A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2


Before our detour to Pakistan last time, Afghanistan had just been invaded at the invitation of Babrak Karmal, its new pro-Soviet president after the removal of Amin. It was December 1979. The Soviets envisaged a short campaign to bolster the government and stabilise the country, after which they would depart and leave it in the hands of a regime favourable to themselves. The task facing them appeared fairly straightforward. They were one of the world’s two superpowers and Afghanistan was one of the world’s least economically and technologically developed countries. They were, however, to remain mired in the ‘bear trap’ for almost a decade and lose almost 14,000 soldiers in that time. The story of the Afghan war in the 1980s is often seen in terms of ‘what went wrong’ for the Soviet army, forming as it does part of a broader story of decline that would lead to the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. But it is more than a story of Soviet failure, because the Islamists victory was also a victory, if largely clandestine, for the Soviet Union’s enemies: the United States and their local proxy, Pakistan, not to mention the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. Nor should the role of the Afghan guerrilla fighters, the Mujahideen, be played down. Whatever we may think of Islamists and their ideology, they displayed tremendous personal bravery and tenacity in facing down the Soviet Goliath and ultimately forcing their withdrawal.

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion, such an eventuality was unthinkable. Shrewd observers, however, saw the warning signs that things were not going to be straightforward from the very start. It had been hoped that the replacement of Amin with Karmal (these two rulers represented rival leftist factions, the Khalqis and the Parchamis: see part 8) would begin to rehabilitate the regime in the population’s eyes. Amin had pushed through reforms with reckless disregard to popular resistance and had imprisoned and tortured thousands of individuals he perceived as standing in his way. It was this that had spurred the initial armed insurrection. This is important to state, as many seem to be under the impression that the Soviet invasion provoked it; it didn’t, it merely intensified the resistance and dragged in other outside forces. The animus to any Marxist regime had gone so far, however, for the Karmal regime to be acceptable. Its deep unpopularity was apparent to anyone who took even a casual glance behind the veil of propaganda to view the country as it really was, especially outside the urban areas, which were the only areas where the government had anything resembling popular support. Here is Karmal and some of his soldiers, pretending everything is great:


Karmal made efforts to undo some of the damage done to the state’s credibility by the Amin regime. The notorious Pul-e-Charkhi, where political prisoners had been kept, was opened and its victims disgorged to their waiting relatives with blood-curdling stories of the torture and extrajudicial executions that went on within its walls. The new president attempted to slow or tone down the more provocative reforms to win back some love. In an attempt to assuage the religious sentiment of the country, he also set up a Department of Islamic Affairs, thus making the Islamic clerics the employees of a communist government. But, if we remember from last time, the Islamist movement which led the jihad against the government and their Soviet backers were (mostly, though not exclusively, as we will see) not representatives of the traditional religious establishment. This was a modern, revolutionary movement, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and Maududi’s Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan (see the previous post), and in many respects a reaction to the conservative religious hierarchy of the countryside which it saw as corrupt, entrenched and insufficiently fervent. The Mujahideen and their allies saw Karmal’s attempts to co-opt religion in the state’s interests as, at best, interference and at worst, blasphemous.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this unpopularity was the Allah-u-Akbar (God is great) campaign launched against Karmal’s regime after only a few months. People would gather on rooftops at night and sing the call to prayer as a symbol of non-violent resistance. This was accompanied by plenty of violent resistance as well, much of it unpredictable guerrilla-style warfare which was almost impossible to confront head-on, which demoralised government forces no end. After the Soviet invasion, instead of bolstering the Afghan state’s army, morale sank to a new low. Within a year, through desertions and defection to the Mujahideen, the army was only a third of its former size. Many Afghan soldiers, both proud of their independence from traditional enemies like the Russians, and deeply religious, saw the Soviet forces as an offense on both counts and wanted nothing to do with them. On top of this, Amin’s removal did not end the infighting within the PDPA. Despite Soviet attempts to promote unity (or at least the show of it), Karmal’s enemies within the party (the Khalqis) sowed dissent. A big row broke out over (of all things) the design of the new national flag. These rivals began to express unease about the Soviet presence in the country which, it was becoming clear, was not going to be just a short-term thing. Karmal could not even trust his own minister of the interior, and broke off responsibility for intelligence to another organisation, the KHAD (Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati or State Intelligence Agency) handing it to one of his loyalists, Mohammad Najibullah (below), a suitably ruthless and efficient character who ran this notorious institution, which began to arrest Karmal’s left-wing opponents as well as Islamists, and fill the prisons he had emptied when he came to power up again. Najibullah will become important later on, so remember that name.

Mohammad Najibullah

The rival Khalqis had their own factional militia within the army, called Sarandoy (Defenders of the Revolution), who frequently clashed with the KHAD and sabotaged each other’s operations. So, it is no surprise they were losing the war.

But if the government forces were disunited and working at cross purposes, this is nothing to the factionalism among the Mujahideen. The complexity of the various sides fighting the war against the Soviets (and later each other) is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks for outsiders trying to understand Afghanistan’s wars. For the purposes of administering their aid, the Pakistani authorities set up an umbrella organisation for the insurgents (the Sunni ones anyway) which became known as the Peshawar Seven, because there were seven member groups and Peshawar, near the Afghan border in Pakistan (see the map in last post) was where these groups were based. They were co-ordinated and assisted by Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, led by Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan (below), who answered directly to Zia and whose covert operations, funded by the US, Saudis and others, were a secret even to other parts of the Pakistani state apparatus.

Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan

Here is a brief summary of each of these groups.

We have already encountered in part 8 the leading figures in the Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society), Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, its leading political and military figures respectively (left and right below).


The Jamiat was led by Rabbani and influenced by the ideas of Pakistani Islamist Abul Ala Maududi, discussed in the previous post. An affiliated group, the Shura-e Nazar (Supervisory Council of the North), was an extremely effective alliance of over 100 commanders in the north of the country under the command of Massoud, whose resistance to the Soviets became legendary. Both Massoud and Rabbani were Tajik and although this was the dominant ethnic group in their movement, Massoud in particular made strenuous efforts to create a pan-ethnic alliance that would one day embrace the whole of Afghan society and form the nucleus of a state to run the country when the Communists fell from power. Their ideology, while seeking to run the country on Islamic lines, saw persuasion and the assumption of power through ground-roots activism, as opposed to the violent takeover and imposition of their religious beliefs on others, which was a hallmark of the Hekmatyar and Khalis groups (see below). The Jamiat were also seen as more willing to work with non-Islamists to achieve their goals.

Massoud, ensconced in the Panjshir valley north-east of Kabul, proved such a tough nut to crack for the Soviets that they called a truce with his forces in 1983. When this period ended and the Soviet army attacked again, they found that Massoud had cleverly used the truce period to consolidate, reorganise and move his army to more defensible locations, and he proved essentially invincible for the remainder of the war. He was also less inclined to follow Pakistani direction and able to operate more independently from them on account of the further geographic distance from the border. The down-side of this was that the ISI, mistrusting him, provided him with much less material support than the other, more fundamentalist, groups. While Hekmatyar was content to see the areas under his control denuded of their population so he could have a clear field for fighting the Soviets, Massoud sought to create in his enclave a functioning alternative state with a settled population and institutions integrated into his military administration. Many believe that if Massoud had been given more support by the west, a great deal of the tragedy that was to follow in Afghanistan might have been avoided.

Two groups describing themselves as the Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) existed, one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other by Maulawi Khalis. Like Massoud, Hekmatyar had emerged from the associations of radical Muslim students in the early 1970s, having flirted with the left and been in jail for his political activities in the early part of the decade. While originally part of the same movement as Rabbani and Massoud, Hekmatyar founded Hezb-e Islami as a split-off group in 1975. The basic difference is that Hekmatyar foresaw the Islamic revolution as being orchestrated by an elite vanguard of activists using violence to seize the state institutions and harness them to their ends, unlike Rabbani’s followers, who wanted change to come through a mass movement creating pressure for change from the bottom up. I am wary of analogies, but it is somewhat reminiscent of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split that characterised the Russian communists in their early years. Except Hekmatyar was no Lenin…


As Afghanistan came under control of the PDPA and its Soviet allies, Hezb-e Islami began to receive more and more aid from the Pakistani-American-Saudi cabal. In fact, it became by far the largest recipient of such aid, and represented the kind of theocratic fundamentalist strain of Islam which the Saudis and Pakistanis wanted to see emerge in the event of communist collapse. The Americans, it appears, didn’t care-so long as they were fighting reds. These were people who went around throwing acid in women’s faces for not wearing the veil. They were received in Washington and London as the vanguard of the freedom fighters. Hekmatyar received a personal invitation to meet Thatcher in Downing Street.

While lacking the mass support of Jamiat, the fact that Hezb-e was the best-equipped and funded group active in the resistance had major consequences. The weight of this support did not necessarily translate into success on the battlefield, however. The lack of any significant base among the population meant that Hekmatyar was almost entirely dependant, and controlled by, Pakistan’s ISI. By common consent, he was a far less effective commander than Massoud, and spent an inordinate amount of time fighting other Mujahideen groups, apparently more concerned with strengthening his position in post-Soviet Afghanistan than actually helping defeat them. There was also a split within his own ranks, as more conservative, traditionalist elements associated with the rural clergy, the ulema, broke off and founded their own Hezb-e Islami in 1979 under the leadership of Maulawi Khalis. While there were some ideological differences between the two factions, in all of this we should bear in mind that rival groups were often based more on the personal rivalries of powerful warlords linked to specific geographic areas and/or ethnic groups. Ideology often played little or no role.

