1369-1421 AH 1950-2001 CE
IN MAY, 1967, Nasser began to spout martial rhetoric at Israel; to prove he meant business, he even blockaded Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Actually, of course, with seventy thousand of his best troops bogged down in Yemen, Nasser could not possibly take any real military action; but a man can talk. Talk, if it’s tough enough, will sometimes do the job.
And sometimes not. On June 5, without warning, Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria simultaneously. “Without warning” should be uttered with an asterisk here: Arab-Israeli tension had been ratcheting up for months. Yet none of the Arab states were expecting a war on that June morning; and none of them were ready.
In the first twenty-four hours, Israel destroyed virtually the entire Egyptian air force on the ground. In the next five days, Israel conquered all the territories penciled in by the United Nations as the state of Palestine. These became instead the Occupied Territories, ruled by Israel but populated mostly by Palestinians. By the seventh day, the war was over, and the world would never be the same.
You might think there can be no such thing as a triumph too decisive. And maybe not, in a conflict between two monolithic sides. But in 1967, when Israel won the most decisive victory in the history of modern warfare, it wasn’t clashing with a monolith. The Arab side was a querulous scramble of contradictions locked in struggle with one another.
The Six Day War humiliated Nasser, finished his career. Within four years the man was literally dead. If Nasser had really been the leader of a monolithic Arab bloc, his defeat might have forced “the Arabs” to come to terms with Israel and work out some basis for eventual peace.
But there was no “the Arabs.” Nasser was in fact just one contender among several for leadership of just one current among all who called themselves Arabs: secular modernism. When Israel attacked the Arabs, it really attacked only this current; and when it crushed Nasser, it damaged only this Westernizing, modernizing, secular, nationalist tendency, and not even every expression of that. With Nasser’s fall, down went “Nasserism,” that odd mélange of secular modernism and Islamic socialism. Into the power vacuum left by its demise flowed other, more dangerous forces, some of them more primal, more irrational.
In the wake of the war, the Arab refugees clumped along the borders of Israel gave up hope that any Arab state would save them and decided to rely only on themselves henceforth. These refugees, their numbers swelled to more than a million by the latest mayhem, could properly be called Palestinians at this point, because their intense shared historical experience had certainly given them a common identity and made them a “nation” in the classic sense. They were now the “people without a land” and among these Palestinians sprouted many groups dedicated to the restoration of Palestine by any means. The biggest of them drifted into a coalition called the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been founded in 1964 as a mechanism by which Arab governments could “manage” the Palestinians. After the Six Day War, Palestinians took control of this organization and made it their own. A part-time engineer and full-time revolutionary named Yasser Arafat emerged as its chairman 1, and with the PLO as their quasi-government, the Palestinians dug in for a protracted war with Israel. This was the first consequence of the Six Day War.
Second, the fall of Nasser created an opening for the other secular Arab nationalist movement, the one founded by Michel Aflaq. His party had joined with the Syrian Socialist Party to form the Ba’ath Socialist Party, the ideology of which combined state-glorifying socialism with Arab-worshipping nationalism. After the Six Day War, disgruntled army officers flooded into this new Ba’ath, giving the already unhealthy nationalist-socialist mixture a militaristic cast. What had started out as a fairly liberal, modernist movement, dedicated to women’s rights, equality for religious minorities, freedom of speech, civil liberty, democracy, literacy, and other such progressive ideals, now skewed sharply toward nationalistic developmentalism with totalitarian overtones. The Ba’ath credo boiled down to a shout of, “Our Nation! Our nation must develop factories, industry, bombs!” Even before the Six Day War, the Ba’ath Party had taken control of Syria; after the Six Day War, a second branch of the party seized power in Iraq and began to build a police state soon to be headed up by that take-no-prisoners dictator Saddam Hussein. Both Ba’ath parties had popular support at first, because the Arab citizens of their countries were frightened by Israel and wounded by the debacle of 1967; they were desperate for someone to restore their pride. But the glow faded as the middle-class masses in Syria and Iraq tasted life under the boot of an ideology that had nothing at its core but power. And this was a second consequence of the Six Day War.
The third consequence was the most ominous. The Six Day War marked a turning point in the general struggle between the secular modernists of the Islamic World and adherents of those other currents of Islamic thought and action coming out of the nineteenth century: Wahhabism and the various strains of political Islamism.
