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Summer 2020

What Happened to Us?

The story of the modern Middle East seen through the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I

n the fall of 2017, I moved to the United States to start a PhD in History and Middle Eastern studies. I loved my department and had many friends, but my closest friendship was with a Turkish student. My bond with Eylul (let’s call her that) was based on our common allegiance to the traditions of the socialist left in our region. I had grown up in Iran and she in Turkey; the former the most stringent theocracy in the world, the latter the most constitutionally secularist regime in the region. Despite this obvious divergence, the histories of our respective nations were intertwined. Iran’s 1979 revolution had led to an oppressive Islamist regime that murderously suppressed the left and curtailed liberties. The 1980 coup in Turkey was a strong blow to the left and helped cement the rise of the unholy alliance that has come to rule Turkey ever since: the pact between Islamist conservatism and free-market capitalism best represented by Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Eylul and I loved exchanging notes on the good, bad, and ugly of our societies and their many commonalities: the hypocrite Islamists whose real god was their bank accounts; the bravery of feminists who stood up to the social conservatism of Islamists and their anti-women agendas; the heyday of the left, in the generation of our parents, where Maxim Gorky and Bella Ciao were as trendy as Beyonce today. We would spend countless hours mining YouTube for videos from that bygone world: The 1978 concert that the Turkish diva Ajda Pekkan gave in Tehran, singing her French-language hit A Mes Amours for the enthused Iranian audiences; the daringly racy music videos of Turkish singer-songwriter Tarkan who dominated the 1990s in both of our countries. This was not shallow nostalgia, but rather a conscious lament for a more open world that had been destroyed; a lament we share with so many hailing from the Muslim world. Distinct as our timelines and struggles were, the ailments that dog our societies have strong similarities, whether we come from Istanbul, Tehran, Cairo, or Karachi.

Kim Ghattas’s Black Wave is an investigation into the causes and history of this common ailment. It starts with a pithy question that best sums up the sentiment shared by me and my Turkish friend: “What happened to us?” She writes:

“‘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 of Lebanon.”

For Ghattas, just like for me and Eylul, the starting point is viscerally personal and instantly recognizable. If you know, you know. “For us, the past is a different country,” she explains, “one that is not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings; a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars.”

What exactly changed and how? How did we get to the world of today? The book’s subtitle already offers much of the writer’s answer: “Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the forty-year rivalry that unraveled culture, religion and collective memory in the Middle East.” Ghattas takes us back to three fundamental events in “the fateful year of 1979”: the Iranian revolution and rise of the theocracy in Tehran; the siege of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia by Sunni Salafists; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the multinational Islamist insurgency that it unleashed. From this, she patiently constructs a narrative that shows us how the progressive hopes in the region were dashed and fundamentalist zealotry gained the upper hand.

Crucially, she does so from the perspective of the men and women who stood up to these dominant trends; Ghattas is a journalist, not an academic historian, and the book is based on interviews with those whose personal journeys illuminate the decades-long process. Decrying the “obsessive focus” of Western media on fundamentalists, sectarians, and terrorists, Ghattas is here to bring us “the untold story of those who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979.”

The result is a lively, courageous account teeming with protagonists who are “most devout, some secular, but all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave.” This very line, and the fact that many of Ghattas’s intellectual heroes are devout Muslims, betrays a nuance overlooked in other writers’ accounts, which imagine a simple confrontation between Islam and secularism. Whether sympathetic to the former or the latter, they miss the central point: the major struggle has not been between those inside Islam and those outside it. Instead, the previously existing pluralism and cultural effervescence of Muslim-majority societies was shattered by a complex combination of internal and external forces.

The book opens in Beirut and Paris, both “cities of sin and freedom” which ironically helped give birth to Khomeini’s theocratic republic.

The Beirut of the late 1970s is significant to the story because it was one of the last settings where Middle Eastern Marxists and Islamists could still occasionally collaborate. The (Muslim) ‘brothers’ still relied on the (Marxist) ‘comrades,’ not least when it came to a defining cause of the era: the Palestinian struggle. Iranian revolutionaries, Lebanese Shia leaders, and PLO fighters were all fixtures of 1970s Beirut, and they helped catapult Khomeini to power in 1979. With its throngs of masses on the streets, the Iranian revolution excited not just the Shia downtrodden of Lebanon but French intellectuals like Michel Foucault. Revolutionaries wondered if the waning wave of Arab and European revolution was now being saved by a Persian revival. That’s surely what motivated Yasser Arafat to rush to Tehran in early 1979, a trip which Ghattas narrates in fascinating detail. Arafat was soon to be disappointed, but he was luckier than Khomeini’s Iranian allies. The theocratic republic he built not only disappointed his fellow travelers, it eliminated many of them. No sin, freedom, or dissent was to be allowed in the realm of Iran’s self-declared philosopher-king. The comrades were out.

While the Islamist assault on the left is a major theme of the book, Ghattas does little to analyze its Cold War dynamics (in the conclusion, she says this is to recognize the agency of the two big actors of her narrative, Tehran and Riyadh, a good corrective to the American-obsession of other accounts.) But her story is not simply socialism versus Islamism either — we have a more multifaceted tale. Ghattas makes us privy to the experience of a Saudi architect who painfully watches the destruction of cultural heritage in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina because the buildings are not to the liking of the clerics who prop up monarchical rule in Riyadh. A Pakistani female TV anchor stands up to US-backed dictator Zia ul-Haq and his Islamist-fueled tyrannical rule. Readers are led both through the streets of Tehran, where defiant women join a campaign against the compulsory hijab, and through the blood-filled battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Syria, petri dishes for globalized Shia and Sunni sectarianisms.

***

Although it covers most of the Middle East, one country is largely absent from Ghattas’s narrative: Israel.

This is a major oversight. Could the “black wave” that Ghattas writes about have arisen without the opportunistic use of the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether by Ayatollah Khomeini or Osama Bin Laden? When all else fails, an irrational hatred of Israel is a safe rallying cry for reactionary forces across the Middle East.

Writing in 2008, the Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy sparked outrage when, borrowing from Karl Marx, she called hatred of Israel the Arabs’ “opium of the masses.” She pointed how the Egypt of Husni Mubarak (yet to be overthrown in the Arab Spring) maintained its peace treaty with Israel while still unleashing “state-owned media fury at Israel that has fanned a near-hysterical hatred for the country among ordinary Egyptians.” She decried that there was “absolutely no space in Egyptian media or intellectual circles for discussing Israel as anything but an enemy.” Eltahawy can hardly be accused of being pro-Zionist. In 2012, she was arrested when she tore down a racist pro-Israeli advertisement in the New York subway. The taboo-breaking activist was merely stating what is obvious to any observer of the region: opposition to Israel is the time-honored tool employed by Arab regimes to hide their own inadequacies. Unraveling the “black wave” is impossible without a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world.***

Where does this narrative leave Mohammad Bin Salman, the headline-grabbing crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a man determined to change ways in one of the twin centers of Black Wave? It is impossible not to notice that at least some of what fuels MBS’s crushingly fast process of change is related to the question asked by Ghattas: What happened to us? We hear that one of Ghattas’s protagonists, feminist lawyer Sofana Dahlan, “wanted to believe that Mohammed bin Salman was the hero that her generation had long been waiting for.” MBS’s ending of the decades-lasting ban on women driving, his re-opening of cinema and concerts, and his ferocious assault on the religious conservatism of the kingdom has done much to unravel the Saudi legacy of 1979. But is this all that Sofana was hoping for?

Written by New York Times correspondent Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman is a history of the present; the story of the emergence of the 34-year-old royal who has done more to change his country than any other leader in decades. Like most American journalists, Hubbard is not much interested in the history and scholarship that could help place the rise of MBS in perspective. But some of the basic insights he offers—found in the early chapters of the book on MBS’s adolescence — are crucial in understanding the young prince. Hubbard contrasts the prince with many other young Saudi royals, including his own half-brothers, known for “jet-setting lives and filling their resumes with businesses and foreign degrees.” MBS, Hubbard tells us, had a “profoundly different” trajectory: “largely domestic and deeply Saudi.” These are the qualities that helped him get to the top in Riyadh and out-maneuver rivals in the complex structures of Saudi power.

Many of MBS’s reforms are common sense to Middle Eastern youth. Although the phrase can sound hackneyed to many ears, in the Saudi case, the reforms are quite literally bringing the country into the twenty-first century. MBS is ending practices which are indeed rare, if not non-existent, elsewhere today: from the ban on women driving and cinemas to punishments such as flogging (which has been ended since the book went to print). But how is it all being achieved?

Progressive Middle Easterners like myself, Eylul, or Ghattas would have loved it if these reforms were enacted by a liberal or leftist in our own mold. MBS is anything but. His rushed reforms have instead been achieved by relying on a muscular Saudi nationalism (which makes him popular among much of Saudi citizenry, not least the youth) and brutally daring moves that are based on a hubris that often becomes folly. Not for nothing does MBS cite Margaret Thatcher as an influence; a Thatcher without the rules and constrains of a democracy should sound alarms.

MBS’s iron will was useful in helping him overcome his conservative foes, natural opponents to all reform. His purging of the corrupt Saudi elite, by dramatically holding them in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton (a story ably told by Hubbard who has interviewed some of the detainees) was an example — brutally effective, even if illegal.

It is hard not to be impressed by what some of MBS’s reforms have achieved. I saw this for myself last March during a trip to the country organized by the Riyadh-owned television channel MBC, which was hosting a concert for Iranian pop stars — the first ever in Saudi Arabia. But I and other journalists who had been to the ‘old’ Saudi were even more shocked by the dramatic rise in female employment: from airport workers to tour guides to Uber drivers, Saudi women are increasingly and emphatically joining the workforce. It is hard to imagine how else such change could have been achieved so quickly.

But, as Hubbard’s narrative shows, MBS’s hubris has also led to hasty actions such as the kidnapping of a sitting Lebanese prime minister, declaring a diplomatic war on Canada due to a Tweet expressing human rights concerns, and the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a move that stunned the world.

Had the Saudi reforms been achieved by a more liberal approach, could MBS have been the subject of Ghattas’s last chapter as a hopeful sign of change? She almost says as much. In the conclusion, we hear of “a brief moment in 2018” when the author had hoped that the “damage of 1979” would be undone: in Iran from below by the protest movement, in Saudi Arabia from above by a reforming crown prince. Instead, the book’s last chapter, “Murder on the Bosporus,” is dedicated to Khashoggi, whose advocacy of democratic reform makes him similar to many of Ghattas’s protagonists. Hubbard, too, dedicates much of the book to Khashoggi, about whom he offers some new information, based on his correspondence (including text messages) with a young Saudi dissident and a close friend whose connections with Qatar might explain some of Riyadh’s phobia around the Saudi journalist, given the heightening rift between Riyadh and Doha.

***
MBS is young and he expects to rule his country for decades to come. On the key question of Israel, will he bring any change? Hubbard discusses the issue. The book recounts MBS’s 2018 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the veteran American-Jewish journalist who served in the Israeli army. The taboo-breaking prince spoke of the Jewish people’s “right to their own land” and boasted that “there are a lot of interests we share with Israel.” The background to these comments is the all-too-obvious security cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh, based on the two countries’ joint enmity to the Islamic regime of Iran, and the close relationship between MBS and Jared Kushner, architect of Trump’s “deal of century” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With its offer for a pulverized, moth-eaten Palestinian state, the deal has been a non-starter for the Palestinian leadership. But beyond the Kushner plan, will the new Saudi attitude toward the conflict bring about change?

Some of the Saudi reforms not mentioned in Hubbard’s book happen to be those at the center of Iran’s propaganda war against MBS. Since 2018, top Saudi officials have condemned Holocaust denial, visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Auschwitz death camp. This Ramadan season, they caused controversy by allowing the airing of shows that offer novel views on Jews and Israel. One started with a long Hebrew monologue by its protagonist, modeled after a well-known Jewish midwife in Bahrain of 1940s and 50s. Another included a Saudi character advocating normalization of ties with Israel. All these events (from the Auschwitz visit to the Ramadan programs) have been constantly attacked by Tehran-controlled media, whose official attitude could not be more different. Not only is the Iranian Supreme Leader the only head of state who repeatedly denies the Holocaust, his office recently published a poster that promised to bring about “the Final Solution” to Israeli Jews. To be sure, Saudi Arabia has no shortage of such antisemitism in its history: the legendary Cold War-era monarch King Faisal liked to give a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to his guests, and the country’s celebrated UN diplomat Jamil Baroody claimed in 1976 that the Anne Frank diaries were a forgery. But once more MBS has been able to bring about a swift change and such attitudes now belong firmly to the past.

Whatever the future direction of MBS ends up being, the quick pace of his reforms perhaps strikes a hopeful tone: Deep as the roots for the Black Waves are, they can sometimes be brought down swiftly and quickly.

 

*Kim Ghattas, Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, Henry Holy and Co., pp. 400

*Ben Hubbard,  MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, Tim Duggan Books, pp. 384

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Arash Azizi

Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar based at New York University. He is the author of the upcoming book, 'The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran's Global Ambitions,' which will be published by Oneworld Publications in November.

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