Maulawi Khalis and his Hezb-e had their power base in the province of Nangarhar and the city of Jalalabad, more or less halfway between Kabul and Peshawar, a pretty vital spot to occupy. Here is Khalis on a visit to Washington to meet Reagan in 1987. He’s the one on the right with the beard:


Also representing a more traditionalist strain was the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement) led by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi (below), which had its power-base in the southern half of the country, with Mohammadi coming from Logar province, just south of Kabul. Mohammadi was one of the earliest religious clerics active in parliament and had, since the early 1960s been preaching against encroaching modernisation and secularism, especially in its Marxist form. He was one of the few Islamists elected to parliament during Zahir Shah’s experiments with elections in the 1960s, but things got progressively less comfortable for men like him in the 1970s (his brother was killed) as the left manoeuvered itself into power. When the PDPA took over in 1978 he escaped to Pakistan, where he hooked up with other leaders like Rabbani and Hekmatyar and tried to foster unity between different groups. Unable to convince the latter to agree to anything, a separate faction, the Harakat, was formed, attracting many from the south whose motivations leaned closer to religious than political. Mohammadi, as close to a conciliatory, unifying figure as you might get among the Mujahideen leaders, was elected as its head.

Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi

Two groups were connected to the Sufi religious orders. The first of these, Mahaz-i-Milli Islami ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan) was led by Ahmed Gailani, a leader of the Qadiriyyah Sufi order. They were royalists originally (for this, they were particularly favoured by British secret services-yes, they had a finger in the pie too) and advocated a fairly liberal and open society compared to the other Islamist groups, with which they were nonetheless united in their anti-communism. While they enjoyed popular support, especially among refugee groups, they were less lavishly funded by the ISI and therefore less of a military power than they could have been. Their vision is the one that will be promoted by western powers seeking to remodel the country after the fall of the Taliban. It is fitting, therefore, that a young Hamid Karzai, who will later become president, is seated on the right of Gailani in this picture from the early 1990s.


Another religious scholar who became active in politics was Sibghatullah Mojaddedi (below) of the Sufi order or Naqshbandiyah. Mojaddedi had been around long enough to have been accused of plotting to assassinate Nikita Khrushchev back in the mid-1960s. He spent some time in prison and then escaped abroad during the 1970s. As war loomed, he founded the Jebhe-ye Nejat Milli (Afghan National Liberation Front) which, again, was not funded as generously by the ISI as groups like Hezb-e Islami. While consequently not as militarily dominant, Mojaddedi and his movement were nevertheless seen as bridge-builders and honest brokers. They will, therefore, play an important role when peace agreements are being mooted.

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Mojaddedi in 1993

One character who has definitely not been seen in neutral terms is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (below), who headed the Ittehad-e Islami (Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan).  Sayyaf is one of the most interesting and resilient characters to emerge from the Afghan war(s). Sayyaf is another of those whose thought was forged in the crucible of Kabul university in the 1960s. He also received a masters in Cairo and had strong associations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Of all the Mujahideen commanders he had the strongest links with the Arab world, being a fluent Arabic-speaker and enjoying close ideological ties with Saudi Arabia and the Wahabbi school of Islam. This is another aspect to note: Afghanistan is most well-known as a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union; less recognised is that it was also a field for the rivalry which had arisen since the Iranian revolution between their Shi’ite state and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Sayyaf was one of the  most virulently anti-Shia elements within the movement, and his group (in black on the maps below) found itself involved in intense fighting with Hazara Shia groups in central Afghanistan.

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Sayyaf in 1984

By virtue of his Arab links, Sayyaf also happened to be a major connection to the foreign fighters in Afghanistan, which we often hear about, and who will become an important of the story in the 1990s when Salafist Islamism, having faced down the Soviet threat, finds itself in conflict with America and ‘the west’. I am going to explore these groups and their involvement in Afghanistan in more detail in another post, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, Sayyaf was one of the Afghans closest to Osama Bin Laden, with whom he established a training camp in the Jalalabad area during the war. He is also said to have been instrumental in negotiating his flight from Sudan back to Afghanistan in 1996, but we’ll get to that another time. The non-Afghan fighters recruited by the Maktab al-Khidamat (usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau) in Mosques around the world will have a fairly minimal influence on the war in terms of numbers of soldiers, but their financial support and the longer-term ideological significance of their involvement will become one of the defining stories of our age.

As noted above, all of the above groups who received help from Pakistan and the US were Sunni. Revolutionary Iran was, throughout the Afghan war, not disinterested in what was happening on its eastern borders. Although distracted by both internal turmoil as the Khomeini regime sought to quell domestic opponents, as well as the devastating war with Iraq, Iran was solicitous to assist the Shia minority (about 10%) in the country, the Persian-speaking Hazara, who are most-densely concentrated in the central uplands. These people had been, since the 19th century, an embattled and neglected group in Afghan society, suffering discrimination and poverty, which led to many of them moving to Kabul, or abroad, working in poorly-paid jobs under difficult conditions. When radical movements, both left-wing and Islamist, began to emerge in the 1960s, they were one of the groups most attracted to messages of social liberation and equality. Led by Shi’ite clerics trained in the holy cities of Qum (Iran) or Najaf (Iraq), they were one of the first to rise against communist rule and kept their region (the green bit on the maps below) largely free of outside interference throughout the 1980s. Unfortunately, the various Shia groups spent a great deal of time fighting each other and, while space doesn’t permit going into these internecine conflicts, by 1989, Iran had finally convinced them to form an alliance for the mutual defense of the Hazara community. This group was called the Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami (the Islamic Unity Party) and its first leader was Abdul Ali Mazari.


These are the major players on the anti-communist side. The pattern of the war was, in these early years, fairly predictable. The Soviet army controlled the cities, the insurgents controlled the rural 80% of the country. The Soviets attempted to use their air superiority to strike terror into the civilian population by bombing villages in the hope that they would refuse to help the Mujahideen. Did this work? Have a guess. The major effort was focused on the east of the country close to Pakistan, where the Mujahideen were coming in. Beyond this, however, the Soviets appeared to have no overall strategy to take control of the rural areas controlled by the Mujahideen. Even when they did cow an area into submission, as soon as they turned their backs, the insurgents slipped back into control. It was all eerily familiar to the difficulties the Americans had experienced trying to fight a guerilla war in Vietnam.

The Soviet forces were trained and equipped to fight a war against a conventional army in Central Europe, not a guerilla war against an enemy who could strike at them and disappear in the blink of an eye. The tide began to turn when outside aid started reaching the Mujahideen in serious quantities. In 1984, the Americans authorised the passing of Stinger missiles to the insurgents. This clip gives some indication of the profound impact this had on the balance of power. I have no idea where it’s from; in many ways it’s like an advert for Stinger missiles:

The fact that the Afghans (until then virtually powerless to do anything about the Soviet’s ability to hit them from the air whenever and wherever they wanted) could now shoot them down out of the sky, was a real game-changer. The Soviets were looking at an interminable war which neither side could conclusively win, and they knew it. But where, exactly, was all the money for this coming from? If you know anything about the Afghan war and America’s covert role in it, you will probably have heard of these characters: Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring (below):


Wilson, as a Democratic member of congress, and Herring, the socialite wife of a real-estate millionaire, were  rather unlikely allies of the Jihadists in Afghanistan in one way. In another, it made perfect sense. Both saw the Mujahideen’s struggle as part of a broader struggle against communism, and apparently gave little thought to the forces they might be unleashing by placing advanced weaponry in the hands of religious fundamentalists. Herring was herself deeply religious and virulently anti-communist. Essentially, she saw any enemy of the Soviet Union as a friend and it was through her close personal connection to General Zia that Herring opened the doors to an exponential increase of funding for the insurgents. By 1985, this aid had bloated to almost $300 million. The Saudis promised to match dollar for dollar the Americans’ contribution. Arms dealers were of course attracted like flies on shit. To cover their tracks, the Americans and Pakistanis procured Warsaw Pact weapons, for example, stockpiles of old Soviet weapons from Egypt. Israel helped out, as did China. There were even factories in America producing copies of Soviet weapons for the Mujahideen to fire at the Soviets. It wasn’t just weapons; there was a huge training camp outside Rawalpindi in Pakistan, which churned out thousands of skilled jihadists every year.

There is, by the way, a film about Wilson and Herring called Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, which I watched out of curiosity while writing this. Few things stand monument to the unshakeable hubris and pig-headed unwillingness of Americans to learn from the past, or even acknowledge their mistakes. It’s rare a movie is so bad as to actually make my jaw drop at the sheer stupidity of it, especially given that it was made after 9/11, and the so-called ‘war on terror’ and after everything we (should) know about the folly and short-sightedness of ploughing money and arms into Afghanistan. There is a sort of coda at the end where they recognise that the United States completely lost interest in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union left, and that maybe if they had built some schools and infrastructure, maybe the Taliban, al-Qaeda and all the rest of it could have been avoided. Maybe. Anyway, I watched it, so you don’t have to. With mass-media like this, it is really no surprise the Americans appear to learn nothing from their mistakes.

Anyway, back to the show. The initial Soviet belief that it could quickly reassert control over the country and get out began to fade. It became obvious that this was not going to happen, and that other political strategies would have to be explored. The most obvious one was to get rid of Karmal. Who better than Najibullah to take his place? Here’s how it went down. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he let it be known that the Soviets wanted out of Afghanistan, but that they would make sure they established a viable and friendly government there before they  left-easier said than done. By 1986, they had decided to replace Karmal, who went to Moscow for what he thought was a routine visit. The Russians told him he had to resign on grounds of ill-health, although one of their doctors confusingly told him he was fit as a fiddle (this is curiously reminiscent of their attempt to poison Amin, after which one of their own doctors resuscitated him). Karmal resigned and was kept around for another few months to make the whole thing look less like a coup. After he used his time plotting and trying to undermine Najibullah, however, they had him moved to Moscow where he was given an apartment and told to keep out of Afghan business from now on.

Najibullah knew that some attempt would have to be made at reconciliation with the Mujahideen groups. Offers were made to give the Islamists freedom to operate politically and to participate in running the country. A new constitution of 1987 established Islam as the state religion and offered the prospect of parliamentary democracy. All of these overtures were rejected by the Peshawar Seven, who were by this stage scenting outright victory. The bickering and infighting among them, however, did not bode well for prospects of them sharing power when the Soviets did finally leave their country. The Geneva Accords were signed in 1988 by the Afghan and Pakistan governments, with the US and USSR as guarantors. These did not take seriously into account those actually fighting the war-the Afghans themselves. Mujahideen groups were not invited to the talks, so they didn’t accept the agreement. These negotiations saw the Afghan war in terms of a proxy Cold War conflict, but to the Afghans it was a war of national liberation and religion. The fact is the Afghans didn’t care about the Americans’ war against the Soviet Union, and the Americans didn’t care about the Afghans’ war either. Nevertheless, a timetable was laid out for Soviet withdrawal. They would all be gone by 15 February 1989. Here is the last tank and the last soldier walking across the ironically-named Friendship bridge between the two countries:

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Gorbachev’s attempts at both saving face and leaving behind some semblance of stability were, however, wrecked by the Americans and Pakistan. Not to suggest that the Soviet Union were anything less than a brutal army of occupation and ruthless in their conduct of the war, but the fact remains that if honest efforts had been made by the US to support a government of reconciliation between the government and the more tractable of the Islamists, there is every reason to believe that Afghanistan might have found something resembling peace after the Soviet withdrawal. Gailani’s Mahaz-i-Milli, based around Kandahar and in the east, put feelers out for a peaceful transfer of power and the return of the king, Zahir Shah, who had been exiled since 1973 (see part 8). His movement enjoyed popularity among the Afghan people and refugees, but this popularity was not translated into power because the US-Pakistan favoured instead groups like Hakmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. Hardliners in the Reagan and Zia regimes chose to stymie efforts at reconciliation and instead push for total victory and humiliation of the USSR.

In the short term, ordinary Afghans paid the price; in the longer term, the west would also have cause to regret this. The Americans had originally committed themselves to cease arming the Mujahideen when the Soviets withdrew, but after withdrawal they went back on this promise and instead raised the bar for their compliance, demanding the Soviets cease sending any aid to the Najibullah regime. The Pakistan foreign minister described the Geneva Accords, which his own government had signed, as ‘an inconvenient episode that interrupted play’. Arms continued to flow in, and instead of going to factions who were prepared to compromise to put an end to the bloodshed, the money raised by Wilson and Herring went to those groups who sought nothing less than to impose a theocratic autocracy on the country. It is here the seeds of Afghanistan’s tragedy in the 1990s were sown.

Here is a map of how things stood when the Soviet Union pulled out:


Basically, Najibullah’s government controlled little more than the big cities and roads, the bits in red. His regime was expected to fall to the Mujahideen within weeks or months. In fact, it lasted far longer than many experts expected it would without outside help. They had had time to prepare a defensive war against the Islamists, who were nowhere near as effective fighting an offensive, conventional-type war that took on armies in the field and  actually had to take territory instead of just frustrating and wearing down another army. The difficulty became apparent when they attempted to take Jalalabad in March 1989. The plan, heavily urged on the Mujahideen by the US and Pakistan, was to capture the city, which was to become the capital of a government-in-waiting, led by Hekmatyar as Prime Minister and Sayyaf as Foreign Minister, which would then use it as a base to extend its rule over the whole country.

I should mention at this moment that by this point Zia and Rahman Khan were dead, having been killed in 1988, in a mysterious plane crash/explosion in which the US ambassador and several high-ranking generals were also killed. The identity of the perpetrators was never established. Pakistan was now led by Benazir Bhutto (below), and I really can’t pass this by without some tangent explaining how, after years of Islamic rule and conservatism under Zia’s military rule, this came to be the case.

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The closer Zia’s Pakistan allied to the U.S., the more he came under pressure to cloak his regime in at least the appearance of legitimacy. His first nod to this expedient was to hold, in 1984, a referendum on his measures to Islamise the administration. His proposals were approved with 98.5% of the electorate voting yes, which tends to happen in cases like this. He held elections the next year which took place under such strict constraints (parties were forbidden and everyone had to run as an independent) that boycotts were called from many of the big political groupings. A technocratic government was nevertheless formed and martial rule officially ended, although not before Zia passed a series of laws making it impossible for anyone to prosecute him for anything he had done while he was dictator. Notwithstanding this, Zia became unhappy with the resulting government anyway, which he denounced as corrupt three years later, promising to hold new elections, with similar limitations.

But Pakistani politics had gotten a lot more interesting since the 1985 elections, with the return to the country of Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali discussed in the last post. Benazir was as charismatic as her father and, along with her brothers, was repeatedly arrested and held in dreadful conditions in years following Zulfikar Ali’s hanging. Such were the effects on her health of being kept in solitary confinement in the desert, Zia bowed to outside pressure and allowed her to leave the country in 1984. From London, she led the PPP in exile, helping to orchestrate the pressure that prompted Zia’s holding of the referendum and elections. Bhutto called for a boycott of the new elections Zia planned to hold in 1988, but when Zia was killed that August, only two months before said elections, they suddenly became far more meaningful. Bhutto led the PPP to victory that November, becoming the Muslim world’s first female leader.

Hopes were high that Benazir Bhutto’s term as prime minister would usher in a new more enlightened era in Pakistani politics, and while this isn’t the place to go into its domestic consequences, in relation to the Afghan war, little changed. Despite her hatred of Zia and the ISI who had tormented her family for more than a decade, she retained his advisers and did not radically alter his policy towards the war. So, by the time the Mujahideen assaulted Jalalabad in March 1989, on the Pakistani side, nothing had changed, while everything appeared to have changed. The Mujahideen offensive was a failure and the government forces there held firm, putting up much fiercer resistance than expected. Unlike earlier in the war, mass defections did not take place. No doubt the defenders realised there would be no quarter given them if they lost. Having seen how the insurgents treated surrendered soldiers, they probably figured they might as well fight to the death. Khalis’ group, for example, had killed 70 army officers after capturing nearby Samarkhel.

Najibullah’s plan now was to dig in and appeal to more moderate elements among the Mujahideen to form a government of reconciliation, hoping that he would eventually wear them down. In a sense the tables were now turned. The government could appeal to Afghan nationalism and the claims of loyalty to the qawm, arguing that they were defending the country from forces who were being orchestrated by a foreign sponsor. Their forces showed more fight in these years, especially those led in the north of the country by Abdul Rashid Dostum (below), whose militia was drawn mainly from the Uzbek community and initially was chiefly responsible for defending the oilfields in the province of Jowzjan. As time went by, Dostum capabilities and the swelling ranks of his militia by disaffected from other groups (including Mujahideen), made this the most effective force at the government’s disposal and the only one really capable of moving around the country to plug holes in its defenses. With the departure of the Soviets, it took up much of the slack.

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While the government was able to hang on in Kabul until 1992, however, Najibullah’s strategy was doomed for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Americans and Pakistan had no intention of allowing some kind of negotiated peace to put an end to the war; they wanted total victory; secondly, Najibullah faced plotting and conspiracies among his own party, and in 1990 was almost overthrown in an attempted coup by the rival Khalqis (yep-that is still going on); thirdly, while the Afghan government continued to receive aid from the Soviet Union even after the latter’s troops pulled out, as we all know, the period from 1989 to 1991 saw the collapse, breathtaking in its rapidity really, of first the eastern European satellite states and then the USSR itself. All assistance to the government, therefore, came to an end at this point. All he could do was sit in Kabul and wait for the Mujahideen to come rolling into town. The final nail in the coffin was the defection of Dostum’s militia, now known as the Junbish-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), as the insurgents closed in on Kabul in March 1992. This was less for ideological than pragmatic reasons. The writing was already on the wall, and the loyalty of the various local militias was very much linked to whether or not the government could supply them with enough arms to maintain their power in their area. Leaders like Dostum were effectively turning into local warlords, a signs of things to come for Afghanistan in the years ahead, where keeping power was an end in itself as any kind of centralised state collapsed and was replaced by a series of de facto independent fiefdoms.

Junbish therefore, became one of the factions now moving in to fill the power vacuum as the government collapsed, working initially with Massoud’s forces, who were also among the first to reach Kabul. Najibullah resigned on March 18 (he was prevented from escaping by Junbish and forced to seek refuge in the UN compound) and the few government forces remaining capitulated in the weeks that followed, setting up an interim authority to hand over power to Massoud’s forces, who were approaching from the north. Massoud, however, was reluctant to enter the city without reaching a power-sharing deal with the other factions beforehand. He hesitated, therefore, and put out feelers to the other groups. Here is the situation in the country as a whole around the time the various factions were closing in on Kabul in April 1992 (most of the groups also had forces around the capital):


Massoud’s overtures resulted in an agreement to form an interim power-sharing agreement with the various groups. It would be nice to report that everyone got together and buried their differences in the interests of national salvation, and that the story ends there. As you probably already know, this isn’t what happened. Hekmatyar, urged on by Pakistan, refused to accept the post of prime minister and instead, dug in on the southern outskirts of the city with heavy artillery and urged his Hezb-e Islami on to outright victory. This should really come as no surprise. Massoud and Hekmatyar’s forces had effectively been at war for several years already, frequently attacking each other, and Pakistan were not keen to see Massoud and his followers assume positions of power in a postwar Afghanistan. He had all along acted largely independently of the ISI and frequently disparaged their strategic choices, being a vociferous critic of the Jalalabad offensive for example. I will leave it to another post to relate what happened next. I wrote something a while back about trying to make my posts shorter from now on; yet this one is already over 6000 words and, it will come as no surprise to hear, this story is far from over.