In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabis already had a state of their own. Though Egypt had a long claim to being the center of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia could bid for that status too, in part because it controlled the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Any weakening of Egypt added to Saudi Arabia’s power—and what power it was! Oil gave the Wahhabis wealth, and U.S. arms gave them military strength. With Egypt in disarray, Wahhabi clerics quietly began using their resources to fund missionary activity throughout the Muslim world, setting up religious schools, building mosques, appointing imams, and establishing charities that extended their reach into the lives of poor and rural Muslims everywhere, extended south into sub-Saharan Africa and east to the southern Pushtoons of Afghanistan, and on into Pakistan, where Wahhabi ideology already had millions of adherents.
Then there was the Muslim Brotherhood. When Nasser lost face in the Six Day War, the Egyptian masses simply abandoned him. They turned instead to the vast anti-Nasserite movement permeating their country. And now, the Muslim Brotherhood metastasized. The organization itself thrust beyond the borders of Egypt, into Syria, into Jordan, into the Arab emirates and the rest of Arab heartland. What’s more, the original movement began sprouting offshoots, each one more radical than the last. One such branch was Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, founded by a man named al-Zawaheri, who in turn mentored the now-infamous Saudi jihadist Osama bin Laden.
Some ideologues inspired by Qutb began to teach that jihad was not only “an obligation” for devout Muslims but the “sixth pillar” of Islam, on a par with prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, charity, and the creed of monotheism. A few extremists, such as Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, went even further and declared that participation in jihad was the only way to distinguish a Muslim from a non-Muslim: according to his doctrine, anyone who held back from armed struggle was fair game.2 These hardcore revolutionaries should properly be called “jihadists” rather than simply “Islamists.” Their ideology was plainly off the charts for the vast majority of Muslims, hardly even recognizable as Islam to most: it was a sliver of Islamism, itself a sliver of political Islam, itself one branch of Islam as a whole.
Overall then, what did the Six Day War accomplish? Israel gained the Occupied Territories. They were supposed to buffer the country against further attacks. Instead, within those same territories, Israeli authorities have faced ever-mounting insurgencies calledintifadas, to which they have responded with ever more brutal measures. Year after year and decade after decade, this strike-and-counterstrike syndrome has drained the nation’s energies and compromised its moral arguments in the world.
On the other side of the ledger, the war radicalized and “Palestinianized” the PLO, empowered the Ba’ath party, and energized the Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Jihadist splinters as the years went by, ever more extremist zealots who mounted increasingly horrific attacks not just at innocent bystanders who got in the way—a tragic byproduct of virtually all wars—but against anyone who could be gotten and the more innocent the better, the distinctive genre of violence known today as terrorism. In short, the Six Day war was a crushing setback for world peace, a disaster for the Muslim world, and not much good in the end even for Israel.
Such was the narrative that unfolded in the Arab heartland after World War II. Let me go back now and follow another thread of narrative further east, in the Persian heartland. There too a seminal event took place, almost as world-changing as the Six Day War, because it established, in the Islamic world, an image of the United States that has proved intractable.
It was only after World War I that Muslims really started taking notice of the United States, and their first impression was highly favorable. Right through World War II, they admired America’s sleek efficiency, its ability to pour out wonderful goods, its military strength, especially in light of the higher values the United States proclaimed—freedom, justice, democracy. They respected the American argument that its political system could save people of every nation from poverty and oppression. American idealists proffered democracy with something of the same ardor enjoyed by religious movements, making it a competitor to other world-organizing social ideas such as communism, fascism, and Islam. Religious Muslims may have rejected America’s moral claims, but secular modernist Muslims saw great hope in it, and found no inherent contradiction between American ideals and Islam as they understood it.
When Wilson’s Fourteen Points came to nothing, Muslims didn’t blame the United States; they blamed the European old guard. In the last days of World War II, American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt renewed America’s moral leadership by issuing (with Winston Churchill) the Atlantic Charter, a document calling for the liberation and democratization of all countries. Churchill later said he didn’t mean it, but American leaders never repudiated the charter. In fact, just after the war, the United States took the lead in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was issued by the United Nations, more proof, if any were needed, that America was committed to supporting political freedom and democracy everywhere.
All this looked very good to Iranians. In the wake of World War II they were ready to resume a project dear to the secular modernists among them: replacing dynastic despotism with homegrown democracy. Reza Shah Pahlavi had blocked this project for decades, but he was gone, finally: the Allies, the wonderful Allies, had removed him during the war for flirting with the Nazis. The stage was set for Iranians to restore their 1906 constitution, resurrect their parliament, and hold real elections: at last they could build the secular democracy they had dreamed about for so long.
