behavior where agreement, commonality, cooperation, as well as sanitation, health, all of these have taken precedent in an intelligent mind to move in a different direction. So Ms. Wright briefly touched on talking about how musical and entertainment events are demonstrative of this new trend, but I'm also wondering if she could elaborate on how these younger people are trying to ration the dogma which really is quite strict in its literal interpretation of their religion and embracing these new efficacious, social, democratic thoughts.
PAGEOkay. Joe, thanks very much for giving us a call.
WRIGHTWell, look, education is always the instrument of enlightenment and it's important particularly in that part of the world because the number of young women who are educated. It's changed the dynamics when you have roughly 50 percent of your population is female and this empowers them to want to get whether it's out of the house or to have a professional life, that you find that the interests, the goals in daily life have changed completely.
WRIGHTAnd it's so striking that so many of the people out in Tahrir Liberation Square, where the protests have been held, are women, young women, many of them wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf. So these are not just westernized secular, you know, college educated women. These are women who want a traditional life or a traditional lifestyle anyway who are getting out there and wanting to change the political system.
PAGEYou have a lot of young women who want to have a different role than women have had in many of these countries and yet they still want to wear the hijab. And you write about the different ways in which they use the hijab. Tell us about that.
WRIGHTI call it the pink hijab phenomenon, no longer is it black or austere. There's a sense of fashion. Women want to be very 21st century, but they also want to express the modesty of their faith. And so there's something -- one of the many kinds of designs is called the Spanish wrap, which is colorful scarves and they have a big bun tied in the back from the ends of the scarf, which is modeled on the Flamenco dancer. So there are lots of different ways, lots of different patterns, lots of -- in the same way we change our shirts or dresses every day, young women are changing the colors and patterns and vibrancy of their scarves.
PAGEBut especially when you think about the role of women, does it require a reinterpretation of the Islamic faith to accommodate the ambitions of women?
WRIGHTOne of the chapters I write about is about how women are proactively taking the Quran and going back to the roots where -- particularly where they're called the Hadith, the Islamic traditions, that were the ways of life of the prophet Mohammad and are often the rules by which Muslims live their lives.
WRIGHTGoing back and reinterpreting at what point where they added to the faith. Some of them hundreds of years later. What are legitimate? What did they really mean? Reinterpreting some of the Quranic verses in ways -- in terms of looking at specific words and the gender of the word and giving a whole new interpretation that empowers women. They're not relying on men or the traditional scholars of the faith, they're learning about -- they're getting their religious credentials, interpreting the faith in ways that give women equality.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Does that reinterpretation alarm traditionalists in the Islamic world?
WRIGHTOh, I think very much so. I think this is -- it's a very interesting transition and it's a generational thing. One sees because of the demographic baby boom, the majority are the young and there is that older generation that is resisting. You look at a place like Saudi Arabia where the average age is in the mid-20s. The average age of the cabinet minister is 65. The king is 87. The next in line is in his early 80s. And the third in line is in his late 70s.
WRIGHTWe're not talking about a generation gap. It's a two or three generation gap and so the -- between the ruled and the rulers. And convincing this older generation is going to be very tough. That's one of the many reasons that this kind of change is going to take a long time. As I keep telling people, a generation after the Soviet Union's demise, you still have a former communist and KGB chief who's in power in Moscow. Change doesn't happen in 18 days, you know, just with the ouster of one man.
PAGECan Saudi Arabia continue to resist this tide?
WRIGHTNot indefinitely. It can resist it short term. The king invested $136 billion this year for debt relief, housing credits, literary and sports clubs to try to preempt the kinds of uprisings. But at the end of the day, the issues are just are deep in Saudi Arabia as they are elsewhere.
PAGELet's go to Netta. She's calling from here in Washington, D.C. Hi, Netta.
NETTAThank you for taking my call. I'm a (unintelligible) graduate student in the Washington, D.C. area and I really, really enjoy this discussion, but I wanted to bring some attention to the understanding in Iran because I participated in the elections. I was (unintelligible) and then also very active here in the D.C. area with the Green movement. The misconception that we want to maintain a Islamic identity. Yes, when we voted for Mousavi or Caribe (sp?), we voted because we voted for the (word?) of what was put in front of us, for what we call (unintelligible) or change.
NETTABut I want it to be made -- we don't necessarily not want a secularist government in our country eventually. If you look at our slogan, at first we began our slogans were asking, you know, where is our votes very simply. The responses we saw -- you know, for the past 30 years of violence, we started response we changed what we wanted. We want more. We want removal of this kind of government for us. You know, it's -- to say that we are -- want to maintain (unintelligible) we don't have established parties outside of Iran. We have a small Leftist group, we have it is a despot that don't have any position (unintelligible) that doesn't have a position inside of Iran.
PAGEWell, Netta, it's so good to hear your perspective. We can tell the emotion in your voice as you talk about the changes that you've seen in your country. Robin, what do you think?
WRIGHTWell, I think she's right. I think this is again where we get into this issue of what is secular and what is Islamic. It's -- the poles, for example, that have been taken in many of these countries show the majority want a secular government, but at the same time, they want parties that may reflect Islamic values. And this doesn't mean that they want an Islamic state. And it's something we in the West have a very hard time differentiating between.
WRIGHTIn Iran, there's a growing challenge not only to the election, but to the idea of an Islamic republic. And the question is, do they want a country that's more of a republic and less Islamic and giving the clerics the right to kinds of veto or control every aspect of political life. But there is this interesting blend. It'll be a -- it will be fascinating to watch Iran's elections next year for parliament and to see if we see the kinds of the protests we've seen elsewhere in the region.
PAGERobin Wright, she's the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." Thanks so much for joining us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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