Featured image above: Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar attend talks outside Kabul in 1992 to end fighting between the Mujahideen factions.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 8: Afghanistan #1



With this first post on Afghanistan’s troubled recent history, I am slightly concerned that this blog is going into a bit too much detail. I mean, if it took three lengthy posts to get through the Lebanese civil war, how long is it going to take to explain the almost forty years of war that have ravaged this central-Asian nation? I started this blog as a kind of primer for newcomers, to the historical background of present conflicts in the Muslim world, not as a comprehensive history in any sense. On the other hand, my objective has also been to get past the kind of superficial understanding most people in the west have of these conflicts, and put names and faces to many of the events and individuals which are so often vaguely alluded-to but rarely understood. With that in mind, I will press forward and try to strike a balance between brevity and coherence, encompassing enough facts to make an interesting narrative without drowning that narrative in so much detail that we lose sight of the wood for the trees.

With that invocation to the spirit of brevity, let’s look at the background to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by going back to the 18th century. This is when the first political entity which can be regarded as the forerunner of Afghanistan was founded by a Pashtun soldier, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who became emir in 1747 after the death of the Persian shah whom he had served. The empire carved out by Durrani and his followers would come to stretch over an area covering not only modern-day Afghanistan but parts of northeastern Iran, eastern Turkmenistan, as well as much of Pakistan and northwestern India. Here is a map of the region, with the borders as they stand in 2016:


Bear in mind that in 1979, all those countries (in pink) to the north of Afghanistan were part of the Soviet Union, and if we go further back in time to the 19th century, the Russian empire. Not only did the Afghans have an empire to their north, they also had British India to their south, where Pakistan is today. With Persia to their west and China to their east, Afghanistan has never been short of powerful neighbours and potential invaders. In the 19th century the British (rather absurdly for a tiny island nation on the other side of the world) felt their ‘interests’ threatened by the burgeoning power of Tsarist Russia. If the Russians succeeded in imposing some kind of domination over Afghanistan, it was argued, they would have a vassal state right on the northern borders of India, British control over which was believed to be the key to the vitality of their empire and status as the world’s greatest superpower. With this in mind, the British sought to replace the Afghan emir, Dost Mohammad (below), who they believed was susceptible to Russian influence, with a puppet ruler of their own choosing.


The British invaded in December 1838 and by the Autumn of the following year they had taken Kabul and enthroned their appointee, Shuja Shah, who was incidentally a descendant of the Ahmad Shah Durrani, mentioned above, whose dynasty had been replaced by the Barakzai dynasty to which Dost Mohammad belonged. Although the British had had little trouble conquering and occupying Afghanistan, they (and they would not be the last) found the task of consolidating control over the country altogether more difficult. The Afghans did not accept Shuja Shah as a legitimate ruler and saw him as a puppet of foreign occupiers. While the British withdrew some of their forces, their soldiers stationed in Kabul brought in their wives and children, giving the impression they were settling down for a permanent occupation. Not only that, but many of the soldiers clearly regarded the whole campaign as an extended holiday against a foe they had no respect for from a military standpoint. Anecdotal evidence tells of soldiers arriving with camel trains loaded with food, fine wines and silver dinner sets, not to mention fox hounds for hunting.

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They were rudely awakened from this delusion by the hostile reception they received from the Afghans. Dost Mohammad led an insurgency against the occupiers, and although he was captured and exiled to India in late 1840, his son Wazir Akbar Khan carried on the struggle. By late 18141, the British position in Kabul had become practically indefensible, and they were looking for a negotiated way of extracting themselves from the country without sacrificing all of the gains of their initial conquest. Even this effort collapsed when the negotiators were killed by Akbar Khan and discipline began to break down amongst the soldiers and their camp followers in Kabul. The British general Elphinstone managed to secure the agreement of the Afghans to allow the British to evacuate Kabul and make their way towards the garrison at Jalalabad, about 100 kilometres to the east. This retreat was a disaster for the British. The party of 16,500 struggled through the snowbound passes and were massacred by the Pashtun warriors until only a single survivor made it alive to Jalalabad.


The First Anglo-Afghan war is chiefly remembered for this debacle in English-language sources. It is often presented in the folklore of empire as a humanitarian tragedy in which the British were victims of a cruel and barbaric enemy. The fact that the British were the invaders of a country halfway around the world and were, by any definition of the term, the aggressors in this conflict, is ignored in most accounts. This regional rivalry between the British and Russians was known by the British as the ‘Great Game’, although it was hardly a game for the Afghans caught in between. For the First Anglo-Afghan war, practically no mention is given to Afghan casualties. Indeed, if you a do a search for such a figure you are confronted at every turn by discussion of British casualties. It seems, just like general Tommy Franks in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, the Afghans were not deemed worthy of a body count in the 1840s either. It seems to me that this re-framing of the war in which the British were passive victims, ‘defending’ ‘their’ India from Afghan aggression, is a perfect example of history (and this is why history is important) as indoctrination, as laying out a narrative into which current and future events can be made to fit. Thus the attempt to conquer, or at least impose vassalage upon, a poverty-stricken nation half a world away, is somehow made to appear defensive in nature. Does this sound familiar? It should.

An unfortunate consequence of such distortions is that we don’t learn our lesson from events. Afghanistan is the place where western empires go to not learn their lessons. The Victorians in Afghanistan were really good at this, although the opposite appeared to be the case in the immediate aftermath of the war. While the British sent their troops back into Afghanistan to exact revenge (as I say, it’s almost impossible to know how many they killed) and retook Kabul in September 1842, they did realise that occupation of the country was more hassle than it was worth and agreed to the return of Dost Mohammad as an ally instead of enemy. They had their buffer state. This policy was indeed successful enough in the next few decades that the Afghan emir did not intervene in 1857, despite pleas for help from the Indians, when the Indian rebellion against the British took place. Lessons, if learnt, however, were soon forgotten. In 1878, the son of Dost Mohammad, Sher Ali Khan (below left), reluctantly accepted a Russian diplomatic mission (he was left with little choice, they just turned up on his doorstep) and when the British insisted on sending their own, the emir warned them not to, and that they would be forcibly expelled if they tried to enter the country without permission.


The British ignored his warnings and invaded the country, once again overrunning large swathes of territory with little difficulty. When the emir died the following year, his son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan (above right) attempted to negotiate an agreement allowing a British presence in the country, territorial concessions, and British control over Afghanistan’s foreign relations. While this kept the British satisfied for a while, an uprising in Kabul brought the army back in again and a more destructive series of battles finally led to another agreement between the emir and the British similar to the last. Although the diplomatic mission withdrew from Kabul, and Afghanistan would essentially be in control of its own internal affairs, the British would take responsibility for its external relations. It would be almost 40 years between the end of this war (1880) and the Third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, when the Afghans used British disarray after the first world war to wrest back control of their foreign affairs and become a truly independent nation. One major concession the British did win, however, was the Afghan emir’s acceptance of the Durand line as the border between Afghanistan and British India.

It is worth considering the Durand line for a minute. It was agreed in the 1890s by the emir and a British civil servant called Durand. It represented the furthest possible limit which the British could practically expect to establish their authority without getting bogged down in the kind of interminable conflict which we have seen above. The fact that the border bore no relation whatsoever to ethnic, linguistic or political realities on the ground seems to have had zero bearing on their calculations. This is not just a piece of historical trivia; it will have very real and dangerous consequences for the future. The border in fact cut right through an area in which the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan live, the Pashtun, leaving half the Pashtun community in Afghanistan and the other half in what would in 1947 become Pakistan. To this day, this border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is little more than a line on a map in many places and people pass back and forth freely as if it didn’t exist. This will become a huge factor in facilitating the resistance to Soviet and later American occupation. The fact that the Pastuns were divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Pastun’s dream of an independent homeland carved out of the two countries, would also lead to tension between the two countries. This ‘Pashtunistan’ would continue to exercise a hold over some politicians until at least the 1970s, although in recent years it has receded in importance as a bone of contention.

While we are on the subject of Pashtuns, it should be noted that these were only one of many ethnic groups in the country, the other major ones being the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmens, and Baluchis. As will be seen, however, most Afghans loyalties operated on a much more local level than national identity would suggest. These ethnic groups do not, therefore, equate with politically cohesive nationalities. Hence, despite all its troubles in the last 40 years, there has never really been a serious threat of the Afghan state breaking up along ethnic lines as happened, for example, in Yugoslavia. Despite all their disagreements on other matters, Afghans seem broadly comfortable with and accepting of a multi-ethnic state. These ethnic identities nevertheless did at times provide the lines along which alliances were made and rivalries forged, and sometimes it seems that the Afghans embraced jihad so fervently because they had so little else to unite them against foreign aggressors. What we see in Afghanistan is really multiple lines of division intersecting and overlapping. One major one which will emerge is the gulf between rural and urban Afghanistan. Indeed, the longer I write this blog, I more I find the great opposition emerging in all these stories is not between Islam and the west, or communism versus capitalism, or good versus evil, but rural versus urban-the modernised and wealthy against the left-behind.