With high hopes, then, Iranians went to the polls and voted a secular modernist named Mohammad Mosaddeq into power as their prime minister. Mosaddeq had pledged to recover total control of the country’s most precious resource, its oil, and accordingly upon taking office he canceled the lease with British Petroleum and announced that he was nationalizing the Iranian oil industry.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency immediately moved to stop “this madman Mosaddeq” (as U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles called him). In late August of 1953, a faction of the Iranian military carried out a bloody CIA-funded coup that left thousands dead in the streets and put Iran’s most popular political figure under house arrest from which he never emerged. In his place, the CIA restored the son of Reza Shah Pahlavi (also called Reza Shah Pahlavi) as the country’s king. The young shah signed a treaty with the United States giving an international consortium of oil corporations the job of “managing” Iran’s oil.
It would be hard to overstate the feeling of betrayal this coup embedded in Iran or the shudder of anger it sent through the Muslim world. Just three years later, Eisenhower’s intervention secured the Suez Canal for Egypt, but the United States reaped no public relations benefit out of it among Muslims: Nasser got all the credit. Why? Because the damage done by the CIA coup in Iran was too deep. Across the Islamic heartland and indeed throughout the once-colonized world, the conviction took hold that the imperialist project was still alive, but with the United States at the helm now, in place of Great Britain. From the perspective of the Islamic narrative, the history unfolding in Iran still revolved around the struggle between secular and religious impulses. How best to revive Islam, how to recover Muslim strength, how to cast off the weight of the West—these were the issues that drove events. But Iran was also part of the world narrative now, and that narrative revolved around the superpower competition for control of the planet. From that perspective, what shaped events were Cold War strategic considerations and the politics of oil. The same held true throughout the Middle World, and these two sets of issues continued to intertwine throughout Dar al-Islam to the end of the century.
East of Iran, the Cold War simply looked like the Great Game revisited. The differences were only cosmetic. What had been czarist Russia was now called the Soviet Union. The role once played by Great Britain now belonged to the United States. The dynamics, however, were the same: the intrigues, the pressures, the threat of violence, and the actual bloodshed.
The scale was bigger, though. The Great Game had unfolded along the line where the Russian Empire butted against the British one. The Cold War was driven by U.S. determination to block Soviet expansion around the world; and since new nation-states were emerging everywhere, and most of them had the potential to end up as either Soviet or U.S. allies, the line of scrimmage in the Cold War could be anywhere on earth. Every potentially disputed country could receive money and guns from both superpowers, one funneling aid to the government, the other to some anti-government insurgency, depending on which way that country tilted.
The core battlefield of the Great Game had been Iran, Afghanistan, and central Asia, and this region remained in play. The Russians of the nineteenth century had wanted to push south through Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf to secure a warm water port for their navies and shipping. The Soviets had the same interest, but with added stakes: geologists were now confirming that roughly 65 percent of the world’s petroleum lay under and around the Persian Gulf and in a few other Muslim countries of North Africa (and much of the rest of it, geologists would later find, lay in the Muslim countries of Central Asia, north of Afghanistan.) With global industrialization escalating off the charts, the significance of oil was still soaring.
Although oil had a huge political impact on the Muslim world, its social impact was probably even deeper. Ever since the 1930s, countries that had oil had been chipping away at the rapacious terms of those early leases. Every few years one or another of them had managed to renegotiate its agreements with foreign oil corporations and come away with incrementally better terms. By 1950, the “oil exporting” countries were generally receiving as much as 50 percent of the revenues from their oil, and from that time on considerable wealth began flowing into the region.
This sudden gush of wealth might have had a very different impact if only democratic institutions had emerged in the oil-rich nations before oil was discovered. With power distributed throughout society in these countries, with avenues of participation available to people of all classes, the wealth might have empowered the creative energies of millions and sparked a cultural renaissance.
But time and circumstances had permitted no such institutions to arise. These Muslim societies were haunted by memories of greatness lost. Their ruling elites were obsessed with developing the modern infrastructure they deemed indispensable to recovering that grandeur. They were desperate to catch up to the West and believed that only centralized states with a monopoly on power could do what needed to be done. They didn’t think they could wait for the necessary infrastructure to emerge organically nor could they afford to let their people find their way to modernization at their own pace and in their own way. Islamic societies were falling behind by the minute, and they needed the full physical infrastructure of modernity right now!
