Journalist Kim Ghattas’s look at the ongoing impact of the Islamic world’s ‘religious renaissance’ of the 1970s has lessons to impart
In Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, Dutch-Lebanese BBC journalist Kim Ghattas has recounted and analyzed the Islamic World’s attempt at a “religious” renaissance through revolution and revolt, focusing on the 1971 “transformation” in Iran and the 1973 start of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the impact of which still resonates today.
“The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world,” writes Ghattas. “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 us, the past is a different country, 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.
“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, 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. The question may also surprise those in the West who assume that the extremism and the bloodletting of today were always the norm.”
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled to Najaf in Iraq by the Shah of Iran in 1965, where he languished for 13 years with no one realizing how he would change the world in the coming decade. Inspired by the success of the Cuban, Algerian, and Vietnamese revolutions and insurgencies, Iranian opposition groups—Marxists to nationalists, religious fundamentalists to Islamist modernists—explored the option of an armed insurgency against the king of Iran, on the throne since 1941.
In 1971, Ali Shariati, a scholar of great appeal, openly called for the masses to rise against the shah. He was to be the precursor of a clerical takeover that he himself didn’t approve of. After street agitation overthrew the shah and forced him to flee, Khomeini appointed a provisional civilian government with Mehdi Bazergan as his prime minister. This was supposed to the first step toward referendum to decide what form the government would take in the new Iran. But “any opposition to the government would mean opposition to the sharia.” Soon the executions began: four leading generals were shot, after a summary trial in which they were accused of treason and mass murder. A reign of terror that would continue for a decade had begun. Were the Arabs across the Gulf scared of this sectarian triumph? Already enraged by Egypt President Anwar Sadat’s kowtowing to Israel, Yasser Arafat welcomed the “revolution” feeling that “this was his revolution as much as it was Khomeini’s.”
Khomeini acted like all “revolutionaries”: if you are not with us you are “in prison.” Less “revolutionary” ayatollahs like Shariatmadari who feared civil war were put under house arrest. Eight years later, Saudi Arabia too received its “revolution” when in 1979 Juhayman al-Otaybi led the assault of the Great Mosque of Mecca to protest against the Saudi monarchy.
The battle against Otyabi was won thanks to cleric Abdelaziz bin Baz, a figure whose influence would shape the minds of the region for decades to come. Calling for a ban on all non-Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula, he was imprisoned but he continued to issue bizarre “religious opinions”: Americans never landed on the moon; the sun orbited the Earth. He also banned radio and television, girls’ education, etc. But unlike Khomeini, he succumbed to the Saudi royalty after time in jail, and ended up being appointed an “adviser” who ultimately did for Saudi Arabia what Khomeini had done to Iranian culture.
Appearing a precursor of the “revolution” promised by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan in 2017, the world thus witnessed two “Islamic revolutions” in 1979, both rejecting centuries of history and pushing expansion of Salafist puritanism: “Both of them would transform their country of origin and then ripple across the Arab and Muslim world for decades to come, bringing with them darkness and oppression,” writes Ghattas.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, an event that was to shake the Islamic world with the concept of “Islamic jihad” it unleashed. That same year Saddam Hussein decided it was time to consolidate his rule. Knowing the influence that the ayatollah could employ on Iraq’s Shia majority, he forced his cousin, President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, to resign, and became the fifth president of Iraq. He went on to crush anyone who represented an alternative, expelling hundreds of Shia clerics to Iran.
Fearing “revolutionary” Iran, Gulf States gave an oil-rich, prosperous Iraq a $14 billion loan “to help the war effort against Iran.” Jordan sent volunteers, while Saudi Arabia provided funding. Sadat thought Cairo would provide his friend a good base to mount a counter-revolution, but in Egypt, too, there were those who looked to Iran and felt inspired by the ayatollah. In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami differed, proselytizing heavily on campuses in a bid to eradicate the “sinful secularism” of socialists and communists.
