Great Decisions Lecture Series Concludes with a Look at the Arab Spring

Foreign-policy analyst Robin Wright shares her thoughts about past events, future implications

February 29, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — One year after the Arab Spring sent waves of revolution throughout the Middle East, foreign-policy analyst Robin Wright discussed the implications of what she considers the most important story of the 21st century.

Speaking on Monday night (Feb. 27) at The College of Wooster’s Great Decisions lecture series in McGaw Chapel, Wright, who has written for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Magazine, among others, and is the author of several books, including Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, reviewed the past 12 months when civilian protests led to the ousting of four dictators and signaled change for all 22 Arab nations. She outlined several trends that she believes are critical to understanding the new sense of empowerment — particularly among young people — that is helping to overthrow long-standing regimes and creating significant political change.

The first trend is what Wright calls “The Big Chill,” which describes the Islamic clerics who have shifted allegiances in recent years, renouncing support for Islamic extremists and condemning their violent acts. In their place, new generations of clerics are emerging with an emphasis on the positive values of Islam.

The second trend is the rise of “new martyrs” — everyday citizens whose individual stories of oppression, mistreatment, and injustice have become rallying points for demonstrators. Wright shared the stories of three young men (Mohamed Bouazizi, Khaled Said, and Hamza al Kahteeb) who became heroes in their deaths when each incident exposed a different version of government corruption and inhumane treatment.

A third force in the dismantling of longstanding regimes is music, particularly rap and hip-hop, which have been banned in many Arab nations. Artists have begun to create rap songs that specifically critique and condemn the old order. The genre has become the “rhythm of resistance” for the young protesters and gives a voice to a new kind of creative opposition.

The fourth trend deals with women’s rights in the Islamic world and the concept of “the pink hijab,” the fashion movement in which increasing numbers of women are choosing to wear the traditional religious headscarf in a style that expresses femininity and individuality. The hijab provides women with a sense of safety, which fosters empowerment and facilitates activism, according to Wright. “We have already seen women becoming more active in both the revolutions and in defining what comes next,” she said.

The fifth trend is labeled by Wright as “The 99,” after a group of comic book superheroes created to serve as role models for Islamic youth. Each of the superheroes symbolizes one of the 99 attributes of Allah, and each of the characters is diverse in gender, choice of headwear, and country of origin. They are portrayed as Muslims with positive values in an artistic effort to displace religious radicalism.

The final two trends have to do with using the arts to challenge and ridicule the ideas of religious extremism. The first is comedy, which is a growing influence in the Arab world. Such figures as Maz Jobrani, Dean Obeidallah, and Bassem Youssef are trying to give a voice of skepticism and critique to the mainstream. The second is the new Muslim theater, which is producing many shows that center around “Jihad” in an effort to reclaim the term from extremists and bring it back to its original meaning — being a good Muslim. They try to show that Jihad is not about waging war against the United States, but rather about the dealing with the daily struggles of Muslims.

After outlining these trends, Wright explored some of the questions that are weighing heavily on the minds of many at this juncture in history, including “What’s next?” “What are the challenges?” and “What is the role of the United States? “For the people in the region and for us (as Americans), the next decade will be a time of unprecedented transformation and greater turbulence than the last decade,” she said. “It will be both more democratic and more Islamic, and this paradox will confuse the outside world.”

For the United States, it is critical that we get over Islamaphobia, contribute economically to the Middle Eastern nations, and take a step back from the constitutional processes involved with rebuilding these nations, added Wright. “We must understand that the uprisings are really about dignity, a sense of having a stake in the system, and being able to lead a life that has its daily rewards,” she said. The Arab Spring has already produced significant political and social consequences, and it will continue to be the most noteworthy example of human empowerment of our generation.

- Story by Julie Kendall '13