With oil, they could have it just that quickly. They could sell the oil and use the money to drop the desired infrastructure into place, boom. The wealth accumulated by the ruling elite of oil-rich countries is the stuff of legends, and it’s true that a tiny minority of Arabs and Iranians accumulated obscene wealth and squandered it as jetsetters frolicking in the resorts and casinos of the world, but the ruling elites of these countries did not merely pocket the money. They also directed vast sums of it into “development,” true to the secular modernists creed: that’s really the bigger story. In country after country, governments installed national school systems, built power plants and skyscraping office towers, established national airline companies, set up national television stations, radio stations, and newspapers. . . .
In one country after another, large scale development of this kind was carried out by the state and its functionaries, spawning a new class of educated technicians and bureaucrats to operate the machinery of the new modernism. This “technocracy,” as some have called it, was a salaried employee class: its money came from the state, and the state got it from foreign corporations that were pumping and selling the country’s oil. The state still collected taxes from farmers, herders, artisans, merchants, and others working in the traditional economy, but those revenues didn’t amount to much. The traditional economy just wasn’t that productive. Certainly, governments could not depend on that tax base to fund their ambitious development programs.
Once the ruling elite stopped depending on the traditional economy for tax revenues, they no longer needed allies in that world. Even in totalitarian dictatorships, the power elite have to propitiate some domestic constituency. But in these oil-rich Muslim states, they could diverge from the masses of their people culturally without consequence. The people they did need to get along with were the agents of the world economy coming and going from their countries. Thus did “modernization” divide these “developing” societies into a “governing club” and “everyone else.”
The governing club was not small. It included the technocracy, which was not a mere group but a whole social class. It also included the ruling elite who, in dynastic countries, were the royal family and its far-flung relatives and in the “republics” the ruling party and its apparatchik. Still, in any of these countries the governing club was a minority of the population as a whole, and the border between the governing classes and the masses grew ever more distinct.
People in the club were part of an exciting project, working to transform their country. Those outside the club were passive beneficiaries of a modernization that was simply happening to them. Suddenly a hospital might go up nearby: good, now they could get better health care. Suddenly a paved highway might appear nearby: good, now they could get to the city quicker. But people outside the governing club had no role in modernization for good or ill, no share in decision making, no voice in how the new money flowing into the country would be spent, no political participation in their country’s transformation.
They also didn’t get, as a by-product of modernization, enhanced power to realize their personal dreams and goals, whatever those might have been. In fact, even as oil-exporting nations got richer overall, those outside the “governing clubs” grew relatively poorer.
For most people, the only hope of claiming a stake in their own country was to go to a government school, do well, go abroad (ideally), get a degree, preferably in some technical field, and then break into the technocracy. Anyone who took this route probably ended up wearing a suit to work and living a life resembling that of people in the West. Their time was regulated by clocks, their family tended to be “nuclear,” their entertainment tastes might run to alcohol, nightclubs, opera. Their children might listen to rock and roll, date members of the opposite sex, and choose their own spouses.
Anyone who didn’t take this route probably ended up wearing the traditional garments of the society: pehran-u-tumban, shalwar kameez, sari, jelabiyyah, keffiyeh—whatever was traditional in a given country. Their daily schedule was shaped by religious rituals, and when they spoke of their family they would tend to mean a large network of relatives to whom they were bound by intricate obligations. Their spouses would probably be chosen for them by others, possibly a committee of relatives from which they themselves might be excluded.
Diplomats, businessmen, and other functionaries of the Western world would feel comfortable dealing with the folks who wore suits to work; they were culturally familiar. They might rarely interact with denizens of the other culture.
Those who wore suits to work had a good chance of living in houses with modern kitchens and bathrooms equipped with electricity and plumbing. Those who didn’t, ended up in houses with kitchen and bathrooms like those of their ancestors with informal plumbing and possibly no connection to a public sewage system. As an energy source, instead of electricity, they might use charcoal, wood, or some other fuel burned directly for heat and light.
The people within the nation’s governing club made money on a scale corresponding to that of the world economy. People in the left-behind, domestic economy generally had much smaller incomes, adequate perhaps to their needs in a village or an urban slum, but not enough to let them move out of poverty.
This whole dynamic was not limited to the oil-rich nations. A similar process was taking place in countries without oil, if they had strategic value as Cold War chips, and who didn’t? Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other countries that fit this definition got torrents of money from the superpowers as “development aid” designed to tilt them toward whichever side was doing the giving. Roads and hospitals, schools and airports, armaments and police equipment, whatever the ruling elite of a country needed, they could get the money for it in the forms of grants or loans from outside. It wasn’t oil money, but compared to the revenues generated by the traditional economies of these countries, it was lots of money. Aid like this relieved ever-more centralized states from depending on domestic taxes and their elites from having to please or appease domestic constituencies. It was money enough to spawn technocracies and divide societies into separate worlds.
