What happened to us? The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra. You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country, Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings. It is a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars.
Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise. What happened to us? The question may not occur to those too young to remember a different world, whose parents did not tell them of a youth spent reciting poetry in Peshawar, debating Marxism in the bars of Beirut, or riding bicycles on the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad. The question may surprise those in the West who assume that the extremism and bloodletting of today have always been the norm.
Without an understanding of what was lost and how it happened—and, crucially, why the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran played such a crucial role in this unraveling—a better future will remain elusive, and the world’s understanding of the Middle East will remain incomplete.
There are many turning points in the region’s modern history that could explain how we ended up in these depths of despair—from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. None, on its own, paints a complete picture. Instead, I look to 1979, when three major events took place: the Iranian Revolution, which culminated in the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in February; the siege of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Saudi zealots in November; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, the first battleground for jihad in modern times and an effort supported by the United States. These acts occurred almost independently of one another, but the combination of all three was toxic, and nothing was ever the same again. From this noxious brew was born the Saudi-Iran rivalry.