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Robin Roy

'It has never been about just one bad leader'


Robin Wright has spent 40 years reporting on the Islamic world. These were turbulent decades that saw the rise of extremism and what she terms 'counter-jihad', a movement among Islamic nations to chart their own destinies. In her latest book, 'Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World', she documents the cultural, social and political underpinnings of the Arab Spring - from an underground Tunisian hip hop artiste who inspired the young to rebel to the role of the social media in the turmoil, from the rise of the hijab to the rise of satire.

The Arab Spring surprised the world with its intensity and the speed at which it spread. Had it been on the simmer for a while, unnoticed by the rest of us?

The Arab uprisings did not happen out of the blue or in a vacuum. For a decade, the outside world was so preoccupied with its "war on terrorism" that it gave little credence to efforts among Muslims to deal with the overlapping problems - autocratic regimes and extremist movements - that fed off each other. But the rejection of both has been increasingly visible since 2007. The political stirrings were spawned partly by a parallel culture of change. In the struggle to define their place in the 21st century, Muslim activists not only adapted the technology of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to their causes. They also experimented with culture - from music to theater, comic book superheroes to reality poetry TV programmes - as an idiom to communicate who they are and to end isolation caused by extremists within their ranks.

This movement did not seem to be influenced by Western democratic movements but was fed entirely by an internal and indigenous mutiny. Why do you think this did not happen earlier?

The timing is due to three factors coming together at the same time to create the perfect storm. A demographic explosion created the world's largest (proportionate) baby boom, with two-thirds of the Arab world's 300 million people now under age 30. Secondly, the majority for the first time are literate, even if not perfectly. That includes females. The young have an ability to connect beyond their neighbourhood or cities;many know how people live elsewhere. Third, they have the tools of technology to connect with each other and convey their messages. They also have a sense of diversity, partly produced by the proliferation of 500 independent satellite channels in the 15 years since al Jazeera first transformed the Arab media landscape.

You mention in an interview that the Arab Spring is much more than just an uprising against corrupt leaders.

The common denominator throughout the Arab world - whether in homogenous societies or diverse sectarian countries, monarchies or military dictatorships, rich nations or dirt-poor countries - is the rallying cry is for justice and dignity. It has never been just about one bad leader. In Egypt, the campaign against President Mubarak grew into a challenge to the military after it stalled the transition to democracy. Yet it is not really a "pan-Islamic uprising, " even though Islamic groups fared well in elections in Tunisia and Egypt and will probably elsewhere too. Over the next decade, which is likely to be more turbulent than the last decade, Arab societies may often turn to Islamic parties that are widely seen (so far) as less corrupt and more committed to public welfare.

What has been the role of women in these movements?

In several nations, we have even seen women take to the streets in hijab to protest. Tens of thousands of women in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere have protested against autocrats. Many wear head covering, which reflects the new social conservatism. But they also reflect the growing quest to gain women's rights- and the campaign to end male domination of Islam and reinterpret the religion's rigid tenets. It's a kind of gender counter-jihad. Women's rights - surely one of the top three or four issues as countries write new constitutions - symbolise how the current uprisings are about a whole lot more than just bad leaders. They are about shaping a whole new political order that empowers all a country's citizens.

Will regime changes actually give Muslim women the rights to participate in governance, judiciary, the religious establishment?

Probably not soon. But it's a beginning. Women in many different kinds of Arab societies are now proving that they can take the initiative - whether as poets delivering anti-regime diatribes on reality TV, women bloggers organising human rights film festivals, or new female scholars interpreting the Koran.

Do the uprisings have the power to reduce extremism to irrelevance in the long term?

Al Qaeda is not finished. Its franchises will almost certainly try and try again. South Asia particularly offers volatile passions and deep problems to exploit. But the movement has now lost the psychological edge, its most potent asset. Terrorism, in the end, can never win a war. It can only terrorise people enough to scare them into complying with extremists or making concessions. The uprisings and the broader culture of change have demonstrated how much al Qaeda has miscalculated, beginning with the 9/11 attacks that scared and alienated many Muslims too. Al Qaeda has killed many, mostly its own brethren. But it has otherwise achieved nothing. Compared with the vast number of democracy activists, cultural innovators and new voices in the Islamic world, al Qaeda's extremists looked like pathetic thugs and losers.

You talk of the deep impact of rapper Le General on the Tunisian movement. What do you attribute this to?

Hip-hop was banned under Ben Ali. So was protest. So El General did what many Tunisians dared not;he spoke out. He posted a haunting video of his anti-regime rap on a Facebook page. The lyrics included: "We're suffering like dogs. Half the people living in shame. Misery everywhere, People are eating from garbage cans. " Twenty percent of Tunisians were then on Facebook, and the song was an instant sensation. It broke through the climate of fear in a country where no politician dared to publicly criticise a president for a half century. The rap set the stage for the revolution that broke out a month later. El General's anthem was also reportedly sung by protesters in Egypt and Bahrain. Rap is now the rhythm of resistance across the Arab world. Dozens of groups use song to push political messages demanding change.

(Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the US Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC)

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