It’s been 21 years since al-Qaeda terrorists carried out 9/11. To what extent can that be traced back to a violent Islamist ideology which was spawned by four events in 1979 – 22 years prior? These events are discussed by Kim Ghattas in Black Wave.
First, on 16 January 1979, the Shah fled Iran and was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini two weeks later. In March, Iran became an Islamic Republic. A secular monarchy was replaced by a theocracy.
Iranians lost their civil liberties. Relations soured with the US. During the Shah’s tenure, many Iranians had come to the US for study. The religiously inclined returned home, thinking it would be an Islamic Utopia. A few were appointed to high positions in government, only to be removed later, sometimes brutally, when they challenged the mullahs.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s ambitions to emerge as the dominant authority on Islam in the world were revealed when he issued a death warrant against British-Indian author, Salman Rushdie.
Millions of Iranians found themselves trapped under despotic rule. Many fled the country. Today, many Iranians long for the days of the Shah.
Today, Iran’s foreign policy is driven by a strong anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi agenda. Iran has been funding militias in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen while at its own economy has tanked.
Second, on 16 July 1979, when Saddam Hussein became the president of Iraq. He was a man with unbridled ambition but limited intelligence. He allowed Iraqis to live freely as long as they did not threaten him politically. The fate of those who did was dire.
It was a question of time before he would take on neighboring Iran. The war lasted eight years and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands in both countries. Iraq, burdened with billions in debt from its Arab neighbors, occupied Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The US, fearful that Saddam would seize the oil fields of the Gulf, created a coalition of several countries and evicted Saddam from Kuwait in the Gulf War a few months later.
The Kremlin was concerned that the rise of fundamentalism in Afghanistan would spill over into their Muslim republics located in Central Asia
Third, on 20 November 1979 AD, the 1st of Muharram in the year 1400 AH, a few hundred heavily armed Islamists seized the Holy Mosque in Makkah in Saudi Arabia. They claimed that among them was the long-awaited Mahdi who was going to redeem Saudi Arabia by purging it of the corrupt royals who were running the country. The holy mosque remained closed for days. Finally, a group of French commandos put an end to the siege. The rebels who survived the assault were publicly beheaded.
The Saudi royals had learned their lesson. They had watched with horror what had happened earlier in Iran. The siege of the Holy Mosque ushered in a new religious fervour in the kingdom. The royals entered into a pact with the clerics and instituted a series of measures. Peoples’ lives would be governed by a strict and intolerant interpretation of Islamic Law. Since the clerics adhered to the Sunni interpretation of Islam, this set the kingdom on a collision course with Iran.
Fourth, on Christmas Eve 1979. when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Kremlin was concerned that the rise of fundamentalism in Afghanistan would spill over into their Muslim republics located in Central Asia, possibly lead to a splintering of the USSR.
These four events have long been forgotten. Kim Ghattas not only brings them back to life. She weaves them together, showing how disparate developments reshaped the region and seriously disrupted the world order.
Pakistan’s General Zia had become a global pariah when he hanged Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on April 4, 1979. After the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, he joined the US and Saudi Arabia in creating an Afghan guerilla force, the Mujahideen, that would wage holy war against the occupying infidels. Zia endeared himself to the West which gave him billions in aid. When he died in a mysterious plane crash on 17 August 1988, he was hailed as a lynchpin.
During his tenure, following the lead of the Saudi’s, he instituted strict Islamic laws in Pakistan. The country had been an Islamic Republic since 1956 when its constitution was approved — long before Iran became an Islamic Republic — but only in name. Zia put life into that name, reawakening the sectarian rift that had always existed between Shias and Sunnis. By reactivating the Blasphemy Law, he indirectly empowered the vigilante killing of anyone suspected of blasphemy. Such incitement led to the killing of Salman Taseer by one of his bodyguards.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, Arabs who had come to fight the communists from Saudi Arabia formed al-Qaeda, hoping to restore fundamental Islamic values in the Arab world. Osama bin-Laden, angered by the presence of US forces in the holy lands, attacked the “new crusaders” on their soil, expecting the US would then pull its forces out of the region. Au contraire, the West launched an unprecedented “War of Terror.” It deposed Saddam in just three weeks after launching the Iraq War in 2003.
Inadvertently, it handed the baton to Iran, which stepped in, knowing that two-thirds of the Muslims in Iraq were Shia. In the chaos, ISIS was born and it carried out sectarian killings on an unimaginably cruel scale. There were no winners. Iraqis began to long for the days of Saddam.
The USSR, which had sought to preserve its integrity by invading Afghanistan, withdrew in disgrace in 1989. It collapsed in December 1991. The US, which had gone in to depose the Taliban in 2001 left Afghanistan last year, returning the Taliban to power.
The book’s sweeping narration of history leaves a few minor and a few major questions unanswered. Among the minor questions: Was the Pakistani army involved in the US mission to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011? Was Zia murdered on 17 August 1988, and, if so, by whom? Why did the Arab Spring, that was so full of promise, end abruptly? Can MBS, the Saudi Crown Prince, who has seriously diminished the power of the clerics and other royals, and rules with an iron hand, survive for long?
Among the major questions: Did the Gulf War create al-Qaeda? Without al-Qaeda, would 9/11 have happened? Did the US decision to remove Saddam and engage in nation building create ISIS? If the Soviets had not invaded Afghanistan, would the Taliban exist today? Would Islamophobia exist in the West if al-Qaeda, ISIS and Taliban did not exist?
Perhaps Kim Ghattas will address these in her next book.