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.
The two countries had been friendly rivals until then, twin pillars in the American efforts to counter communism in the region. Then came the Iranian revolution. The House of Saud first praised the new leadership’s Islamic credentials and the adoption of the Koran as Iran’s constitution. But Riyadh soon sobered to the new reality: Khomeini, who emerged from the chaos of the revolution as its ultimate leader, had once described the Saudi royals as “camel grazers” and “barbarians.” More importantly, though a Shia, he had grand designs for leadership of the Muslim world, which is mostly Sunni. This provoked deep insecurities within Saudi Arabia, where the king is also the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites. The two-week-long siege against the Grand Mosque in Mecca had also deeply damaged the kingdom’s standing in the Muslim world: The House of Saud had failed in its role as custodian. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Riyadh grabbed the opportunity to restore its credentials by funding and supporting what was seen then as a righteous war against the communists, while simultaneously channeling the energy of young Saudi zealots outward to a foreign battlefield.
A destructive competition for leadership of the Muslim world soon began, in which Iran and Saudi Arabia wielded, exploited, and distorted religion in the pursuit of raw power. That is the constant from 1979 onward, the torrent that flattens everything in its path. Nothing has changed the Arab and Muslim world as deeply and fundamentally as the events of 1979.
Other pivotal moments undid alliances, started or ended wars, or saw the birth of new political movements. But the radical legacy of 1979 did all this and more: It began a process that transformed societies and altered cultural and religious references. The dynamics unleashed in 1979 changed who we are and hijacked our collective memory, reengineering vibrant, pluralistic countries from Egypt to Pakistan, as both Iran and Saudi Arabia worked to rally the masses to their sides with money, propaganda, and proselytizing.
Searching for the answer to this central question—What happened to us?—I traveled from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad. I was met everywhere with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt as though I were conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: Everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their life, their marriage, their education. Even those who were born after that year were affected. No one had asked them that specific question before, but there was a flash of recognition when I did, as though the disparate pieces of life events had suddenly come together and the puzzle finally made sense.
In Pakistan, the journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha told me that with so many momentous events in one year, it felt as though the sky had fallen to earth, and he pointed me to other events that year in his own country. Pakistan’s new dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, in power since 1977, had his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, executed in April 1979 and imposed Islamic law on a dominantly Sunni country, barely a day before Khomeini did so in Iran, a mostly Shia one. Zia was proud to beat Khomeini to it, one of many examples of leaders in the region trying to outdo one another on matters of religion. In Egypt, Ebtehal Younes, a professor of French literature and the widow of the progressive Islamic scholar Nasr Abu Zeid, told me it took her years to understand how 1979, the year Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, altered the trajectory not only of her country but also of her own life: It sent her and her husband into exile in the years that followed, as a wave of intolerance washed over Egypt and Abu Zeid was accused of apostasy.
The 1980s were defined by military conflicts: the Iran-Iraq war, which widened the schism between Iran and the (mostly Sunni) Arab world; and the ongoing war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which planted the seeds of violent jihad. Both helped turned the historical, theological divide between Sunnis and Shias into a modern-day weapon, by feeding sectarian divisions that led to a frenzy of sectarian violence that had previously not been the norm and that accelerated after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The 1990s were defined by culture wars born from the ashes of those battles, wars that played a defining role in reshaping the region. The opening salvo was Khomeini’s 1989 ruling that the novelist Salman Rushdie be killed for his book The Satanic Verses. The episode is remembered now only for Khomeini’s fatwa, but it actually began when conservative Sunni activists with connections to Saudi Arabia began a campaign against the book, with help from the Saudi embassy in London. The Satanic Verses had already been translated into Persian and was even on sale in Iran, but, eager to ride the wave of anger against the book, which had spread from India to Britain and back to Pakistan, Khomeini swept in with the fatwa, posing as the most righteous leader of the Muslim masses. His decision would have a tremendous impact on intellectual life in the Muslim world as religious intolerance rose and writers and artists faced increased accusations of apostasy, attacks, and assassinations. Even Egypt’s beloved Nobel Prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz barely escaped with his life after a knife attack in 1994.
The darkness that engulfed the region afterward was described by the Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine as a black wave that had come from the Gulf and swept the region, shrouding women in black as the use of the Saudi-style abaya and niqab, previously unknown in countries like Egypt, began to spread. Dozens of Egypt’s beloved and famed actresses gave up low-cut dresses and big hairdos to don the niqab, with encouragement and alleged payment from rich Saudis. In 1985, a small minority of books published in Egypt were of a religious nature. By 1995, 85 percent of books on show at the Cairo book fair were religious.
In Lebanon, the black wave came from Tehran, as Iran began to export its revolution. The chador, the all-enveloping black cloth, spread in Shia villages and in the southern suburbs of Beirut. It had been previously worn only by deeply conservative women, mostly wives of clerics. Liquor shops were closed; music disappeared; the black flags of mourning for Imam Hussein, one of the most revered religious figures in Shia Islam, fluttered from lampposts; and the slogan “We are all Khomeini” was scribbled on the walls of posh Beirut shopping streets. The flags, the chador, the niqab, the sectarian hatred, and the threats of apostasy all shaped a new collective consciousness that is only now being challenged by the younger generation.
I encountered another recurrent question on my travels, one that surprised me, one that young Saudis and Iranians in particular were asking of their parents: Why didn’t you do anything to stop it? In those countries from which the ripples had emanated and in which life had been blunted since 1979, there was resentment toward the generation that had allowed it to happen. For Iranians, 1979 is an obvious turning point in the country’s history. For them, it wasn’t so much the slow realization of what had happened, but more the growing disbelief at the naïveté of their parents and grandparents, who had cheered on a revolution that replaced the tyranny of monarchy with the even worse tyranny of religion. The new system was politically but also socially and economically repressive, effectively freezing the country in time and disconnecting it from the world, seemingly forever.
In Saudi Arabia, the changes were more a case of arrested progress. With a deeply conservative desert interior and more outward-looking coastal provinces, the kingdom had been inching toward more relaxed social norms, with the introduction of television, education for girls, and a handful of makeshift cinemas. But 1979 was an opportunity for the standard-bearers of the ultra-orthodox Islam of the kingdom’s founding fathers—often referred to as Wahhabism—to impose their understanding of religion more strictly and to do so on the whole country. Awash with cash during the 1980s, Saudis could travel anywhere to go to the cinema and the theater, sit in cafés, and shop freely if they wanted to escape the darkness engulfing their country. But now their children want to know why their parents hadn’t protested when the music was silenced, when the male guardianship system was tightened, when the religious police started scaling the walls of private homes if they heard music inside.
There was a brief moment in 2018 when it looked as though the two foes were going to compete to undo the damage of 1979: the Saudis from the top down, thanks to Mohammed bin Salman, a crown prince opening up his country to the 21st century; and the Iranian people from the bottom up, thanks to their own determination to chip away at the system. Instead, the existing competition continued unabated, as though nothing and nobody were equipped to dissuade the leadership of either country from its own worst instincts. Syria, Yemen, and Iraq paid the price, as proxy wars raged in all those countries. People who raised their voices against their respective leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia were also targeted. The most dangerous opponents were those who spoke softly and who presented the most credible alternative to the absolutism of the leaders—the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a hit team sent from Riyadh in October 2018; Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human-rights lawyer, was sentenced to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes for defending women campaigning against the mandatory-veiling laws.
The challenges are so immense, the dynamics seemingly so intractable, and the players so entrenched that it is easy to conclude there really is no way out. But Iran and Saudi Arabia have found their way to détente before. Before sectarian militias ran amok, there had not been systematic violence between Sunnis and Shias for centuries.
During my travels, I was humbled and even exhilarated as I interviewed leading activists, writers, clerics, and others who have fought for decades for more freedoms, more tolerance, more light. Their defiance is a source of hope, their steadiness contagious. These people are the past and the future, and they aren’t alone. They are not a Westernized elite, either. They are but a sample of a larger majority, which seizes every opportunity to reclaim lost space, cultural or political, and rise against the forces of darkness that have impoverished the region.
In October 2019, such a moment came in Iraq and Lebanon with the extraordinary protests against not only corruption and poverty but also sectarianism. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in both countries, almost in unison, for weeks on end. With music and dancing, with flowers, humor, and poetry, they let out a cry for life, braving bullets and beatings. The protesters declared their unity, across all social and sectarian divides, against those in power. In Lebanon, Sunnis in the northern town of Tripoli chanted in support of Shias protesting in the southern town of Nabatiyeh. In the Sunni city of Falluja, they held up banners to mourn the Shia protesters killed in the town of Nasiriyah. In Beirut, they chanted, “From Tehran to Beirut, one revolution that does not die.” There has been a growing anti-Iran aspect in the protests in Lebanon, targeted at Tehran’s proxy and ally, Hezbollah. In Iraq, the ire of protesters was directly aimed at Iran, and Shia clerics joined the marches to denounce Tehran’s influence while some demonstrators scaled the walls of the Iranian consulate in Karbala to hoist the Iraqi flag on its roof. Then protests erupted in Iran itself, a repeat of the 2009 and 2017 demonstrations. The response was brutal: The internet was shut off, and over the course of a few days at least 300 people were killed by security forces, many of them shot in the head.
The crackdown in Iraq, too, has been bloody, with more than 500 people killed. And one man who helped orchestrate the repression was Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. After he was killed in a U.S. strike in Baghdad on January 3, thousands of Iraqis celebrated the news. In Syria, too, they celebrated in towns that had suffered from the cunning wrath of Soleimani as he shored up the rule of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Iran appeared briefly united in mourning, or in fear of what might come next: another strike, another war. But there was also relief and quiet celebration at the demise of a man who not only had caused so much devastation in the region in Iran’s name but had also been key in the crackdown against protesters in Iran over the past years. After the killing, protests paused briefly in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, only to restart with even more fury and more violence.
Saudi Arabia’s regional influence and role manifest very differently. Aside from the war in Yemen, Saudi impact remains more nuanced, and more insidious. The country also has no proxy militias against which to protest, but it has plenty of strong-arming, money, media wars, and has done untold damage to people’s understanding of their own religion, as the kingdom has sought to impose its own narrow and intolerant understanding of Islam on millions of Muslims.
From invasions to coups and support for dictators, the actions of the U.S. have fed and aggravated local dynamics. But Saudi Arabia and Iran have agency, too; they make decisions based on their interests and drive the dynamics. This endless self-reinforcing loop of enmity cannot easily be broken, but across the region young Arabs and Iranians are clearly demonstrating that they want a different future.
What happened to us? So many people of my generation and younger in the region are still asking the question, wondering why our parents didn’t, or couldn’t, do anything to stop the unraveling. But memories of our more diverse, tolerant past are not lost. Neither is our willingness to re-create such a world, not out of nostalgia but out of a belief that a better future is possible, separate from the one imposed by the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia and their foot soldiers. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “It is perfectly true … that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”
This article is an adapted excerpt from Ghattas’s upcoming book, Black Wave.