February 29, 2012

Wright gives face to Middle East

From the revolution in Tunisia to continued strife in Syria, the Middle East has seen a period of extreme upheaval over the past year. According to journalist Robin Wright, however, such political and societal change may be the only sort of extreme that modern Middle Easterners tolerate.

In a talk given at Knox on Tuesday, Wright drew on her experiences living and working in the region, detailing the story of a region in revolt both against decades-old dictatorships and terrorist groups claiming to speak in the name of Islam.

“What’s so striking to me is that in vastly different political climates … people have launched democracy in the world’s most volatile region through peaceful civil disobedience,” she said.

Rather than giving a play-by-play of the Arab Spring, Wright chose instead to focus on individuals who personify the fundamental changes occurring in Middle Eastern cultures and societies.

“It’s good to know about social change,” senior Sara Ahmed said. “You don’t hear what she’s [Wright] talking about on the news.”

Wright outlined several major trends in the Arab world today, beginning with the “big chill,” or the denouncement of extremist groups by clerics who formerly supported them, including Sheikh Salman al-Oudah, who had once been a personal hero of Osama bin Laden.

Notions of martyrdom have also shifted. Wright pointed to Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor who chose to set himself on fire to protest government corruption and consequently sparked the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.

“The goal was not to kill government officials or foreigners. The goal was to shame his government,” Wright said. “In the end, this was far more successful.”

One of the most moving stories shared was that of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, a Syrian boy captured and tortured by the state during uprisings in the city of Daraa. His body was returned to his parents with three gunshot wounds, multiple cigarette burns and mutilated genitals.

“It was meant to scare people. Instead, it infuriated them,” Wright said as a picture of al-Khateeb’s body was projected on a screen. “He became a symbol of the Syrian uprising.”

Not all of Wright’s stories were gruesome. She spoke of her friend Dalia Ziada, a young Egyptian woman fighting female genital mutilation, a cultural tradition to which around 80 percent of girls in Egypt are subjected.

After convincing her uncle not to put his daughter through the procedure, Ziada decided to dedicate her life to activism.

“Women [in the Middle East] are crossing a threshold, going through what women in the U.S. went through 40 years ago,” Wright said.

Women are perhaps the most visible example in the region of the attempt to reconcile democratic principles with deeply entrenched religious beliefs. While running for the Egyptian parliament in 2011, Ziada was regularly seen in a pink hijab, the headscarf now worn by 85 percent of women in Egypt.

“For people in the region, the next decade will be a period of unprecedented transformation and possibly greater turmoil,” Wright said. “It will be both more democratic and more Islamic.”

In Wright’s view, the greatest challenge in the near future is likely to come not from the attempting to form democratic governments but from trying to entrench the principles that will keep such governments in place.

“We all pay a lot of attention to elections. In Iran [in 1979], the revolution was hijacked during the process of writing the constitution,” she said.

Equally important will be greater understanding of Muslims not only abroad but also at home, most of whom “want the same things we do,” according to Wright.

“Islam is the fastest growing religion [in the U.S.],” she said. “The challenge for us is to understand the transition playing out not only in the Middle East, but also here.”

For senior Greg Noth, Wright’s talk provided a perspective on the Arab Spring that is often difficult to find.

“I think you can spend your whole life studying the region, but it’s different being there,” he said. “Her [Wright’s] voice adds an extremely valuable contribution to the conversation.”

Wright, who has been reporting on the Middle East since 1973, has covered six wars, two intifadas and multiple revolutions for numerous national publications. Several of her books, including “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East” and “Taking Power: on the Origins of Third World Revolutions,” have been required reading in Knox courses.

Wright’s visit was sponsored by the Eleanor Stellyes Center for Global Studies and is the inaugural Stellyes Distinguished Lecture on Global Affairs as part of Knox’s 175th anniversary celebrations.

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