On to Egypt
The anti-Sadat rage of Egypt spread quickly. There were protests on the streets of Beirut; Egyptian embassies came under attack in Tripoli and Athens. Newspapers in Iraq and Syria declared Sadat’s trip to Israel the “trip of treachery and shame,” denouncing him. Iran’s revolution raised many questions for Islamists in Egypt: can’t we replicate this here? Why is the opposition in Egypt unable to channel revulsion at the establishment into a similar uprising that will overthrow the government?
As a consequence, Islamic jihad appeared in Egypt. Inspired by Syed Qutb, whose writing inspired generations of Salafists and jihadists, Muhammad Abdessalam Farag wrote the pamphlet that founded Islamic Jihad, an organization that Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri would take over in the 1980s.
At home in Pakistan in 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested and thrown in jail by his own army chief, Gen. Ziaul Haq, who claimed the takeover was temporary: “My sole aim is to organize free and fair elections, which would be held in October this year.” Predictably, there would be no elections. In September 1978, he declared himself president; Bhutto was still in jail.
Khomeini’s embrace of the Palestinian cause delivered no victories. A purge that had first targeted the secular left and other opponents extended its reach, silencing former committed revolutionaries. A whole new wave of executions was under way.
In the summer of 1987, Pakistani Sunnis went into a village on the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and killed Shias. The Shias retaliated. Almost 200 people died in Parachinar. The violence was a direct consequence of the Iranian Revolution and its clash with Saudi Wahhabism, with provocative zealotry from Ziaul Haq.
Rise of bin Baz
In Saudi Arabia, adviser Abdelaziz bin Baz was gestating the next outrage for Pakistan. Zia had put an end to inclusive Muslim nationalism with his Nizam-e-Islam, imposing new laws to operate a state-run zakat fund. Under law, Zia planned to make mandatory deductions from personal and corporate bank accounts of all Muslims in the country.
Meanwhile, the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan raged on. Osama bin Laden provided the funding, as Arab salafist Abdullah Azzam took care of the rallying cry. Bin Laden raised around $10 million in contributions from relatives and princes, and announced air fare, housing, and living expenses for every Arab who joined the fight. Then Azzam issued a religious edict that turned modern tradition upside down, arguing that jihad in Afghanistan was “fard ayn,” an individual obligation for every Muslim.
Around 1985, Azzam and bin Laden set up the Maktab al-Khadamat in Peshawar, which swiftly emerged as the nerve center of the Arab jihad. They used it to raise funds, with bin Laden paying $25,000 every month to keep it running. In later years the two men would part ways over bin Laden’s plans to take the jihad global; Azzam would be assassinated in 1989 in Peshawar, and the Maktab al-Khadamat would turn into the nucleus of Al Qaeda.
Ehsan Elahi Zaheer
What triggered sectarian violence in Pakistan was bin Baz’s star student, Pakistan’s own Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, described as the most influential cleric in aggravating Sunni-Shia tensions and violence in South Asia. A student of the Islamic university of Madina from 1963 to 1968, he graduated with high honors and was encouraged by bin Baz to publish his views. He wrote anti-Shia polemics even before the Iranian Revolution, and was schooled in the Ahl-e Hadith tradition that rejected Shiism. His years in Saudi Arabia likely cemented those views, and the revolution added fuel to his fire.
Zaheer, who later started the Jamiat Ahl-e Hadith political party, published 14 anti-Shia books, many originally published in Arabic before being translated into Urdu. The heart of his argument was that Shias were not “real” Muslims. Mainstream, moderate Sunni clerics tried to resist the slippery slope toward such an unbending attitude against fellow-Muslims, but the radical voices grew louder. More books were published with titles like The Shias Revolt against the Quran or Shias Rebel against Islam, with Saudi Arabia not only encouraging the vitriol, but also help translate the books into multiple languages for wider distribution. Saudi embassies kept copies available to hand out
In Iraq, Zaheer described the Iranians as evil people led by evil leaders in Syria and Libya. But the conspiracy would fail, Zaheer insisted. Seated in the front row, Saddam listened, impassive, before offering a long handshake to Zaheer at the end; at the time Saddam presided over a country where the majority of the population was Shia.
Ghattas notes: “After the pamphlets, the books, and the conferences came the fatwas and the militias. In 1985, the Army of the Companions of the Prophets, the Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) militia, was formed in the Punjab, with the tacit approval of Zia and his security services. The SSP’s only purpose was to denounce and attack Shias, the first overtly sectarian militia in the Muslim world, with the chilling rallying cry “Kafir, kafir, Shia kafir”—infidels. In 1986, a series of fatwas began to circulate widely, banning Sunnis from eating food cooked by Shias or attending their funerals. Then came more fatwas explicitly declaring Shias kafir—a true license to kill. Apostatizing non-Sunnis was not a new phenomenon in Pakistan or the Muslim world—it had been done to smaller Muslim minorities—but now it was becoming common currency against Shias, Pakistan’s minority of millions.”
Zaheer vs Ariful Hussaini
Targeted assassinations came next. In March 1987, Zaheer was giving a lecture to a packed audience of the youth-wing of his party in Lahore when a small bomb detonated, killing men close to the stage and severely injuring him. Both Saddam and King Fahd offered medical care. The Saudis chartered a special medical plane to fly him and his father to Riyadh for treatment. He died at the King Faisal hospital.
Writes Ghattas: “Just over a year later, after dawn prayers on Aug. 5, 1988, seven men barged into Ariful Hussaini’s madrassa in Lahore and shot him dead. His bodyguard apparently tried to kill himself for having failed to protect him. In death, Hussaini was also granted two honors: Iran sent a delegation, and a representative of Khomeini delivered a eulogy at the funeral. Iran later issued a postage stamp in his honor. Zia came to the funeral and was also met with chants of “Zia killer, Zia Killer.” The killers had in fact been hired by the governor of the province General Fazle Haq, a key figure of the Zia era, who was working with Zia’s security team on the assassination plot. Several members of the plot landed in prison. Haq would later be assassinated.”
End of Zia and Khomeini
On Aug. 17, 1988, a four-engine C-130 plane carrying Ziaul-Haq crashed. All 30 passengers onboard perished, with reports of a ball of fire engulfing the plan before it crashed raising questions of sabotage or a targeted attack. The investigation never reached any conclusion, but one thing was certain: the dictator was dead.
On June 3,1989, 86-year-old Khomeini died of heart failure. In his 29-page will, he left a parting shot against the Saudis: “Muslims should curse the tyrants, including the Saudi royal family, these traitors to God’s great shrine, may God’s curse be upon them … King Fahd spends a large part of the people’s wealth every year on the anti-Quranic totally baseless superstitious faith of Wahhabism. He abuses Islam and the dear Quran.”
War against literature
Nasr Abu Zeid never wanted to be Egypt’s Salman Rushdie. He never wanted to give the impression that he “was against Islam.” Among his worst fears was that Westerners would look at him and see a critic of Islam. That’s not what he was. The progressive professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Cairo University was born a Muslim, raised a Muslim, and, as he liked to repeat, Inshallah, he would die a Muslim. He only wanted to make his religion more accessible in today’s world, gentler, less doctrinal.
When Nasr was accused of apostasy in Egypt, just a few years after the Rushdie fatwa, the comparison to the British Indian novelist came easily to Western media reporting on a foreign country. But Nasr’s supporters in Egypt preferred to compare him to Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo, who had been persecuted as a heretic by the Catholic Church during the Roman Inquisition for asserting that the earth moved around the sun.
Egypt had always been a conservative, traditional society, but the veil did not dominate, nor was it a source of tension or debate; it was neither banned nor imposed by the state. The Gamaa had some success in promoting the veil on university campuses, but in 1979, women started emulating the example of Iran, covering their hair in a symbolic rejection of imperialism and the West. In the 1990s a second wave arrived, fed by Saudi money and proselytizing. It specifically targeted the middle class. In the 1970s, 30 percent of Egyptian women wore the headscarf; by the mid-1990s, it was 65 percent.
Egypt’s famous filmmaker Youssef Chahine believed that religious fundamentalism was alien to Egyptians and described it as a “black wave” from the Gulf: “The Egyptian has always been a very religious person but at the same time he is also a lover of life of art and music and theater.” He trusted that his countrymen would find a balance between secular modernity and traditional religious forces.
His trust was misplaced. Journalists, intellectuals, and plastic surgeons were all targeted. Even Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a national symbol, came under attack—stabbed in the neck by two assailants in October 1994. He would survive, but his writing hand was severely impaired. Religion took over rapidly. In 1985, barely 6 percent of books published in Egypt were religious. In 1994, it was 25 percent, and by 1995, 15 percent of books sold at the Cairo book fair were religious. In the mid-1980s, there was a mosque for every 6,031 Egyptians; by the mid-2000s there would be one for every 745. Family photographs came off walls and were stored in drawers, especially photos of grandmothers wearing short sleeves and low necklines, or sporting the big hairdos of the 1960s.
In Pakistan, then-Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was shot dead on Jan. 4, 2011. His crime? Defending Christian Aasia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy after arguing with a Muslim women over sharing utensils to drink water. After a mob attacked her, Bibi insisted she did not insult Islam’s Prophet, and rejected attempts to be converted to Islam. She was thrown in jail, and eventually solitary confinement for “her own protection.” In 2010, after a trial filled with many discrepancies in testimonies, she was sentenced to die by hanging under a blasphemy law introduced by Zia.
Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who had killed Taseer, was hanged for his crime. Rather than being quietly interred, however, supporters gathered in the hundreds of thousands to offer his funeral prayers at Liaquat Bagh Park, Rawalpindi. This was where Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated in 2007. Now the killer of her friend Taseer was being honored in the same spot.
Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority rights at the time, had also spoken in favor of reviewing Bibi’s case and reforming the blasphemy laws. He was assassinated a few months after Taseer. A few months later, Shahbaz, Taseer’s eldest son, was kidnapped. He has since been released.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor and author, is a longtime critic of what he describes as the Saudization of Pakistan at the expense of its historical and rich connection to Persian culture traditions. He is a part of the protestations against cultural homogenization and the Arabization of Islam. On the forefront of this Arabic infiltration into Pakistan was Farhat Hashmi, the founder of the Al-Huda schools and institutes. She was a pure product of the Zia era, and the daughter of a Jamaat-e Islami activist. Hashmi got her doctorate in Islamic studies from Glasgow University, and cited Saudi or Saudi-backed scholars, including bin Baz, as her inspiration.
In 1994, she established the Al-Huda Foundation, a welfare organization that offered classes based on the Ahl-e Hadith school of thought, which is openly critical of Barelvis and Shias. Al-Huda’s headquarters, a large villa in Islamabad, was paid for by donations from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, according to information from bankers in Pakistan.
Perhaps the worst leftover from the Zia era was the sectarian intolerance and violence, both of which grew exponentially following the 1987 violence in Kurram Agency. Mosques of both Shia and Sunni sects were bombed. Iranians were also targeted: in 1990, the Iranian culture attaché in Lahore was assassinated; while in 1997, the Iranian cultural centers in Lahore and Multan were torched and five Iranian military personnel assassinated in Rawalpindi.
Rise of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi
In 2011, terrorist group Lashkar-e Jhangvi sent an open letter to the Shia community in Quetta, home to around 600,000 Hazara Shias. “All Shias are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of this unclean people,” read the letter. “Pakistan means land of the pure, and the Shias have no right to be here. We will make Pakistan their graveyard—their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers.” Most chilling were the recurrent waves of targeted assassinations of middle-class Shia professionals: doctors, Intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, even officers were shot at close range on the street, or had small bombs placed under their cars.
As hundreds of Shia professionals left the country in 2012, men wearing army uniforms stopped a bus traveling in the Gilgit-Baltistan area in northern Pakistan. The gunmen checked the IDs of passengers, pulled out any “Shia-sounding” names, and shot them. It was the third time that year that Shia had been pulled off a bus and shot. The state did nothing.
