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ART HOBSON: What happened to the Mideast?

Fundamentalist religion ruined everything by Art Hobson | May 12, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

The first sentence of Kim Ghattis' book Black Wave, a tragically beautiful post-1979 history of the Middle East, asks "What happened to us?" This haunting question, and the book's sub-title "Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the forty-year rivalry that unraveled culture, religion, and collective memory in the Middle East," summarize the book's essence. The title refers to the dark age that now engulfs the region.

This is not a "top-down" history of international affairs, foreign policy or terrorist organizations. It's a "bottom-up" chronicle of populist religious/cultural forces driving four decades of Mideast atrocities. It's a grim but fascinating read.

Ghattis, an award-winning journalist, covered the Middle East for the BBC and London's Financial Times. Born and raised in Lebanon, she knows and loves the region, is fluent in its languages and cultures, and has wide knowledge of its people. She's a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and lives between Beirut and Washington, D.C.

The book captures the sweep of history by knitting together, within each chapter, defining events in one or more nations over a limited time. For example, Chapter 2 studies Iran 1979-80; Chapter 19 studies Turkey and Saudi Arabia 2015-19. The recurrent theme is the Iran/Saudi rivalry that began with Iran's 1979 "fundamentalist" (referring to people who accept their religion's documents as literal truth) revolution and was fueled by the 14-centuries-old Sunni versus Shia religious squabble about Mohammad's proper successor. The book touches on events familiar to Americans, such as 9-1-1 and our Mideast wars, but its focus is on cultural dynamics within the Mideastern nations themselves.

The spectacle opens with three pivotal events in 1979: the revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power; the short-lived takeover by Islamic Sunni fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia's Holy Mosque in Mecca; and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. The Iranian revolution, initially supported by leftists, was soon co-opted by autocratic fundamentalist Shias. The Mecca attack shook the Al Saud dynasty and revealed the deadly power of ultra-orthodox Sunni Wahhabism. The Soviet invasion incited Islamic "soldiers of God" to their first modern international jihad. This conjunction had dire consequences.

To capture the book's feel, I will describe highlights from one typical chapter. Chapter 11, "Black Wave: Egypt 1992-95," quotes the words of poet Omar Khayyam: "... by dint of ignorance most crass ... glibly do they damn as infidel, whoever is not like them, an ass."

Farag Foda, a sincere liberal Muslim favoring a non-sectarian democratic government, was one of Egypt's most vocal secular intellectuals. In Cairo in 1992, he participated in a debate on "Egypt: a Civil State or Religious State?" Two Islamist scholars argued for Sharia law while Foda and a companion argued that Islamic-ruled religious states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia were failures. Foda's spectacular performance humiliated his opponents before an audience of 15,000.

Six months later, two hired guns on a motorcycle killed Foda by firing seven bullets into his back. The Arab world was shocked; thousands attended his funeral. Ghattis informs us that an Islamist who was detained but never charged with the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat had passed a message through his lawyers to recruit the killers. This "intellectual terrorism" was a turning point for Egypt. For the first time, hardline Islamists were distinguishing between "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims," and killing the latter. Chillingly, scholars at Cairo's famed Al-Azhar University condoned the sectarian violence, arguing that it was permissible for a righteous Muslim to perform this duty.

The murder was part of a larger regional trend. Iran's 1979 revolution ushered in a conservative wave in Egypt. The fraction of women wearing headscarves rose from 30 to 65 percent and a new phenomenon -- the full veil with slits for the eyes -- was adopted by many. Egypt followed Iran's and Saudi Arabia's lead by censoring books, condoning female genital mutilations and condemning women who didn't cover their hair.

Foda's assassination initiated a religious siege: Journalists, progressive writers, physicians and others were harassed, banned and assassinated. In 1985, 6 percent of Egypt's published books were religious; by 1995 this figure was 85 percent. In 1985 there was one mosque for every 6,000 Egyptians; by 2005 there was one for every 750. Ghattis writes "Religion took over everything, rapidly. ... Every second of people's lives became regulated by religious edicts, the search for heavenly salvation."

Nations of the Middle East will never govern themselves democratically so long as they are submerged under this black wave of religious fundamentalism.

Commentary on 05/12/2020

Print Headline: What happened to the Mideast?


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