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The Unravelling of the Muslim World: Ghattas Insists Her Progressive Heroes Represent ‘The Silenced Majority’

By David D. Kirkpatrick

Jan. 28, 2020


Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

By Kim Ghattas

Ayatollah Khomeini raised no objection when Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” was translated into Farsi and first sold in Iran — not until Saudi Arabia started to campaign against it. The Saudis, jealous of their claim as guardians of Islam, caught wind of the allegations of blasphemy in the novel soon after its publication. The Saudi Embassy in London organized a push to ban the book. Muslims demonstrated in Bolton and Bradford. Then a Pakistani Islamist group staged a copycat protest in Islamabad, where security forces killed five and injured 80.

That is when Ayatollah Khomeini heard the news and one-upped the Saudis. The ayatollah did not just call for a ban. He ordered Muslims everywhere to execute Rushdie or anyone else involved in the book’s publication. The Japanese and Turkish translators and the Norwegian publisher were assassinated as the ayatollah had instructed.

How did the Saudis respond? Beaten to the fatwa, Saudi religious authorities could object only to the process. They proclaimed that Saudi religious courts should have been the ones to try and sentence Rushdie for blasphemy in absentia — not some upstart Persian pretender.

The holier-than-thou intolerance race that produced the Rushdie fatwa is one of many deadly episodes recounted by Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese-born journalist and scholar, in her sweeping and authoritative history, “Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unravelled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.” Although Rushdie survived, Ghattas argues that his death sentence was a milestone on a dark road to the killing of other intellectuals as apostates — from the liberal Egyptian thinker Farag Foda in 1992 to the liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer in 2011. “Death by blasphemy had now been introduced to the Muslim world,” Ghattas writes, “by a strange twist in the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia to position themselves as the standard-bearer of global Islam.”

Ghattas has set herself an ambitious task. She wants to explain much of the chaos that has convulsed the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the last four decades — the Iran-Iraq war, the upheavals in Afghanistan, the assassinations in Pakistan and the civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. She argues convincingly that these conflicts are all in some ways fallout from the fierce competition between two parallel “Islamic revolutions” in the annus horribilis of 1979.

Americans remember the revolution in Tehran, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, turned back decades of social liberalization in Iranian society and triggered the capture of more than 50 hostages in the United States Embassy in Tehran. Ghattas, though, gives equal weight to a more obscure uprising that unfolded just a few months later across the Persian Gulf in Mecca, when a band of Saudi militants seized the Grand Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Faced with a devastating challenge to its credibility as the divinely sanctioned custodian of Mecca’s holy places, the Saudi royal family was forced to rely on a team of French commandos to recapture the mosque. Dozens died in a blood bath. Then, to try to restore its authority while at the same time papering over the embarrassment of the French intervention, the royal family redoubled its historic reliance on the kingdom’s puritanical religious establishment as the source of its legitimacy.

The highest Saudi religious authority of the day — Abdelaziz bin Baz, a legendary blind cleric whose vision of Islam was no less medieval than that of the ayatollah’s — extracted a high price for blessing the French commando operations. He used his new leverage “to force the royal family to live up to the Islamic ideals that he felt they had let slip,” Ghattas writes. “He drove a hard bargain that would haunt the kingdom and the whole region for decades; a bargain that would make Saudis feel that time had stopped in its tracks.”

After 1979, the Saudi authorities removed women from television newscasts, blotted out the faces of women in newspaper photographs and cracked down on the already forbidden practice of women’s employment. Beach clubs and cinemas were closed. The religious police — the so-called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — were showered with funding and newly empowered.

The consequences are personal for Ghattas, who still lives at least part time in Beirut. “What happened to us?” she asks on behalf of the people of the Arab and Muslim worlds. “The question may not occur to those too young to remember a different world, or whose parents did not tell them of a youth spent reciting poetry in Peshawar, debating Marxism late into the night in the bars of Beirut or riding bicycles to picnic on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.” She reminds readers of how almost unimaginably different the region once was, recalling the seaside garden of abstract sculptures by Henry Moore, Joan Miró and other modern artists that a daring mayor once assembled in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Too many in the West, she insists, wrongly attribute the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran to age-old theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites. Sectarian animosities are described as “inevitable and eternal,” and then blamed for pulling apart Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other areas of the region.

Ghattas’s narrative upends this Western misconception. Instead of feuding over theology, Ghattas shows, Saudi Arabia and Iran transformed latent religious divisions into weapons wielded in the pursuit of political power, by cultivating and often arming sectarian militias across the region. “Before it was weaponised in the years following 1979, the Sunni-Shia schism lay mostly dormant,” Ghattas notes. Minorities like the Alawites of Syria or the Zaidi of Yemen had coexisted more or less peaceably throughout the area. And even after 1979 the hard-line rulers of Iran and Saudi Arabia have sometimes overlooked sectarian disagreements in the interest of political expedience, sometimes pursuing short-lived phases of rapprochement with each other.

Ghattas tries to pinpoint the first moments when the Saudi and Iranian religious rivalries exploded into violence. In the summer of 1987, for example, the Saudi- and American-backed Islamist strongman who ruled Pakistan became the first modern ruler to deploy one sectarian militia against another: A two-week battle in the district of Kurram near the Afghanistan border killed 52 Shiites and 120 Sunnis and left 14 villages all or partially destroyed. It was “the first premeditated, state-sponsored attack by one sectarian militia against another sect, the first such killing that the Muslim world had witnessed in modern times,” Ghattas writes. A car bombing in Najaf, Iraq, in 2003, after the American invasion, was the first time since a Saudi raid on Karbala in 1801 that Sunni Arab fighters “had specifically set out to kill Shias.”

Ghattas tells many of these stories through the eyes of myriad individual men and often women who spoke out in one way or another against the post-1979 conservative turn in the region — “all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave.”

The Iraqi television correspondent Atwar Bahjat, for example, raced back to her hometown, Samarra, in 2006 to report from the scene of a bombing. “Whether you are Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd,” she declared in her broadcast, “there is no difference between Iraqis, united in fear for this nation.” Gunmen came looking for her within 30 minutes. Her bullet-riddled body was found the next day.

Ghattas insists her progressive heroes represent “the silenced majority.” They are “the past and the future.” Yet most have ended up killed or in exile. The last of her heroes is the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assassinated in Istanbul by Saudi thugs in 2018.

Original Headline:  The Unraveling of the Muslim World

Source: The New York Times