Henry Holt and Co., 2020, 400 pp., $30.00
Cambridge University Press, 2020, 718 pp., $34.99
President Anwar Sadat spent the last moments of his life celebrating a war he hadn’t won. It was October 6, 1981, the anniversary of the 1973 war in which Egypt had failed to reclaim the Sinai from Israel. Much had changed in eight years. Egypt was no longer the lodestar of pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism that it had once seemed. The loss in 1973 had convinced Sadat to pivot from the Soviet to the Western camp and do the unthinkable: make peace with Israel in return for the Sinai. It had begun with his surprise trip to the Knesset in 1977, followed by the much-acclaimed Camp David Accords the following year, and then a formal peace treaty in 1979. It would cost him his life.
That October afternoon, Sadat was enjoying the annual spectacle commemorating the war when a military truck pulled off the parade line and stopped in front of the grandstand. Flanked by various VIPs, Sadat stood up, perhaps expecting a special salute. The soldiers who stepped out had other plans.
The melee lasted some two minutes, the president’s guards being too stunned to initially return fire. Amid the macabre frenzy, as Sadat lay slumped over, shot through the neck, the young Lieutenant leading the assault let out a cry: “My name is Khaled al Islambouli. I have killed the pharaoh. I am not afraid to die.”
This dramatic attack, recounted in Kim Ghattas’s new book Black Wave, was hardly the first assassination in the modern Arab world. But it marked a dangerous moment in the Middle East that followed an already explosive two years of change across the region. The killing was the result of a fraught relationship between a characteristically repressive Arab state and ambitious Islamists, a relationship full of contradictions and reversals. It also underscored how the geopolitical shifts of the late 1970s had begun to transform domestic politics in the Middle East.
Most importantly, it was a harbinger of much more violence to come.
In Black Wave, Lebanese-Dutch journalist Kim Ghattas seeks to explain how several seismic events in 1979 laid the groundwork for a cold war for leadership of the Muslim world that pitted Iran against Saudi Arabia. Over the ensuing decades, each side would seek to weaponize and inflame longstanding divisions between the Middle East’s Sunni and Shi‘a communities to gain the upper hand. In Ghattas’ telling, many of today’s crises in the Middle East, from the persecution of Pakistan’s religious minorities to the humanitarian nightmare in Yemen, are rooted in 1979 and the enduring Saudi-Iranian rivalry. While it can be difficult to ascribe causality to everything covered in Ghattas’s sweeping account, her narrative provides insight into a broad and important swathe of history.
Another new history, The Caravan, by Norwegian academic Thomas Hegghammer, tackles the related question of jihadism’s emergence as a global phenomenon. The Caravan is a richly detailed biography of Palestinian cleric Abdallah Azzam, the one-time associate of Osama bin Laden who helped convince thousands of Arabs to travel to Afghanistan in the 1980s to wage a jihad against Soviet forces. Hegghammer traces Azzam’s life from his days as a relatively obscure Muslim Brotherhood scholar to his ascendance as a globe-trotting activist whose assassination in 1989 is “the biggest murder mystery in the history of jihadism.” Even in death, Azzam remains one of jihadism’s most important ideologues.
Both authors argue that their topics require local rather than global explanations. To quote Hegghammer, “Jihad went global for fundamentally local reasons,” while Ghattas seems to answer the question she poses to her fellow citizens of the Middle East—“What happened to us?”—with a straightforward explanation: Our leaders did this.
A book that weaves together the various threads of 1979 is long overdue, and we are fortunate that Ghattas does so with such literary skill. The Iranian revolution is narrated in detail, with an emphasis on Ayatollah Khomeini’s efforts to outmaneuver his rivals and dupe a gullible foreign press as he set about building an authoritarian theocracy. 1979 also saw the Soviets invade Afghanistan, which became the incubator for the modern jihadist movement (a subject that Hegghammer covers in greater detail). Ghattas provides fascinating anecdotes about the changes taking place in neighboring Pakistan at this time as General Muhammad Zia ul Haq set about Islamizing the country. Haq, with Saudi encouragement, promoted a Sunni fundamentalism that should have shocked Western sensibilities, but instead made himself an indispensable U.S. ally by funneling support to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan. Sadat signed his landmark peace deal with Israel in 1979, while in Lebanon, the civil war that had begun in 1975 raged on, eventually sucking in Syria, Iran, Israel, and several Western powers.