A year after the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, in the summer of 2012, Mohamad Morsi, an engineering professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, was elected president of Egypt. Where the United States saw free and fair elections, the Saudis saw a vital threat, for two reasons. Morsi was a lifelong member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had arrived at the top through the ballot box, and such a successful example of political Islam could then feed calls for elections in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were also deeply distrustful of the Muslim Brotherhood generally.
Morsi was only helping, accumulating mistakes and pushing for extraordinary presidential powers. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square had not signed up for a power grab by an Islamist. Millions of Egyptians took to the street, clamoring for Morsi’s departure. Morsi and most of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership was to end up in jail, hundreds of its members sentenced to die in the course of the following year. In 2019, after six years of solitary confinement and inadequate health care, Morsi would collapse during a court hearing and die from cardiac arrest. The organization was banned. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sissi, friend of Saudi Arabia and once a military attaché at the Egyptian embassy in Saudi Arabia, oversaw the crackdown. He was elected president in May 2020.
What happened to us?
For Iranians, 1979 is an obvious turning point in the country’s history. Their nation replaced the tyranny of monarchy with the tyranny of religion, one that was politically but also socially and economically repressive, effectively disconnecting the country from the world seemingly forever.
In December 2017, when demonstrations erupted across Iran, the weeks of unrest were the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic since the Green Movement of 2009. Angry at the blood and money spent overseas, Iranians chanted “Let go of Syria, think about us!” In a video that circulated online, one young woman also addressed the older crowd of mostly men around her: “You raised your fists in 1979 and ruined our lives. Now we raise our fists [to fix your mistake]. Join us. I will stand in front of you and protect you. Come represent your country.”
In October 2019, Lebanon and Iraq erupted in protests against corruption, poverty, and sectarianism. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in both countries for weeks on end. With music, dancing, and even a DJ, with flowers, humor, and poetry, they spoke for life, braving bullets and beatings. The protesters declared their unity across all social and sectarian divides, against those in power. In Iraq, the protesters denounced Tehran’s influence, while some scaled walls of the Iranian consulate in Karbala to hoist the Iraqi flag.
Reactions from Pakistan
In the past month, two Pakistani scholars have expressed their opposition to the Black Wave spreading across Muslim thinking. Dr Naazir Mahmood, a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham, wrote in The News on Jan. 24, noting that intellectual wastelands emerge as oppressive leaders are glorified. “Oppression leads to paranoia, but that is all right. Anxiety and beliefs of conspiracy are the best companions of the paranoid, so facilitating an infusion of anxiety and beliefs of conspiracy are ideal fertilizing agents for an intellectual wasteland. Such land is ripe with delusions and fear, and promoting them is a good idea. The more delusional people become, the more they are bereft of rational thinking. Inculcate fear so that they remain irrational. Such irrationality you can also promote by stifling the liberal and progressive media, both electronic and print,” he wrote, adding that civil society is an “anathema” in such domains. “If somebody is much given to learning and thinking, he or she is a menace to your wasteland. Let intellectual contraction become the new normal so that regression continues in the whole population.”
Similarly, writing in daily Dawn on Jan. 21, Anjum Altaf, a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore’s LUMS, wrote: “To go back to when and how extremism and then violence entered our society, can we not discern a connection to the parallel attempt to impose a uniformity in our thinking from early childhood with a heavy dose of an absolute belief in one’s truth with an ingrained sense of self-righteousness—in other words to the cradle-to-grave imposition of Pakistan Studies and some other subjects in our educational institutions? And can we not put two and two together to see that this was done to create the national narrative that would endorse and support the conscious nurturing of extremism for equally admirable geopolitical objectives?”
Noting that Pakistan’s condition supported trends of conformity and rigid thinking, he lamented that this produced societies inclined towards extremism and violence. The ‘Black Wave’ might have swept through Gulf states in the 70s and 80s, but for countries like Pakistan, its impact continues to be seen even today.