Foreign Policy Blogs

Rock the Casbah: Rage, Rap & Revolution

Robin Wright of the US Institute of Peace has a new book on the role of culture in both reflecting and inspiring this year’s uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Rock the Casbah, released earlier this month by Simon & Schuster,  “chronicles the new order being shaped by youth inspired revolts toppling leaders, clerics repudiating al Qaeda, playwrights and poets crafting messages of a counter-jihad, comedians ridiculing militancy, hip-hop rapping against guns and bombs, and women mobilizing for their own rights .”

Here is what the Los Angeles Times says about the book:

Young Muslims — more than half of the Islamic world is under 30 — are at the forefront of this change, not just on the barricades in Egypt and Tunisia but on the concert stage in Marrakesh and on television in Saudi Arabia. Part 2 of the book, “A Different Tune,” goes far beyond the usual platitudes about Facebook and YouTube (though it happens to be true that they empowered the Arab Spring revolts) to explore Islamic rap, “pink hejab” {the Islamic head scarf} feminism, “satellite sheikhs” who preach a more tolerant form of Islam, and Muslim poets, playwrights comic-book artists and stand-up comics who challenge stereotypes and restrictive theology while affirming their faith.  Wright’s in-depth knowledge of those societies’ cultures and histories informs every page of “Rock the Casbah.” Even the first section, which chronicles the overthrow of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s rulers, as well as the sustained though ultimately fruitless protests against Iran’s rigged 2009 election, furthers our comprehension of those well-known events by expanding to cover developments less familiar to Western readers. She cites a 2007 letter to Osama bin Laden from Saudi Sheikh Salman al Oudah as evidence that even conservative Wahhabist clerics such as Sheikh Salman have come to see Al Qaeda’s murderous tactics as crimes that disgrace Islam. She chronicles homegrown revolts against Al Qaeda (in Iraq’s Anwar province in 2006-07) and the Taliban (in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2009) to back up her contention that support for extremism had plummeted among Muslims even before there was a political alternative other than U.S.-supported autocracies. “People are angry at America,” comments Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but “radicalism doesn’t have a policy for education or health or the economy. Nobody wants another Taliban state.”

To get a flavor of the rage and pointed political message of some of the music, check out El General’s rap on Ben Ali’s Tunisia- with English subtitles:

One of the artists Wright profiles is Morocco’s Soultana.  Here is a video for Sawt Nssa (Voice of Women):

The title “Rock the Casbah” might seem to be drawing on the wrong cultural references for the subject of this book, feeling both out of time and place. But it somehow fits.  Recorded in 1982 by the British punk band the Clash, the basic message of the song is that of an authoritarian regime seeking to use religion, oil and military force to keep its citizens from tuning into a new  – and presumably revolutionary – sound. Even the fighter pilots sent out to enforce the ban can’t resist the music and the freedom it brings:

The king called up his jet fighters
He said you better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the Casbah way
As soon as the
shareef was
Chauffeured outta there
The jet pilots tuned to
The cockpit
radio blare
As soon as the shareef was
Outta their hair
The jet
pilots wailed

The shareef don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah
The shareef don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

It turns out that the guys in the Clash were more prescient than most political analysts about what was coming in the Middle East, well ahead of their time.  After all, they already had a sense of music’s revolutionary potential.





James Ketterer
James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement