How 1979 Set Back the Islamic World

April 3, 2020 | Michael Totten
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A half-century ago, writes Michael Totten, the Muslim world was less repressive and the Middle East less riven by war and political disfunction than it is now. All of that changed in the fateful year of 1979, argues Kim Ghattas in her recent book The Black Wave, due to three events: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the siege of Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The second of these, which is also the least known, was a standoff between some 300 Islamist insurgents and the Saudi government, as Totten explains in his review:

In an effort to appease [this] armed insurrection, the Saudi government sharply reversed what precious little social progress had been made [in previous decades], and, in a revolution from above, transformed the country into an even more regressive and repressive place than it already was. The Saudi and Iranian governments, once grudging allies, became sworn, bitter enemies determined to export their own revolutions to the whole Muslim world, across the Middle East and beyond, including to Afghanistan, which coincidentally had just been invaded by the Soviet Union.

The results can be seen in the chaos in Syria and Iraq, the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen, and elsewhere. Nor has the Jewish state been spared, adds Totten:

The Iranians have . . . chosen to back non-Shiite Palestinian militias and terrorist organizations not because the ayatollahs have any warm feelings for the drinkers and womanizers in the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Sunni fundamentalists of Hamas, but because the Iranians, as Shiites and Persians, hoped to win support as the hegemons of a Sunni Arab-majority region by hitching a ride on the anti-Zionist train, a move that was particularly effective after Egypt had betrayed that cause by signing a peace treaty with Israel. “Who would wipe the shame from the forehead of Arab men now?” Ghattas asks rhetorically.

For more than a decade now, every Arab state but Syria has inched closer to a cold peace with Israel. But Iran and its proxies soldier on, even though the Palestinian cause has always been foreign to Iranians, one that barely registered as a blip before the 1979 revolution, when Iran and Israel were still allies.

Moreover, Ghattas’s account gives the lie to some of the enduring myths about the roots of Middle Eastern disfunction:

Those who choose to blame the Arab-Israeli conflict or American foreign-policy blunders for most of the Middle East’s ills are drastically wide of the mark. Syria’s civil war, which scarcely involves Americans or Israelis and emphatically involves the Saudis and the Iranians (and the Russians), exposes the blame-America and blame-Israel crowds as the blinkered fools that they are. Ghattas barely touches on this in her book, but she doesn’t have to. It’s obvious.

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