The division into separate worlds was indeed so sharp that in many places it was visible to the naked eye. Every major metropolis from Casablanca to Kabul had in essence two downtowns: one was its Old City, perhaps dubbed its “casbah” or its “medina,” a downtown for citizens of the left-behind economy. Everybody there dressed quite differently from people in the other downtown, the modern one, where business was transacted with the world at large. The two downtowns smelled different; they had different styles of architecture; there was a different feel to the social life. All countries once colonized by Europeans had some such division perhaps, but it may have been most palpable in Muslim countries.
Of course it’s true that in Europe, too, the sudden changes wrought by the industrial revolution had divided societies into sharply separate classes. London had its sleek business center and its Cheapside, its posh neighborhoods and its slums, but there the division derived more strictly from the economic gulf: the rich ate better, dressed better, lived more comfortably, went to better schools, and used a more educated diction when they spoke, but they were just a richer version of the poor.
In the Muslim world, the difference was not just economic but cultural and therefore the gulf between the worlds fed alienation and produced a more anti-colonialist flavor of resentment, but against the nation’s own elite. This resentment led to occasional civil unrest. Since these culturally divided countries had no democratic institutions to mediate disputes, governments casually resorted to force to suppress disorder. The native elites took over the role of the one-time foreign colonialists. From Morocco through Egypt to Pakistan and beyond, prisons filled up with political dissenters and malcontents. Nowhere was the cultural and political tension more palpable than in Iran. Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had profited from Mosaddeq’s ouster, was a secular modernist in the Atatürk mold, but where Atatürk had been a fundamentally democratic man with an autocratic streak, the Shah of Iran was a fundamentally autocratic man with a totalitarian streak. He built a secret police outfit called SAVAK to consolidate his grip on the country, and as if just to salt his countrymen’s wounds, he signed a treaty with the United States giving American citizens in Iran complete immunity from Iranian laws—an astounding giveaway of sovereignty.
The shah’s tyranny energized a resistance movement that harkened back to the spirit of Sayyid Jamaluddin. Its leading theoretician, Dr. Ali Shariati was a Sorbonne-educated Muslim socialist intellectual. He crafted a vision of Islamic modernism that rejected what he called “Westoxification” and sought a basis for progressive socialism in Islamic tradition. Shariati said, for example, that Islam’s insistence on the unity of God expressed the need for human unity on Earth. In the modern era, the “polytheism” forbidden by Islam was embodied in the division of society into classes by wealth and race. According to Shariati, the three idols that Muslims pelted with stones during the Hajj pilgrimage represented capitalism, despotism, and religious hypocrisy. He tapped Islamic stories and traditions as fuel for revolutionary fervor, pointing for example, to Hussein’s uprising against Mu’awiya as a symbol of the human struggle for liberation, justice, and salvation: if Hussein could inspire a group of seventy-plus against a massive state, then a small underground revolutionary group of just a few hundred members had no reason to hold back from declaring war on the shah of Iran and the superpower that supported him.3
The Islamic socialist resistance incarnated as an underground group called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. From the midfifties until the Iranian revolution of 1978, this small group led the struggle against the Shah and fought a secret war against SAVAK. These Mujahideen-e-Khalq (sometimes called Islamic Marxists) bore the brunt of the executions, imprisonment and torture by which the shah hoped to crush resistance, and the cruelties these men and women endured beggar description.
At the same time, however, a very different sort of religious resistance movement was gathering steam in Iran, one that came out of the orthodox religious establishment as embodied by the grim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini.
Like the Wahhabis of Sunnism, Khomeini claimed that Muslims had fallen away from “true” Islam as understood from a literal reading of the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet and (because these were Shi’is) the imams who succeeded him. Khomeini attacked the Shah not for his despotism but for his modernism—for promoting the western dress code, favoring women’s rights, allowing nightclubs to be built in Iran, and so on.
Khomeini also tapped Shi’i tradition to construct a novel political doctrine: that government power properly belonged in the hands of the world’s single chosen representative of the Hidden Imam, a chosen one who could be recognized by his immense religious learning and the reverence that other learned scholars had for him. Such a man was a faqih, a leader with authority to legislate, and in the modern world, Khomeini suggested, he was that man.