Ghattas pairs her chapter on the Iranian revolution with an equally powerful account of the often overlooked “second Islamic revolution” of 1979: the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by millenarian radicals, who decried the moral corruption of the U.S.-aligned Saudi monarchy. It would take two weeks before Saudi forces (covertly assisted by French commandos) recaptured the mosque in a traumatic assault that left at least several hundred dead. The siege, coupled with the revolution in Iran, was a shock to the Saudi regime, whose legitimacy rested on its religious credentials. Most consequentially, the incident emboldened the most reactionary elements of the country’s clerical establishment, the Ulama, through a fateful quid pro quo. The clerics agreed to issue King Khaled an unprecedented fatwa permitting the use of military force within Islam’s holiest site. In return, Khaled promised to roll back the social reforms he had championed and do more to advance the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam favored by the Ulama. Flush with petrodollars and desperate to bolster its faltering image as the center of the Islamic world, the Kingdom redoubled its efforts to promote fundamentalism in Muslim communities around the globe.
Ghattas chronicles these seminal events and then demonstrates how the ensuing Saudi-Iranian competition would play out over the coming decades, touching all aspects of life in the Middle East. The United States does not get a free pass for its grave blunders in the region (“How could freedom be so inexplicably deadly, so full of contradictions?” she says of the Iraq War and the sectarian bloodletting it unleashed), but Ghattas’ focus is on local actors. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict receives minimal attention, reflecting the fact that the conflict is hardly the only prism for understanding Middle Eastern issues (despite what we’re often told). The book ends with a familiar story: A young leader, touted as a reformer, sees his brief honeymoon with the West end when he butchers a high-profile dissident in his own consulate.
An important theme that emerges from Ghattas’ work is that sectarianism is more a political and social phenomenon than a theological one. In Lebanon and Syria, for example, sectarian violence was historically rooted in conflicts over political power and perpetuated by the tensions that lingered after each paroxysm. Theology generally played little role in these conflicts. In fact, many Sunni Islamists across the Middle East watched Khomeini’s ascent with excitement; the fact that Iran’s revolution was Islamic was more important than any doctrinal differences. This respect began to fade as Khomeini set about rebuilding Iran along the lines of his idiosyncratic interpretation of a Shi‘i jurisprudential theory, Vilayat-e-Faqih, that even many Shi‘a scholars found controversial. More than anything, Khomeini’s aggressive actions in the regional political theater soured most Sunni Islamists to the Ayatollah’s regime. Ghattas recounts how the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood sent an envoy to Iran shortly after the revolution to seek Tehran’s support. Khomeini considered the entreaties but opted instead for a pragmatic alliance with the Brotherhood’s sworn enemy, the anti-Islamist, Baathist dictator Hafez al Assad.
Ghattas argues that the outward religiosity and intolerance of the contemporary Middle East is largely a legacy of 1979. For most of the 20th century, Middle Eastern societies were generally more secular than they are today, with fundamentalists and Islamists being marginalized. Cairo had once been the center of Arab cinema and home to many a coffeehouse intellectual; by the 1990s, professors would face prosecution and death threats for teaching classical Islamic philosophers deemed “rationalist.” In Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, the once multiconfessional city of Baalbek transformed into Little Tehran, replete with photos of Khomeini and Shi‘i iconography, after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps set up base as part of their intervention in Lebanon’s civil war.
The romanticization of a more secular Middle East can be misguided, if not in the worst cases a form of apologia for “modernizing” dictators. But this is not the intent of Ghattas, who spares no effort documenting the crimes of ostensibly moderate autocrats. Instead, she seeks to remind us that the Middle East we know today was never pre-ordained as such and that the region’s dynamism was once a source of hope. Ghattas concludes by trying to rekindle that optimism, emphasizing the many overlooked activists—feminist protesters, courageous bloggers, pluralism-embracing religious scholars—who today refuse to accept the “black wave.” Such accounts are heartening, if not altogether convincing.
Dr. Abdallah Azzam was more a scholar than a warrior. Bookish and pious ever since childhood, the Palestinian cleric managed to inspire thousands of men to take up arms in the name of their religion without having ever amounted to much himself in his limited battlefield experience. Yet Azzam’s brief stint as a fedayeen fighter along the Israeli-Jordanian border in the late 1960s, recounted in Hegghammer’s informative and entertaining biography, offers a window into how profoundly the ideological landscape of the Middle East shifted in just two decades.