Afghanistan faced the future after its third war with Britain as a forward-looking, modernising kingdom (the emir became a king after 1926), or at least its leaders did, and this distinction is important to make, because the efforts of Amanullah Khan (below left), who had led the Afghans to (a kind of) victory against the British in 1919, to modernise his country along western lines is a forerunner of the kind of narrative that will be played out again as the country descends into violence near the end of the century.


Amanullah Khan was influenced by an intellectual named Mahmud Tarzi (above right) who in turn sought to emulate in Afghanistan the transformation of society which Kemal Ataturk had carried out in Turkey, where a traditional Islamic society had self-consciously adopted all that it thought advantageous in western society (e.g. technology, dress-codes) while seeking to retain its Islamic character. Amanullah Khan visited Europe often, loved European culture and fast cars, and (most shockingly) allowed his queen Soraya, who was Tarzi’s daughter, to go around without a veil.


Soraya was made minister of education and encouraged girls to get an education and to dispense with the veil themselves. A campaign of westernisation was pushed on all fronts that was really only welcomed by a small elite in Kabul and perhaps some of the other cities. The vast majority of Afghans’ reality was quite different. For starters, most people lived in rural areas, which in a country as mountainous and (in many places) geographically inhospitable as Afghanistan, meant isolated rural communities, villages or fortified settlements, little touched by centralised state rule of any form and ruled over by the twin powers of the malik, or chief, who were chosen generally by consensus, and the mullah, who were religious leaders and advisers, although once again these figures usually emerged from their own areas as a result of local patronage or theological knowledge. The political unit which really mattered for most people in Afghanistan was the qawm which has been defined by Angelo Rasanayagam as:

‘. . . an autonomous and somewhat elusive network of relationships, in the eyes of which the state was an intrusion. This vast rural space is Afghanistan proper, and could be described as a community of interests, local and traditional, which, along with the multi-ethnic composition of the population, inhibited the development of a modern nation-state. The interaction of the competing forces of the state, symbolized by Kabul and its bureaucracy, and the qawm would constitute the political history of twentieth-century Afghanistan.’

The conservative Afghanistan of the rural qawm chafed under the king’s attempts to drag their society into a future they were far from sure they wanted. Amanullah promulgated a constitution (in itself a radical act) discouraging the veil, guaranteeing freedom of worship and education for girls; torture and slavery were abolished, all of which is great, but then you have more peculiar preoccupations making their way into the prescribed new order: men with beards would not be allowed to work for the government, for example, and would have to dress in a western-style suit and tie. The reforms were a particular threat to the influence and livelihood of the mullahs and, after the king visited Europe in 1927, photographs made their way back home of Queen Soraya without her veil, fraternising with European men. All sorts of wild rumours about the king drinking alcohol and abandoning Islam began to spread among the population and by 1928 large parts of the country were in armed revolt against the king. Some authors, such as Tamim Ansary, whose suspicions have been alerted to the presence of T.E.Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) in Peshawar, have surmised that the British deliberately facilitated distribution of such pictures, and helped fund the Islamic fundamentalist movement which overthrew Amanullah in 1929. It would certainly not be the last time a western power backed the most reactionary, conservative forces in Afghan society to combat more progressive elements.


The new king was the above character, Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik bandit who just happened to find himself in the right place at the right time, leading the forces that took Kabul at the time the king fled the country. He must go down as one of history’s unlikeliest kings, completely illiterate and the son of a water-carrier, his Tajik ethnicity, however, was the biggest drawback in the eyes of the country’s Pastun majority, and his reign lasted only nine months, a period marked by policies the opposite of Amanullah but just as intolerant, forcing men to wear beards, women to wear the veil, and abolishing education for girls. Kalakani was dethroned as king by Mohammed Nadir Shah, a descendant of Dost Mohammad, who had quite cleverly ridden out the last turbulent years of Amanullah’s reign by keeping a low profile, disassociating himself from the king whom he served as ambassador in faraway France, and all the while reminding the British of his readiness to step in and replace the king. Nadir Shah took the country by force after the short reign of Kalakani, although was assassinated four years later in what appears to have been revenge for the killing of a supporter of Amanullah.

His son, who succeeded him, Mohammed Zahir Shah (below), was to reign for forty years.This was to be a period of almost unprecedented peace and development of sorts. The king and his prime minister from 1953-63,  Mohammed Daoud Khan (below right), were adept at playing the two Cold War rivals against each other, securing funding for development projects such as dams and schools, from both the United States and the Soviet Union, who both courted Afghanistan as an ally.

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Daoud, who was both related to the king by blood and married to his sister, caused tensions with Pakistan and the non-Pastun groups in Afghanistan by pushing the Pashtunistan issue too much and seeking to strengthen the Pastuns at the expense of other minorities. The king removed him from power in 1963, and proceeded to introduce a series of reforms introducing elections and womens rights in the following years. While a step in the right direction, these reforms disguised a lack of real material progress in the Afghanistan where most people lived. Once again, we see an urban elite thriving and dictating to the ‘backward’ rural masses and once again, for all their progressive good intentions, the masses resented this. These years are nevertheless looked back upon as a golden era, which is not surprising when you consider what followed.

Daoud, who cultivated links with Marxists within the country and the Soviet Union, plotted a takeover and in 1973, when the king was abroad on holiday, took control with the help of the army, who was coming increasingly under the influence of Soviet advisers and Marxist intellectuals. Instead of declaring himself king as all previous usurpers had done, Daoud abolished the monarchy and made himself president of a new Afghan republic. Instead of placating the more progressive elements of Afghan society, however, these developments merely emboldened those on the left to push ahead with an agenda which (considering how far Afghanistan was from meeting the conditions traditionally identified by Marxists as making a country ready for communism) can only be described as revolutionary. The years that followed were marked by unrest and jockeying for position among the various left-wing factions in Kabul and other urban areas. Many young men and women who had been trained in the Soviet Union were returning home, impatient to put their revolutionary ideals of a better society into practice. At the same time, opportunities for these educated young people were diminishing due to rising unemployment  and corruption within the state. The late 1960s had already seen student and workers strikes and the corresponding rise of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), who helped Daoud seize power.

Emblem of the PDPA

Actually, it was only one PDPA that assisted Daoud, because since 1967 there had been two rival parties using the same. A time-honoured tradition of the left, the bitter factional rivalry, had developed between two groups: one called the Parchamis (banner) and another called the Khalqis (the masses). The Parchamis, led by Babrak Karmal (below, far right) had helped Daoud. Recognising that Afghanistan was far from ready for Soviet-style communism, Karmal and his faction argued for a more gradualist approach, building mass support for a revolution from below. Hence their pragmatic support for Daoud, who was far from being a communist. The Khalqis on the other hand, who were led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin (below far left and middle respectively), argued for a Leninist-style takeover, orchestrated by a small but tightly-disciplined vanguard.

Left to right: Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Babrak Karmal.

The Parchami’s support for Daoud’s government was downplayed by Karmal and his allies, who saw it as potentially damaging to their socialist credentials. They were already being denounced as sellouts by the Khalqis. The honeymoon between the government and its socialist supporters didn’t last long in any case. Resenting Soviet high-handedness, and pursuing his own policy towards Pakistan in relation to Pashtunistan, Daoud began to attempt to steer his regime away from Soviet dependency. The United States, Iran and other oil-producing nations were courted in an effort to fill in the potential gaps in foreign aid (on which Afghanistan was heavily dependent). By 1975, many Pachamis had been removed from the government and Soviet advisers dismissed. The seeds of a takeover of power by the PDPA with Soviet backing were sown. All they had to do was stop bickering amongst themselves.

They managed this for long enough to remove Daoud from power with the help of the army, although they had a few lucky breaks along the way. The Saur (the month of the Persian calendar in which it took place) revolution of 1978 was precipitated by the government’s extrajudicial killing of a PDPA notable. His funeral was the scene of an impressive demonstration of numbers by the left. Daoud next had Taraki and Karmal arrested but not Amin. This was the first of a series of cock-ups by the Daoud security forces without which the coup may not have succeeded at all. Amin was able to hide plans for the revolution (which the PDPA had been planning, but for later in the year) under a mattress in his kids’ room. Kept under house arrest, the police allowed one of his accomplices to come and visit  him thinking it was his brother, and Amin was thus able to issue instructions to his allies in the army. As if this was not bad enough, the government issued orders to the army to arrange dancing for all the soldiers in order to celebrate the arrest of the communist leaders.

The next day saw the Daoud regime crumble. The depth of support for the PDPA in the army, as well as official incompetence, swept the communists to power, with Taraki as new leader of the country. Daoud was killed when he drew a revolver at the soldiers who had come to arrest him. Despite what was widely believed in the west at the time, the Soviets seemed to have been surprised as anyone else at this turn of events, but welcomed their new ally to the south with cautious optimism. Once again, however, it is crucial to remember that this ‘revolution’ bore little relation to the everyday reality of the vast majority of Afghans, whose lives the state had hardly touched up to now, or who were left out of the grandiose plans of urban intellectuals. Politics in the 20th century had been marked by intermittent plans and idealistic constitutions. You can write all the idealistic constitutions you want, however, but they are not worth the paper they’re written on if you can’t create institutions to put them into execution. The following video is just a series of images with some nice music that gives some idea of the atmosphere in Kabul after the revolution. Most people just seem to be standing around nonplussed, probably wondering what is going to happen next and hoping the politicians will just stick to killing each other and leave them alone.