The Shah deported Khomeini in 1964, but the stern cleric ended up in neighboring Iraq, from which base he directed a growing army of Iranian religious zealots loyal to him.
The Six Day War of 1967 had reinforced a Muslim belief that the United States headed a new imperialist assault on Muslim civilization with Israel as its beachhead. After all, Israel’s strength depended on U.S. arms and support. This conclusion was underscored in 1973, when Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, started a fourth Arab-Israeli war by attacking Israel during Yom Kippur, a solemn religious holiday in Judaism. This time, Egyptian arms and troops scored sweeping early gains, but Israel received a sudden massive shipment of weapons from the United States and this turned the tide; so Israel triumphed again.
As it happened, during this Arab-Israeli War, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was meeting to conduct its routine business of coordinating production and pricing policies. OPEC was founded in 1960, and of its twelve member nations, nine were Muslim countries. At the very moment that OPEC leaders were gathering to confabulate, the masses in their countries were marching and raging about the military humiliation Israel and the United States were dealing the Arabs. OPEC had not been particularly political up to this point, but at the 1973 meeting, its members decided to use oil as a weapon for striking back. They announced an embargo on shipments to countries that supported Israel.
That move sent a shock through the industrialized world. In Oregon, where I lived at the time, gas was quasi-rationed: people could buy it only on alternate days, their turn determined by whether their license plate ended with an odd or even number. I remember getting up long before dawn every other day that winter to secure my place in line at a local gas station for a chance at the scarce commodity. Sometimes, the gas had run out by the time I got to the pump. I thought I was seeing the end of civilization, and perhaps I was getting a foretaste of it; perhaps we all were. That OPEC embargo sent the price of oil skyrocketing from $3 a barrel to $12. As I write, oil is selling for about $130 a barrel.
Media backlash soon began constructing the now-familiar stereotype of Arabs as rich, oily, evil men with long noses, conspiring to rule the world. That stereotype closely, even eerily, matches the one constructed a hundred years early by European anti-Semites as a depiction of Jews, particularly an imagined secret Jewish cult called the “elders of Zion,” who were supposedly conspiring to, yes, rule the world.
The oil embargo did give the OPEC nations an intimation of their potential power. Although it lasted only a few months, it ended up increasing the oil-producing nations’ mastery of their own resource. Thereupon, the elites of these nations got even richer—which only exacerbated the division of Muslim societies into separate worlds, as described earlier.
Throughout this time, secular forces in Dar al-Islam went on struggling to “modernize” their countries while coping with international forces. But the submerged, even suppressed “other” currents of Muslim revival—the political Islamists, the Salafis, the Wahhabis, the Deobandis, the jihadists, et al—continued to thrive among the excluded people of the left-behind economies. There, they went on preaching that the world was divided into two distinct, mutually exclusive parts, a realm of peace and a realm of war, a realm of Muslim brotherhood and one of violent pagan greed.
The people they were preaching to could look about and see that, yes indeed, society was divided into whole separate worlds; it was palpable; you’d have to be blind not to notice. And when the jihadists went on to predict that an apocalyptic showdown was coming up between those who remained faithful to the letter of the revelations received by Mohammed in seventh century Arabia and those who had joined Satan in his quest to draw people away from God, people who lived in these blatantly divided societies knew what they meant: they woke up every day to the reality of their own growing impoverishment, even as their television screens showed them people just across town but living in a whole other world, rich beyond all fantasies. They thrilled to the idea of an apocalypse coming that would give them Earth and Heaven while knocking the undeserving Godless elite off their high horses.
And yet, until the 1970s, few in the West paid much attention to this explosive underworld of growing rage. The dominant Western narrative of world history said these left-behind folks were vestigial elements of a bygone era that would gradually disappear as developing nations became developed nations, as despotisms realized the errors of their ways and became democracies, as that universal panacea called education eliminated superstition and replaced it with science, as parochial emotion gave way to dispassionate reason. According to prevailing doctrines, the problem plaguing the left-behinds of the Muslim world (and of other regions) was not the social conditions in which they lived, but the wrong ideas they had. And then—the secular modernists of the Islamic world began to fall.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first to go. He was the urbane, Berkeley-educated prime minister of Pakistan, leader of the left-flavored, secular socialist People’s Party. In 1977, an Islamist general named Zia al-Haq overthrew him and imprisoned him. Soon, Pakistan’s Deobandis began howling for his head. A kangaroo court tried him for vague crimes, and sentenced him. Bhutto was hanged. Sayyid Qutb had suffered exactly the same fate in Egypt, thirteen years earlier.
The next to fall was the shah of Iran. In 1978, a coalition of secular leftists, Islamic socialists, and pro-Khomeini Shi’i revolutionaries drove him out of the country and for a moment it looked as if the Mujahideen-e-Khalq and their modernist allies would construct a progressive government in Iran based on their new ideology of Islamic socialism.
But Khomeini craftily out-maneuvered all other factions of the Iranian revolution. On November 4, 1979, a band of his student followers overran the American embassy and took sixty-six Americans hostage. Khomeini exploited the year-long confrontation with America to weaken his rivals and consolidate his grip.4 Then again, perhaps Khomeini’s success can’t be explained entirely by his spiderlike strategizing and political gamesmanship. Perhaps he won because he did indeed speak for the deepest impulse of the Iranian masses at that moment. Maybe that impulse wasn’t to correct the course of secular modernism but to kill all movement in that direction and give the Islamic Way another try. In any case, by 1980, Khomeini had transformed Iran into an “Islamic Republic” ruled by the most conservative clerics of Iran’s orthodox Shi’i ulama.
Next to go were the secular modernists of Afghanistan. Their demise began with a seeming triumph for an extreme version of the secularist impulse. A coup by a tiny group of Afghanistan communists smashed the dynasty Nadir Shah had founded in the 1920s. Every member of that clan who could not escape was killed. Then the Soviet Union invaded and took direct control of the country. But the leftward swing of the pendulum was momentary and meaningless; it only triggered an overwhelmingly more massive tribal and religious insurgency. The eight-year, anti-Soviet guerilla war that followed totally empowered the country’s Islamist ideologues. Not only that but the rural Afghan resistance attracted Islamist zealots from around the Muslim world, including jihadists from the Arab world and Deobandis from Pakistan, all of them sponsored by Wahhabi money from the oil-rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Among the many who tasted first blood in these battlefields of Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden.
In fact, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, Islam’s secular modernists saw their power erode almost everywhere. In Algeria, the secular government came under siege by the Islamic Salvation Party. In Palestine, the secular PLO gave way to the religious ideologues of Hamas. Islamic Jihad, another militant group rooted in religious ideology, gained a toehold in this region as well. In Lebanon, a series of devastating Israeli invasions emptied the Palestinian refugee camps along the southern border, destroyed Beirut, and drove the PLO to new headquarters in Libya, but this only spawned the radical Shi’i political party Hezbollah, which ended up as the de facto ruler of the country’s southern half and proved itself just as committed to destroying Israel as the ousted PLO.
In Syria and Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood (and its offshoots) fought a grim war with the Ba’ath Party, a war that went largely unnoticed in the West. The Ba’ath governments could not eradicate these Islamist insurgents despite horrific measures such as Syrian president Hafez Assad’s 1982 massacre of nearly all the people of a good-sized town called Hama.
Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq, was a Sunni secular modernist and a sworn enemy of radical religious Islamism. In 1980, directly after Khomeini took power, Hussein invaded Iran. Perhaps he considered the country ripe for the picking due to its internal turmoil; perhaps he had his eye on Iran’s oil; perhaps he felt threatened by Khomeini—as he had good reason to be: Khomeini blatantly announced his intention to export his revolution, and secular Iraq, with its large Shi’i population, was the obvious first market for this export. Whatever Hussein’s aims, his war proved catastrophic for both countries. Both lost nearly an entire generation of their young men and boys. Not since World War I had such vast armies met head to head nor had so many lives been squandered so casually for such trivial gains. And throughout this war, the United States funneled arms and funds to Iraq, bolstering its capacity to keep fighting to the last Iraqi, because the United States feared that the Soviets might gain ground in this strategic region, now that the United States had lost its foothold in Iran. Helping the Iraqis was a way to weaken Iran and possibly keep the Soviets at bay. Here again was a catastrophic intertwining of the Muslim and Western narratives, the one narrative still about secular modernism versus back-to-the-source Islamism, the other still about superpower rivalry and control of oil, though couched in rhetoric about democracy and totalitarianism.
The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 with no winners, unless you count Iran’s mere survival as a victory. Iraq certainly ended up in ruins, its treasury exhausted by the pointless bloodshed. Saddam Hussein licked his wounds for two years, and then, in 1990, he made a bid to recoup his losses. A double-or-nothing risk-taker if ever there was one, Saddam invaded and “annexed” neighboring Kuwait, hoping to add that country’s oil to his own. Apparently, U.S. ambassador April Gillespie had given him reason to believe the United States would back him in this venture too.