After fleeing the West Bank for Jordan during the 1967 war, Azzam got his first taste of jihad by joining several of his fellow Muslim Brothers in a training camp near the newly established Israeli border. These Islamist fighters numbered only a few hundred compared to the 10,000 or so Leftist fedayeen operating in the area. The Brotherhood’s real purpose for joining the fight, Hegghammer notes, was “to meet the demand among its younger members for action on the Palestinian front, and to avoid being outshone by the Leftists.” In this second effort, they failed utterly.
Not only did the Islamist fighters fail to make any ripple internationally (or kill many Israelis), they were constantly mocked by the rest of the Palestinian liberation movement. The Islamist fedayeen never fought the Leftists—they had to rely on Arafat’s permission to operate their camps—but the two groups’ mutual contempt for the other’s ideology was palpable. Hegghammer shares several comical anecdotes of run-ins between the groups and quotes Azzam as later recalling, “We were surrounded on four sides: on three of them were PLO factions, on the fourth were the Jews. By God, we had to guard against the leftists more than against the Jews.”
So, what changed between 1969, the year Azzam joined an insignificant and belittled contingent of Islamist fedayeen, and 1989, the year he died a celebrity ideologue known to probably tens of thousands of Muslims worldwide? Much of the answer lies in the failure of the various ideologies that appeared to hold promise across the Middle East in the heady decades after decolonization. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabism could not withstand the domineering man himself, as evidenced by the demise of the United Arab Republic that briefly bound Cairo and Damascus. Baathism—a bizarre potpourri of Arab nationalism, Marxism, and fascism—left Iraq and Syria with countless dead and no functioning institutions save the dreaded mukhabarat. The defeats in 1967 and 1973 shattered many an Arab illusion while the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace crystallized the notion among certain Islamists that the Muslim world suffered from a simple problem: its leaders were un-Islamic (hence Sadat the pharaoh). The PLO, meanwhile, lost clout—and positions within artillery range of Israel—after being forced to first flee Jordan in 1970 and then Lebanon beginning in 1982.
But it was not only these movements’ failures that laid the groundwork for global jihadism. As Hegghammer argues, government repression of domestic Islamist movements across the Middle East forced these individuals to search for opportunities to advance their cause abroad, which many found when the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Nasser had turned on Egypt’s Brotherhood once he came to power, executing its most militant ideologue, Sayyid Qutb. Sadat, himself deeply religious, adopted a laxer approach, but the crackdowns resumed after his assassination, forcing many Islamists into exile. In Syria, the story was even bloodier. Hafez al Assad’s forces killed thousands of Sunnis in indiscriminate operations against Islamists, most notably the 1982 massacre in the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama. In neighboring Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy tolerated the Brotherhood but kept it on a tight leash. Azzam lost his professorship there in 1980 after he berated a newspaper editor for—interestingly enough—criticizing the Iranian revolution. Feeling unwelcome in Jordan, he moved briefly to Mecca.
During his brief stint in the holy city, Azzam grew close to a network of likeminded Pan-Islamists that would later help him mobilize men and resources for Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was the center for Pan-Islamism, an ideology premised on global Muslim solidarity and victimhood, with the Kingdom supporting many such NGOs as a way of burnishing its Islamic credentials. In Saudi Arabia, Azzam got to know Bin Laden better (it never hurts to have a friend with a rich dad) and mingled with Abdul Aziz bin Baz, a reactionary cleric who appears in Ghattas’ story as the man driving the hard bargain with King Khaled over the Grand Mosque fatwa. When Azzam decided to leave Mecca for Pakistan in 1981, he did so as part of an ambitious pan-Islamist project: After liberation, Afghanistan would serve as the base for a multinational army of mujahideen that would march on Palestine.