Unfortunately for everyone, the politicians will not restrict themselves to  just killing each other in the coming years. The reality was that the communists did not have widespread support outside the army, and a small group of urban intellectuals and workers. They had made their revolution by infiltrating the army, in fact ‘revolution’ is a misleading word; it was really little more than a coup. Once they had power, the PDPA was intent on making their vision for a better future more than merely idealistic sentiments written on a page. They began sending their cadres out into the countryside to put their blueprint for progress into action. This involved education for all (including women), unveiling, banning child marriage, and introducing land reform, canceling the mortgages that held much of the rural poor in debt slavery, and giving equal status to the ethnic minorities…all of which, once again, sounds great, and all of which, once again, was resented deeply, especially by the traditional landlord and clerical class whose power was threatened by these measures.

The manner in which these reforms were executed did not help. As Robespierre said (although I’m not sure he took his own advice) ‘No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.’ This is also the case, it might be added, even when intentions are good. Those sent out of transform Afghan society were often young and inexperienced, if idealistic, and treated the locals in a high-handed manner, riding roughshod over centuries-old traditions. History tends tends to record the backlash against this treatment, and I have no doubt there were many who welcomed these reformers, but the influence of the mullahs and maliks was decisive in co-ordinating resistance. Nor did this resistance take place in an ideological vacuum, because the left were not the only movement to have been emboldened by the tumult of the 1960s and 70s. There were also the Islamists. Again, it has to be borne in mind that we are talking here about a modern political movement and not the religion of Islam.

Political Islam had its beginnings in Afghanistan in the mid-1960s, when a group of academics in Kabul founded the Jamiat i-Islami (Society of Islam). It is important to note that this movement had little connection with the rural clerics, but saw itself as a modern force of renewal through the introduction of Islam into political life. It had more in common with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria which has already been discussed in previous posts, in that its ideology was fired by the notion that Muslims must adapt the material advances of the west in order to strengthen Islamic society. We must therefore be cautious about using the term ‘fundamentalist’ here, in the way we might use it about the Taliban later on. Unlike the Taliban (who wanted to ‘return’ Afghanistan to how they imagined the world was in the time of Muhammad), these Islamists had no problem with modernisation and technology; in fact, they saw it as essential if Islam was to compete with the west. They were cautious, however, of repeating the past mistakes of Amanullah and Ataturk, of neglecting the Islamic principles of society.

Initially, the Islamists had little direct impact of politics. It was a movement that grew within the university of Kabul, and was opposed to both the burgeoning left as it seized control over the state, and the traditional religious hierarchy of the countryside. There were fissures within Islamism in Afghanistan, just as we have seen elsewhere, from the very beginning. Some, such as the theologian Burhannudin Rabbani and his young follower, Ahmad Shah Massoud (both Tajiks) favoured a more long-term strategy for the Islamification of the state, whereas other more radical Islamists like the Pashtun, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, favoured an immediate overthrow of the corrupt order. Rivalries within the ranks were as much ethnic as ideological, with followers tending to gravitate towards leaders of their own ethnic group; this, incidentally, could also be said of the rivalries within PDPA. Both Massoud and Hekmatyar were engineering students and members of Muslim student groups which were organising opposition to the growing Soviet influence in their country. Finding the Islamists of the Jamiat too inclined to compromise, Hekmatyar in 1976 founded the  Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic party). Here are the dudes in question:

Left to right: Rabbani, Massoud and Hekmatyar.

In the aftermath of the Saur revolution of 1978, in any case, the only question seemed to be which faction of the left would control the country. The Islamists seemed a politically-insignificant throwback to the past, and few expected them to play any important role in the country’s future.

A number of things happened in 1978-9, however, to escalate the situation rapidly. Firstly, the government responded to resistance against its reforms by pressing ahead with an even more radical agenda and imprisoning/torturing/executing those who opposed them. It doesn’t take a genius to predict (although it is amazing how often this mistake is made) that this did not have the desired effect of cowing the population but instead provoked more stubborn reaction, pushing many who might not have sympathised with them into siding with the hardcore Islamists, whose campaign against the government began to take the form of armed struggle. Many refugees from the government’s reforms fled across the border to Pakistan, where they were welcomed by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (below), a general who had taken power in a coup in 1977, and was virulently anti-communist. The Pakistans gave the Afghans a stipend, set up training camps to turn them into insurgents, and sent them back into the country to fight the government. Pakistan is going to play a key role in the Afghan war and I will go into more detail about the situation there in a subsequent post.


The first months of 1979 saw the Islamists under Hekmatyar sieze an important military post in the area bordering Pakistan. On the other side of the country, the province of Herat bordering Iran (at that time undergoing its own revolution, see posts 3 and 4 of this blog) was rocked by an insurrection of Shia, a religious minority in the country and destined to suffer much in the decades that followed. Most worrying for the Afghan government was the collapse and demoralisation of its own troops, who showed little stomach for fighting their own people, and in some cases went over to the insurgents. Indeed, some of the army commanders who abandoned the PDPA government would later become leaders of the mujahideen.

It should be remembered that the Islamist insurgency was provoked by the pace of reforms imposed by the PDPA and not the Soviet invasion itself, as is often portrayed. The Soviet leadership were in fact acutely concerned at this stage that the Afghan regime was being reckless in the speed with which it was attempting to ‘modernise’ the country, and warned their protegés to slow things down, to win over the population with economic and political measures instead of simply imposing them by force. This concern in Moscow, and the fact that the Afghan government ignored them, attests to how little control the Soviet Union had over developments at this stage. Western propaganda at the time encouraged the belief that the Russians were pulling all the strings and that Taraki and co. were merely their puppets. In fact, the Soviets were very reluctant to get involved initially, knowing full well the fate that awaited those who attempted to interfere in Afghan politics. They could not help being concerned, however, that the coup in Kabul was largely outside their control and that its leaders, who saw them as re-enacting the legendary heroics of Lenin and Trotsky, seemed oblivious to their warnings.

The Soviet government became even more concerned in September 1979 when Amin had the more pro-Soviet Taraki removed from power and killed. Seeking to follow a course more independent of Moscow, Amin sent out feelers to Pakistan for a deal which would end their support for the mujahideen, and even made overtures to the Americans. In the meantime, the repression within the country was ratcheted up a notch, as enemies (real or imagined) of Amin were locked up in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul, where many thousands would be tortured and executed. It is in this period that the Soviets appear to have moved towards the decision to intervene militarily. Despite an awareness of the risks involved and the international condemnation that would meet such a move, the imperative not to ‘lose’ Afghanistan had come, in the groupthink at the politburo, to override all other considerations. A cornerstone of this plan would be the removal of Amin and his replacement by a more Soviet-friendly alternative.

Babrak Karmal’s parchami faction were perfectly placed to fulfill this role. They had been ousted by Amin and Taraki shortly after the Saur revolution and their plans for a counter-coup exposed. Karmal, who had already been gotten out of the way by being sent to Czechoslovakia as ambassador, refused to return and instead plotted against his rivals. His moment had come in the winter of 1979 as the Soviets sought for a compliant alternative to Amin. On the 27 December, the KGB went into action. At first they sent in a cook to Amin’s residence at the Tajbeg palace, where he was hosting a banquet, to put poison in the food. While Amin (and apparently many of his guests) were slipping into comas, Soviet doctors who were not aware of the plan to kill him, helped pump his stomach and revive him. At this point the building was stormed by troops who killed Amin with a grenade. Up to the very end, he reportedly believed the Soviets were on their way to help him, rather than the ones carrying out his assassination. The next morning, Babrak Karmal was announced as the new president of Afghanistan and a formal request for Soviet military assistance made. At the same moment, 80,000 troops were making their way into the country by land and air.

It should be noted that the United States already had a covert program to assist the Islamist forces before the Soviet invasion. Accounts differ, but key figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates openly admit that the purpose of such aid was to provoke Soviet intervention and to lure the Russians into their own version of Vietnam. If this was the case, they were to be successful beyond their wildest dreams. After the Soviets fell for this ‘bear trap’, American aid, channelled via Pakistan, was increased by several orders of magnitude. It is hard to ignore the irony that, just at the time when the United States was at loggerheads with an Islamist regime in Iran, often portrayed as part of some ‘clash of civilisations’, they were financing the same fundamentalists with whom they will claim to be mortal enemies within twenty years. Just to outline the point, here is footage of Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser at the time, meeting the mujahideen on the Pakistani border and telling them: ‘your cause is right and God is on your side’.



I couldn’t resist adding this:


Featured image above: Mujahideen stand atop a downed Soviet helicopter, 1980s Afghanistan.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 8: Afghanistan #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 4. Iran: Revolution #2



I posited at the end of the last post not one Iranian revolution, but two. This is not the standard historiographic framework in which the revolution is examined, and I wouldn’t push the idea too far (it was mainly to justify dividing the story up into two posts), but it does add emphasis to an important aspect of this story which is often overlooked with the benefit of hindsight. That is, that while Iran became an Islamic republic in the years that followed, this is not what many of the revolutionaries had in mind when they helped remove the Shah. The process by which Khomeini and his followers prevailed over these other revolutionary factions in the years after the first revolution, will be the subject of this post. This dichotomy is supported by Khomeini himself, who in 1983 referred to this period of consolidation (and specifically the taking of hostages at the American embassy) as  a ‘second revolution’. The character which the revolution in Iran took had profound consequences for the west, and especially America’s, relationship with the region (largely due to the hostage crisis), for the civil war in Lebanon, which had been raging since 1975, and of course relations with Iraq, with whom Iran would be embroiled in a devastating war from 1980 to 1988.

