Friday, March 1, 2013

Rock the Casbah: Author, journalist uses pop references and humor in lecture

by Kelsey Mejlaender, Copy Editor
In the wake of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ murder by extremists, his longtime friend Robin Wright presented a memorial lecture to Pacific Lutheran University the morning of Feb. 21.

Wright — an author, journalist and foreign policy analyst — also spoke about her book, "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," and the state of affairs in the Middle East.

The terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, left four Americans dead, including the ambassador. As Wright said during her lecture, Stevens is the first American ambassador to be killed since 1988.

"He [Stevens] knew the street, as well as the elite," Wright said. "This country lost the most promising diplomat."

Throughout the lecture Wright kept the tone fairly light, telling funny stories from Stevens’ life, such as when he started a snowball fight between Israelis and Palestinians, and even cracking a joke about the underwear bomber.

Her message was one of hope tempered with realism. While Wright said Stevens would not be the last person to die in the effort to achieve peace, she also pointed out several promising signs.

The importance of a "culture of change," Wright said, cannot be underestimated.

These cultural changes include new role models available to the Islamic community, ranging from a comic book featuring Muslim superheroes to Muslim playwrights and stand-up comedians.

One of the most important cultural developments is in music, Wright said, as "rap has become the rhythm of resistance," and there are "voices of dissent in music."

She said this cultural transformation was something Stevens understood.

Nearing the final stretch of Wright’s lecture, she outlined 10 trends that will shape the future of the Middle East. These included the welfare of women, corruption and the many Islamic political parties.

Regarding these parties, Wright said, "if there’s one word you take away [from this lecture] it’s Salafi." She spelled the name for the audience and said the party is "a new phase of Al Qaida," that "believes in the pursuit of Muslim states."

This was the group that killed Stevens, Wright said.

"I’ve given you the good news and the sobering news," Wright said. The "next decade is likely to be tumultuous," but "it doesn’t change what people ultimately want."

This, Wright said, was something Stevens understood.

Over 500 people listened to Wright’s speech in Lagerquist Concert Hall. There was a brief time for questions at the end of the lecture, before most filed into the Instrumental Rehearsal Room to sample Middle Eastern food and have Wright sign copies of her book.

Student response to the lecture was positive.

"The lecture was amazing," sophomore Danay Jones said. She said she appreciated Wright’s advice to see those who perpetrated 9/11 as individuals and not representative of "the whole culture or whole community."

Sophomore Andrew Larsen read Wright’s book through the Wang Center’s "Reading Group Challenge," a program that gave PLU faculty and students free copies of Wright’s book to read and discuss in a group.

"It [Wright’s book] really outlines both the new ways that people in the Islam world are trying to fight extremism," Larsen said, but also points out problems "we still need to work on."

Anne Stevens — the ambassador’s sister — encouraged PLU students to study abroad. Chris Stevens "was comfortable here [the U.S.], he was comfortable there [the Middle East]," she said. "He was a man of the international community, and that’s where we all need to be."