Instead, the United States led a coalition of thirty-four countries against its erstwhile ally in an assault code-named Desert Storm, a short war that destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure and culminated in the firebombing of Saddam’s pathetic draftees as they were dragging themselves back toward Basra on what came to be known as the Highway of Death. This time Iraq was absolutely, totally, and unambiguously defeated—and yet the war ended with Saddam Hussein somehow still in power, somehow still in control of his core military outfit, the elite Republican Guard, and still able to crush—as he savagely did—the rebellions that erupted in the wake of his defeat by the West.
After the war, the United Nations imposed sanctions that virtually severed Iraq from the world and reduced Iraqi citizens from a European standard of living in 1990 to one that approached the most impoverished on Earth. Incomes dropped about 95 percent. Disease spread, and there was no medicine to stem it. Over two hundred thousand children—and perhaps as many as half a million—died as a direct result of the sanctions. One U.N. official, Denis Halliday, resigned because of these sanctions, claiming that “Five thousand children are dying every month. . . . I don’t want to administer a program that results in figures like these.”5 Iraqis, who had suffered through so many years of deepening horror trapped in a war-mad police state, were now reduced to inconceivable squalor. The only sector of Iraqi society on whom the sanctions had little impact was the Ba’ath Party elite, Saddam Hussein and his cohorts, the very people the sanctions were intended to punish.
And in the east, the Soviets, who had invaded Afghanistan less than a year before Iraq invaded Iran, pulled out of Afghanistan less than a year after Iraq finally left Iran. The Afghan communists clung to power for another three years, but when they did at last go down, the entire Soviet Union was crumbling too, its empire unraveling in Eastern Europe, its constituent republics—even Russia—declaring independence until there was nothing left to declare independence from.
In America, conservative historian Francis Fukuyama wrote that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked not just the end of the Cold War but the end of history: liberal capitalist democracy had won, no ideology could challenge it anymore, and nothing remained but a little cleanup work around the edges while all the world got on board the train headed for the only truth. In fact, he offered this thesis in a book titled The End of History and the Last Man.
On the other side of the planet, however, jihadists and Wahhabis were drawing very different conclusions from all these thunderous events. In Iran, it seemed to them, Islam had brought down the Shah and driven out America. In Afghanistan, Muslims had not just beaten the Red Army but toppled the Soviet Union itself. Looking at all this, jihadists saw a pattern they thought they recognized. The First Community had defeated the two superpowers of its day, the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, simply by having God on its side. Modern Muslims also confronted two superpowers, and they had now brought one of them down entirely. One down, one to go was how it looked to the jihadists and the Wahhabis. History coming to an end? Hardly! As these radicals saw it, history was just getting interesting.
For years, they had been describing a world bifurcated between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. For years they had been predicting an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil, God and Satan, a great global battle to resolve all the contradictions and melt all factions into a single world, Medina universalized.
For the West, the end of the Cold War meant Afghanistan could be abandoned. There was nothing left to do there. The United States and its western European allies had pumped billions of dollars worth of arms and money into the country, but now they disengaged entirely, rejecting proposals from several sources that they sponsor some sort of conference, broker some sort of peace, help cobble together some sort of political process to help the country find its way back to civil order. CIA station chief Milton Bearden explained the reason for this sudden disengagement succinctly: “No one gives a shit about Afghanistan.” The tribal armies that had battled the Soviets fell to quarrelling over the country they had won with the arms they had scored. The Soviets had already destroyed the Afghan countryside. Now, the civil war among the various guerilla armies destroyed the cities. Foreign jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s swarmed back to make the rubble their base of operations for a war against the West.
Step one was erecting in Afghanistan a pure version of the community they envisioned, one in which every man, woman, and child lived exactly according to the letter of God’s law as they understood it or suffered the punishment. For this reason, jihadists, sponsored by Wahhabi money from Saudi sources, helped develop the Taliban, a party of primitive ideologues that emerged out of the refugee camps in that tribal belt that vaguely separates Afghanistan from Pakistan.
And eventually, some subset of the militant Jihadists holed up in the carcass of Afghanistan crafted a scheme to fly hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon headquarters in Washington, D.C.
On that day, September 11, 2001, two world histories crashed together, and out of it came one certainty: Fukiyama was mistaken. History was not over.