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An alternative Middle East

In 1979 the forces that have left the Islamic world in chaos were unleashed – but it didn’t have to be that way then, or now.

We live in an age of amnesia, where what the American cultural theorist Fredric Jameson calls depthlessness is taken for exercise of virtue. The past is no longer a prelude to the present. Instead it serves up patterns for pasticheurs, constantly gesturing towards a meaning that never quite arrives. 

The Middle East peace plan recently proposed by Donald Trump is a startling example of this bricolage. By some crude alchemy, the entire Arab-Israeli conflict – which exists as collective memory as much as anything else – is misremembered, flattened and commodified into cash and construction contracts. But without a sense of why and how a given conflict exists, any attempt at resolution is meaningless. The invasion of Iraq was another example of this historical deafness. It wasn’t so much that the Blair government didn’t do God but that neither it nor the Bush administration did history. Islamists – exemplary postmodernists that they are – pull the same trick. They don’t aestheticise as much as sacralise the past in the interests of an eternal, transcendental and narcissistic present.

The same applies to many of the ways in which we construe other apparent calamities of the modern Middle East: tribalism, sectarianism, the rise of ethno-nationalisms, the mirage of an Islamic state, the Islamist Kulturkampf and the self-serving construction of elite legitimacy, which for a century has been at the heart of conflict in the post-colonial Arabo-Persian world. None of this is preordained or the result of “age-old” enmities. The history of the modern Middle East is, like all histories, contingent and dialectical. The distorting effect of empire – Ottoman as well as European – has been profound. But so has the agency of indigenous actors and their rationing of cultural, social, economic and political capital.

There are multiple alternative histories that could be written about these processes, pointing to a variety of possible futures, not just the one in which we find ourselves today. There is a history, for example, of a secular moment in the region; of the class struggle in the Arabian peninsula; of the power of communist and leftist movements in Egypt, Iraq and Iran; of feminism of all sorts; and of what might have happened if modernity had taken a different turn, towards genuinely pluralist and inclusive nation-building rather than mystic militarism or the constructed sectarian, confessional and ethnic competition fostered by authoritarian and often obscurantist elites. 

This is the story that Kim Ghattas, the Beirut-born former BBC and Financial Times journalist now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells in her new and profoundly moving book. She focuses on a single year, 1979, because that was the moment the earth moved politically, not just in the Middle East but across the Islamic world. 

In Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini triumphed after the final flight into exile of an already critically ill Shah, and a revolution that had begun, as all revolutions do, with the promise of pluralism was vengefully hijacked. In Saudi Arabia, Mecca’s Masjid al Haram, the most sacred mosque in Islam, was dramatically seized by the fanatical former National Guardsman Juhayman al-Otaybi and his millenarian gang, intoxicated with visions of the end days. In Syria, an Islamist insurgency that had begun in 1976 spread to urban areas and started to accelerate towards its bloody end in Hama in 1982 – an early warning of the Syrian regime’s endless capacity for brutality. In Pakistan, the new and ostentatiously pious President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq engineered the execution of his progressive predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom he had overthrown in a military coup only two years earlier. To cap it all, at the end of December the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. 

These events precipitated the Iran-Iraq War; the emergence of Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and a newly radicalised Shia movement in Iraq; the assassination in Cairo of Anwar Sadat, who had given the Shah sanctuary; the rise of the violent revolutionary groups known as al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya in Egypt and their analogues in Pakistan; and the first expeditions of the Arab Afghans and the development of takfiri ideologies that would lead to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State. 

They were followed by Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon; a protracted and murderous terror in Iran; and a destabilising if ultimately unsuccessful effort to export the Iranian Revolution throughout the Gulf, in the interests of a heterodox theocratic doctrine that made Khomeini the supreme arbiter of all things. In response, there was a huge surge in Saudi funding for the global export of their version of Salafism – the most austere and forbidding form of purist Sunni Islam – which the Saudis and their ancestors had sought to impose by the sword on the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Iraq since the 18th century. These were the years in which the seeds of the whirlwind were sown. We in the West did not particularly do this ourselves, but we often abetted those who did the sowing. What fools we were. 