Hegghammer’s chapters on the Soviet-Afghan War focus on the experiences of the roughly 4,000 Arab foreign fighters, dubbed “Afghan Arabs,” and Azzam’s role as director of the Services Bureau, which was largely funded by bin Laden and based across the Pakistani border in Peshawar. Among other things, the Bureau ran guesthouses for the Afghan Arabs. Azzam was a brilliant recruiter and fundraiser for the anti-Soviet jihad, publishing books and a widely distributed magazine and going on speaking tours across the Middle East and the West (America’s political freedoms and anti-communist attitudes made it particularly hospitable to jihadists, Hegghammer writes; in fact, Azzam appears to have first met Bin Laden at a University of Indiana-sponsored conference). Azzam was again disappointed in his search for military success, however, as the Afghan Arabs proved to be marginal players on the battlefield (hence they never received Western support, although the myth persists that the CIA armed Bin Laden).
Hegghammer concludes by assessing Azzam’s role in the formation of a global jihadist community and ideology in Afghanistan. Among his other contributions, Azzam pioneered an Islamist foreign fighter doctrine and Sunni martyrology that outlived him (the Shi‘a had a longer tradition of revering martyrs, which Tehran has drawn on heavily since the Iran-Iraq War). Most notably, al-Qaeda emerged from the Afghan Arabs, many of whom had joined the fight after hearing Azzam’s sermons. But Hegghammer does not believe that Azzam was a co-founder of al-Qaeda, as is often claimed. Hegghammer examines the available evidence and concludes that Azzam was more a passive observer to his friend Osama’s project, which was merely a year old at Azzam’s death and virtually unknown outside a small circle. Hegghammer speculates that had Azzam lived through the end of the century, he would have remained sympathetic to Bin Laden as the latter grew more focused on striking the West but would have more likely than not disapproved of the 9/11 attacks. Hegghammer is as qualified as anyone to speculate, but at the end of the day, that is all anyone can do.
The upheavals chronicled in Black Wave and The Caravan caused reverberations beyond the Middle East, across the wider Muslim world. Muslim communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Balkans receive little attention in either book, which is understandable given each author’s focus. But some examples may help underscore this point.
In the 1990s, al-Qaeda expanded its network to include two East Asian groups, Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, led by veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad. Abu Sayyaf’s founder, the Filipino Abdurajak Janjalani, was reportedly radicalized while studying theology in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries prior to his stint in Afghanistan. Abu Sayyaf eventually pivoted from al-Qaeda and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, making headlines three years later by boldly seizing a Philippine provincial capital as the Islamic State suffered losses elsewhere. The history of East African jihadism was also shaped by the anti-Soviet jihad. Of the handful of Somalis who traveled to Afghanistan, several ended up becoming foundational members of al Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa. (One such founder, Ibrahim al Afghani, had fallen under Abdallah Azzam’s sway during one of the sheikh’s visits to the United States.)
In Nigeria, the country’s most prominent Salafist figures have been influenced by Saudi-sponsored Pan-Islamism. Shi‘ism, meanwhile, was virtually non-existent in Nigeria 40 years ago but has since emerged as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), founded by a Sunni cleric who converted while studying in Iran, has gathered several million supporters. Nigerian authorities have sought to brutally suppress the movement, which they claim is an Iranian puppet. Yet even in Nigeria we see that sectarianism is not an immutable binary divide. I spoke last year with a Nigerian Salafist who recalled the excitement as he and his madrassa classmates listened to Iran’s revolution unfold over the radio. They had great respect for these Shi‘a Islamists, at least from afar. But when I asked about the IMN, he declined to answer: “I could not speak impartially, because I do not believe they are Muslims.”
The Saudi and Iranian roles in radicalizing the Muslim world can be overstated, to be sure. While each side has its proxies, most religious actors are more responsive to local political factors than to any cues from Riyadh or Tehran. Nor is religious conflict new to the non-Arab world: The 19th century witnessed several jihads in Africa, and Jemaah Islamiyah traces its roots to an Islamist anti-colonial movement in Indonesia.
But we should also not underestimate how rapidly the ideas and narratives that emerged from 1979 spread across the globe. This was a time when portable cassette tapes were overtaking LPs, faxes and TVs were becoming more ubiquitous, and airlines were expanding routes while lowering fares. Khomeini had a revolution to export, the Gulf states an oil boom to spend, and Azzam a message to preach: Globalization helped each of them do so on an international scale unimaginable just a few decades before. That such explosive change could occur in such a short period should not surprise us then. History, after all, may proceed predictably for years before turning on a dime.
If anyone would have appreciated this, it would have been the man standing beside Anwar Sadat that October afternoon, Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who miraculously left the blood-stained grandstand bruised but alive.
He would rule Egypt for the next 30 years.