In the political intrigues which follow, I will broadly divide the conflict into two camps: the clerical or ‘Khomeinist’ faction, who were working towards a theocratic state led by an Islamic jurist (Khomeini himself, until his death in 1989) and their erstwhile allies in the revolution who, while they envisaged some kind of role for the clergy in the new order, did not necessarily foresee that it would take the kind of leading role that Khomeini and his followers sought. At the moment of Khomeini’s return, however, it was far from clear that these two factions were working at cross purposes to each other. On the contrary, while Khomeini’s first speech after arrival at the airport was uncompromising in its attitude to the government left behind by the Shah and led by Bakhtiar (‘I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth’), he nonetheless appointed as the prime minister of his rival administration Mehdi Bazargan, whose background did not differ profoundly from Bakhtiar’s. Bazargan agreed to be prime minister only after a few days of reflection, after warning Khomeini that he did not favour a thoroughly Islamic state apparatus, and that he was committed to western-style democratic principles.

It appears that in these early months, Khomeini either believed he would have to compromise his principles by co-operation with less committed Islamists for practical purposes (he and his supporters were not at this stage in a sufficiently strong position to overpower all opposition), or that he was biding his time and playing down his real intentions until his supporters were ready to elbow their fellow-revolutionaries out of the way. Certainly from their meetings with Khomeini in Paris before the revolution, non-clerical opposition figures like Bazargan, Banisadr and Sanjabi had been left with the impression that the Ayatollah favoured merely an advisory role for the clergy, with politics left to the politicians and himself as a distant, spiritual figurehead rather than an actual ruler. This was in line with their own ambitions. Given that Khomeini never subsequently explained his thinking in this period, his intentions and strategy at any given stage are somewhat opaque, and we are left to guess what he was up to based on his later actions and statements made at the time. He held a press conference (this is the only picture I’ve ever seen in which Khomeini is smiling) to announce he had appointed Bazargan.


It is worth quoting at some length what he said:

‘. . . through the guardianship that I have from the holy lawgiver I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him, he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the shari‘a. Opposing this government means opposing the shari‘a of Islam and revolting against the shari‘a, and revolt against the government of the shari‘a has its punishment in our law. Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.’

This was innovative in Islamic political thought. Sovereignty, Khomeini was claiming, did not ultimately lie with the people or a monarch, or indeed Khomeini himself. It lay with God, and as God’s appointed guardian on earth, the Ayatollah was taking upon himself the role of interpreting God’s will in political matters. At numerous vital junctures in the months ahead, Khomeini would increasingly play this trump card: asserting that to defy his will was defying God’s. Khomeini’s contention that the government should be headed by a ‘guardianship of the jurist’ (Vilayat-e Faqih) was central to the conflicts that lay ahead. He had expounded it in his writings but in the early stages of the revolution, these ideas were not widely known to the public, or even to his more secular allies. Khomeini kept this concept, which would make him the supreme authority in the state, relatively quiet for the moment, which was probably a wise course of action. Even among his fellow Ayatollahs it was not accepted for the most part. Opponents argued that within traditional Shi’a thought, Vilayat-e Faqih had merely extended to widows and orphans, but not to political control over society as a whole. The leading Ayatollah who argued that the clergy should take a back seat in politics was Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari:


Shariatmadari had been, for the past few decades, one of the leading liberal thinkers among the Marja (the highest-level Ayatollahs in Shi’ism) and an advocate of peaceful protest against the Shah, for the implementation of the constitution of 1906. This would have retained the Shah as a weak constitutional monarch and made Iran a representative democracy. The Shah and his regime, with their characteristic stupidity, cracked down hard on Shariatmadari and other pacifist opponents, funneling opposition into more violent, confrontational channels. After his massacre of unarmed protesters, Shariatmadari’s condemnation of the Shah’s regime as ‘unIslamic’ was one of the milestones on the road to its collapse, depriving it of legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. After the revolution, however, Shariatmadari’s call for a constitutional democratic form of government, with the clergy once again retreating from political activity, made him an influential opponent of Khomeini and his followers.

Even if Khomeini was content to keep his concept of a Vilayat-e Faqih muted for the moment, it is clear that his supporters were mobilising for such an eventuality from an early stage. A secret organisation set up by Khomeini was already in existence before the fall of the Shah. After the Ayatollah’s return in February, the Islamic Republican Party (the IRP) was founded, which would play a leading role in consolidating the Islamists’ power. Among its founders were some of the central figures in the power-struggle ahead: Mohammad Beheshti, Ali Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Javad Bahonar. I find that its usually easier to remember a name when you can put a face to it, and there are a lot of names and middle-aged men with beards in what lies ahead, so we might as well have a look at some of them now:

Mohammad Beheshti
From left to right: Behesti, Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Bahonar.

Behesti was the leading member of the IRP from the start. For him and his followers, the first step was to establish some kind of mandate for the foundation of an Islamic republic. This would not be difficult, given that such a state was one of the rallying-calls in the protests against the Shah. A referendum was held at the end of March in which 99% of the electorate voted in favour. What is crucial to remember at this stage is that the ballot simply asked if the voter wanted an Islamic republic or not. No definition of what that would mean was offered, and while almost everyone could agree that they wanted an Islamic republic, what that actually meant differed widely in practice. These differing interpretations and the latent conflict they involved could be papered over in the heady days after the revolution’s victory, but they could not be avoided forever, or even for long. For the moment, almost everyone could rally around the slogan at least.

Even the armed leftist groups who had suffered most from the Shah’s repression, and now emerged as the strongest military factions, besides the army, were not necessarily opposed to some religious element in the new dispensation. Of the two largest groups, the People’s Mujahedeen supported a yes in the referendum, and the Fedayan-e Khalq (the ‘People’s Majority’) renounced armed struggle and supported the Islamists on a range of issues, hoping (in vain) to be tolerated as a peaceful opposition. Iran’s communists, the Tudeh (masses) party also supported not only the revolution, but the clerical faction in the coming struggles against their leftist rivals. It may seem strange to us that left-wing Marxist groups like these could support an Islamic element in governance, but we must recall the strain of ‘red Shi’ism’ discussed in the last post, exemplified by the writings of Ali Shariati, which was extremely popular among left-leaning intellectuals in Iran in the 1970s. This fusion of Shia Islam and Marxist thought saw no contradiction between religion and practical socialism; on the contrary, it saw true adherence to Shia principles as necessarily bringing into existence the kind of socially-just and egalitarian state of affairs advocated by Socialists. In many respects, it can be compared to the brand of ‘liberation theology’ which emerged in Latin American Catholicism in the 1970s and ’80s, which found itself in conflict with the more conservative establishment of the church in Rome. These left-wing Islamists have been largely forgotten due to their defeat and suppression by the more conservative brand of ‘black Sh’ism’ which prevailed in the revolution.

How Khomeini brought about this defeat has much to do with the development of his own armed groups to counter the threat of the leftists, which was one of his first priorities. Of the several groups set up, by far the most important were the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami (literally, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) and Hezbollah (the Party of God-note that usually when Hezbollah are mentioned in the west, the reference is to Lebanese Hezbollah, a later movement that was supported by the Iranian government). Sepah would in time become an elite part of the state’s military apparatus. In the atmosphere of fervid enthusiasm, they had grown rapidly to 11,000 members by September 1979, and were under the command of Hashemi Rafsanjani. The Hezbollah were less a formal military organisation than a paramilitary gang, extremely effective at intimidating gatherings of Khomeini’s opponents, fighting with clubs and other improvised weapons. Hezbollah would, in 1980, be instrumental in driving the leftist groups either underground or into exile by attacking their meeting places and bookstores.

Left-wing activists (foreground) are attacked by Hezbollah (under the monument in the background), February 1980.

The next step was to flesh out what was meant by an ‘Islamic Republic’, with the writing of a constitution for said republic. This was where Khomeini could expect the greatest ideological resistance which, besides the armed leftist groups, came from those members of the interim government who belonged to Bazargan’s Freedom Movement. This party had similarities to the earlier National Front of Mossadegh, advocating liberal democratic values with a more overt Islamic cast than the National Front. A good European comparison might be the Christian Democrat parties of the postwar period, basically seeking to adopt most of a the trappings of a modern parliamentary democracy, but keeping the religious influence as a foundation. For the sake of shorthand, I will hereafter refer to them as the ‘moderates’, while recognising that that term is less than ideal. In the discussions surrounding a new constitution, these moderate Islamists were, in the beginning, a formidable obstacle to the full implementation of Khomeini’s program, given that they dominated the government which was responsible for drafting the constitution. Here are some of their leading members:

Leading members of the Freedom Movement (left to right): Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, Medhi Bazargan, Abdolhassan Banisadr and Ibrahim Yazdi.

Ayatollah Shariatmadari was also consulted in the drafting of this constitution. The first version was published in June 1979, and merely gave a weak advisory role to the clergy. There was nothing about the Vilayat-e Faqih. It is interesting to note at this stage that Khomeini seems to have judged that the clergy’s claims to authority had been pushed as far as they would go under the circumstances. He declared the draft constitution ‘correct’ and approved it for referendum. The Freedom Movement and its allies, therefore, seemed on the brink of realising their ambitions. Then, something strange happened. Instead of quitting while they were ahead, the moderates felt duty-bound to have the new constitution debated by an elected assembly before its ratification, as they had promised their supporters. Despite warnings that, under the circumstances, any elections for an assembly would be dominated by IRP supporters, they allowed this to take place. In August, a body of ‘experts’ was elected to review the draft constitution. 55 of the 73 members were clerics aligned with Khomeini who, no doubt seeing his chance, announced that the new constitution should be entirely Islamic, and that non-clerical members of the body should not even enter into discussion on the religious elements.