More importantly, we should have seen what we were losing. There was another Middle East all the time, which Ghattas captures vividly. The Middle East of the Arab Awakening. Of the Lebanese novelist and feminist Layla Ba’albaki. Of Umm Kulthum, the daughter of an imam, with her swooping and hypnotic songs of faith and longing. Of the great Lebanese contralto Fayrouz, who sang of Beirut, Lebanon and the lost world of al-Andalus. Of the radical poets of Syria and Palestine, Nizar Qabbani and Mahmoud Darwish. And, from an earlier generation, of Taha Hussein, the blind prophet of Arab modernity, and the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. 

There was the Middle East of the murdered Farag Foda, a combative and eloquent advocate of the separation of religion and politics, and the forcibly exiled academic theologian and hermeneuticist, Nasr Abu Zeid and his wife, Ebtehal Younes – all three proud Egyptians who fought against intellectual closure even as the shadows fell. Of the once great universities and thriving modern art of Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. 

There was the Middle East of all the other progressive Arab thinkers, chronicled by Georges Corm in his Pensée et Politique dans le Monde Arabe and Jens Hanssen and Max Weiss in their Arabic Thought Against the Authoritarian Age. They trod in the footsteps of the great Albert Hourani, the first modern chronicler in English of the revival of Arabic liberal thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And there was the Middle East seen through the complex and contingent prism of Iranian oppositional thought – from the Constitutionalists of 1905-09, aided and abetted by the extraordinary Cambridge Orientalist (before the word became disreputable) Edward Browne, through the philosopher-theologians Ali Shariati, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad and the revisionist Abdolkarim Soroush, to the exiled feminist Masih Alinejad, who has travelled from a small, conservative village near the Caspian Sea to New York City, where she will not be silenced. 

This is a history made more urgent by the need to reverse our own illiteracy about the region. Ghattas tells the story chronologically but also thematically and through the intertwined stories of key individuals, such as Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Alinejad and the late Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist assassinated in Istanbul in 2018, whose personal trajectory from romantic Islamist to progressive if sometimes confused Muslim is emblematic of the period. She also uses the contorted relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran to structure the narrative, in all its rhymes and dissonances. 

This brings us to now. The population of the Middle East and North Africa has more or less doubled since I first went there in 1981, only two years into the period Ghattas describes. And it is young. The median age across the region is around 27 – ranging from 19 in Sudan to early thirties in Iran, the UAE and Qatar. Anyone of that age will have little personal memory of many of the events Ghattas chronicles – and therefore nothing invested in the old, failed ways. But they know how the story ended and they want something better. 

We glimpsed this in the Arab Spring, when popular anger was hijacked by Islamists and authoritarians. We trace it in the consistent findings of the Arab Youth Survey and the Arab Barometer research network. And we see it clearly in the demands of demonstrators – young women and men, Muslims and Christians together – in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria, and their contempt for their elders, whose only achievement was to build prisons of the mind. 

Commentators get excited by dramatic events such as the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani last month. But these are theatrical distractions. What really matters is how old illusions are being shattered and a new history remade at street level and in the minds of brave and determined individuals in Baghdad, Nasiriyah, Tehran, Beirut, Algiers – and, too often, in exile. This is an Arab, Iranian, Kurdish, Berber and Pakistani story before it is anything else.

Ghattas ends her book on a note of optimism: the ordinary people of the region are demanding to be heard. They are also by implication demanding an end to reductive accounts of the inevitability of oppression and violence. It would be a mistake to think that entrenched elites will surrender power easily. We know this from Iran and the political farces currently being played out in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Day by day, we see the old order doing all it can, by jerry-mander, delay or simply violence, to remain in power, whatever the people say they want. But the one thing we should have learnt from the past decade is that this youthful energy and rage will not just disappear. Too many people now know they are not alone.

What Ghattas does best in illustrating all this is to bring a focus that is broad but also deep. She weaves together multiple strands – Arab, Iranian, Pakistani, male and female, young and old – from across the wider region over decades into a story with historical but also real personal resonance. Others have covered some of this terrain before – Fouad al A’jami in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, for example, or, in a different way, Roy Mottahedeh in his wonderfully elegiac account of the coming of the Iranian Revolution, The Mantle of the Prophet. But Ghattas has a wider and more contemporary sweep. There is a simmering anger not far below the surface of her book. It is a gripping tale. It is a tract for our times. Read and weep. But also, like Ghattas, allow yourself to hope. 

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East 

Kim Ghattas
Wildfire, 400pp, £20

John Jenkins is a former UK ambassador to Libya and Saudi Arabia

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose