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. [Continue reading…]