It is in this period that the Islamists begin to gain the upper hand and flex their muscles over their erstwhile revolutionary allies. Newspapers associated with the left-wing opposition were attacked and closed, Hezbollah and other groups became more assertive, attacking opposition rallies and forcing women to cover themselves up in the street. Behesti, as chairman of the constitutional assembly, led the discussion towards acceptance of the Vilayat-e Faqih. Although it continued to be resisted (Ayatollah Taleghani warned at this point: ‘may God forbid autocracy under the name of religion’) by principled individuals, these were increasingly lone voices. Far from opposing the granting of the role of supreme leader to Khomeini, the masses seemed in favour of it. Clerical opponents like Shariatmadari either didn’t have the stomach for a showdown or, like Taleghani (9 September 1979) died at this opportune moment.

There had been signs before this that the provisional government lacked real power. Orders were being followed far more assiduously by the IRP and the Council of the Islamic Revolution. A great deal of the day-to-day running of the country was also being exercised by the thousands of komitehs (committees) which had been set up around the country as the Shah’s government collapsed. These were local organisations which, in their autonomy and ad-hoc nature, are in many ways analgous to the Soviets that exercised power ruled the early phase of the Russian revolution. By November the shape of the new constitution had emerged, giving broad powers to Khomeini as faqih (supreme leader), to be held for the rest of his life. The faqih was to be at the top of the hierarchy of government, with power to appoint the heads of the armed services and declare war or peace. It was also within his gift to appoint the heads of the national TV and radio stations, and even to remove the president if he was judged incompetent by the parliament. The faqih also had the right to veto candidates for the presidential election if he saw fit.

Such sweeping powers for an unelected position did not go uncontested. Those few remaining within the constitutional assembly, such as Banisadr, warned that it threatened to turn Iran into an autocracy again. Even if deference was paid to Khomeini personally, it was argued that after his death such powers might be abused by a less wise and righteous successor. Debates continued, long after the original time alloted to the assembly had elapsed. Despite opposition to the clerics, however, an atmosphere was intensifying with time, in which any disagreement with Khomeini could be interpreted and portrayed as a lack of revolutionary zeal. In such an atmosphere, it was easy for accusations of sympathy towards the former regime or foreign powers, to take hold in people’s imagination. Into this atmosphere, an event occurred in November which finally and decisively made public opposition to Khomeini untenable, locking Iran into a siege mentality against the outside world which benefited the clerics immensely.


Anti-American feeling had been a factor in the revolution from the very beginning. This is not surprising, given how much the population had suffered under the dictatorship of the Shah, and the United State’s steadfast support of him over many years. It is only in retrospect, however, that the enmity between Iran and the ‘Great Satan’ appears inevitable. The tacit encouragement given to the opposition by the Carter administration has been alluded to in the previous post. The American embassy played a major role in assisting the revolution by, as Bazargan later revealed, working actively to secure the army’s neutrality. The Americans’ encouragement extended to direct contact between embassy personnel and the clerical opposition. The United States, as we can see from the example of Saudi Arabia or their support of fundamentalists in Afghanistan, had no problem with fundamentalist Islam as long as it could be used as an ally against communism. Initial attitudes towards the revolutionary government in Iran reflect a belief in the State Department that Khomeini’s regime could not only be accommodated, but could become part of what Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, liked to call an ‘arc of crisis’ along the Soviet Union’s southern flank, which might be used to foment instability and generally create a headache for the Russians.

Khomeini, however, was not reading the standard Cold War script, in which everyone has to choose a superpower to ally with. While his hatred of the atheistic communists was undimmed, he was also scathing of America, not because it placed the strategic interests of its neo-colonial empire above human life, but because of the materialism and inequality of the consumer culture it sought to export around the world. More pragmatic elements within his government, on the other hand, sought a restoration of relations with the United States. Despite misgivings, it was clear that Iran could not cut itself off from the outside world. For starters, the country would need someone to buy its oil, and the Americans were the world’s best customers in that respect; similarly, Iran had already paid for massive amounts of armaments which had not yet been delivered, and the Americans were holding back on delivery to wait and see whose hands they would fall into. The Iranian army also depended on the Americans for spare parts for the military hardware they already possessed. The subsequent inability to obtain these would be a huge problem in the years ahead.

Such practical considerations were of no interest to Khomeini and, after the Americans allowed the Shah into the United States on 22 October, public anger was ratcheted up several degrees. The Shah had been wandering from country to country after his flight, dying of cancer, and the Americans argued that they were admitting him on purely humanitarian grounds, so that he could receive treatment. The Iranians were having none of this, and demanded the Shah be sent back to stand trial for his crimes. Such was the tension that existed, indeed, that anyone who sought to reach out and mend relations with the United States fell under suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. This happened when Bazargan and Yazdi met Brzezinski in Algiers on 1 November, and a photograph of them shaking hands was published in an Iranian newspaper. Once again, the rift between the de jure government, impotent and tainted with accusations of lacking revolutionary zeal, and the real focus of power around Khomeini, was apparent. A group of students loyal to Khomeini decided to take matters into their own hands, confident (rightly, as it turned out) that the Ayatollah would support their actions.

After the Shah was given refuge, huge crowds had been protesting outside the American embassy in Tehran every day. On the 4 November 1979, a group emerged from the crowd and scaled the fence, then cut the padlocks on the gates, and led a storming of the embassy, during which over sixty embassy staff were taken hostage. Once again it was clear that the provisional government were utterly helpless (no police even attempted to defend the building) and that power on the streets belonged to autonomous revolutionary groups such as the ‘Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line’ which had organised the embassy takeover. This is, in the west, the central event of the Iranian revolution, and I don’t want to dwell too much on the diplomatic ins and outs of it too much, given that it has been examined in so much detail elsewhere. What is significant for the story here is that Bazargan and his government immediately called for the release of the hostages and asked for Khomeini to do the same. If he had, no doubt the whole thing would have blown over, but he didn’t.


Instead, Khomeini indicated his approval and the IRC issued a statement supporting the students. Iran was here entering uncharted diplomatic waters. The inviolability of foreign embassies is basically a cornerstone of relations between countries; without it, diplomatic relations break down. The attempts to Bazargan and his allies to point this out, however, fell on deaf ears. Under the circumstances, it just made them appear more and more tarnished as sympathetic to the Americans, especially when documents seized in the embassy exposed their attempts to mend relations with them. It was clear to the prime minister that his position was untenable and he resigned on the 6 November. Khomeini announced to the country that Bazargan was ‘a bit tired and wishes to stay on the sidelines for a while.’

And the hostage crisis dragged on without end in sight. Every attempt the Carter regime made to negotiate their release ran up against the Iranians’ insistence that the Shah be handed over to them. This the Americans refused to do. The longer this went on, the more poisonous the atmosphere became, and the feeling of being picked on by American superpower only strengthened the power of Khomeini and the IRC. Under such circumstances of course, the referendum in December on the constitution resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Islamists. Khomeini was made supreme leader with all the powers he had demanded in his vision of a Vilayat-e Faqih. The new constitution also instituted the elected post of president, to be subordinate to the supreme leader. Elections were held in January 1980 for the position. Perhaps as a gesture to the still-significant middle-class constituency who supported the more liberal wing of the revolution, Khomeini vetted leading IRC members like Behesti from running, basically clearing the path for Abdolhassan Banisadr, standing as an independent, to win the election with an impressive 76% share of the vote. Here he is on the left at his inauguration. Behesti, standing next to him, looks suitably pissed off.

Banisadr_beheshti inauguration.jpg

Although  Khomeini and Banisadr were old friends, and the Ayatollah had facilitated Banisadr’s presidency, from here on in, they would generally find themselves at loggerheads, and the president stymied at every turn, not only by the supreme leader, but by the new Majlis (parliament) which, after the elections in March was dominated by the IRC and its allies. Accusations were made by the Freedom movement and the left that the vote had been rigged, and that people had been intimidated into voting for IRC candidates. What was not even concealed was the practice of a committee which filtered out candidates undesirable to the clerics. Whatever the reasons, it appears that Khomeini was prepared to offer the presidency as a sop to liberals, while securing control of the Majlis. Banisadr’s position was further undermined when Khomeini (who had to approve of the appointment) refused to accept his choice of prime minister, forcing the president to appoint an IRC-approved candidate, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, for the job. In the early part of 1981, Khomeini intensified his undermining of the presidency, accusing Banisadr of exceeding his constitutional powers and of secretly collaborating with the CIA. Many of his supporters were rounded up and imprisoned and, by June 1981, Banisadr went into hiding, eventually fleeing to Paris, where he lives to this day as a prominent spokesperson against the Islamic regime. Rajai was elected president in Banisadr’s place, although he and his prime minister. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, were killed by the People’s Mujahedeen in a bomb later that year. The same group incidentally, would also be responsible for the assassination of Behesti and 72 others, with a bomb at the IRC headquarters in June 1981.

Back in the midst of the presidential elections of 1980 (which took place in two rounds between March and May) the Americans, frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations, made a disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages. In what was, in retrospect, an overcomplicated plan, eight helicopters flew into Iran and rendezvoused in an isolated desert region before continuing on to Tehran. They ran into a dust-storm and lost their bearings, and then, when attempted to refuel, one helicopter crashed into another killing eight crew members. The others abandoned the mission and fled, leaving classified documents in some of the abandoned helicopters with detailed plans of the rescue mission. It was an utter humiliation for the Americans and for the Iranians, a confirmation of what they suspected all along, of the Americans’ imperialist attitude towards their country and attempts to derail the revolution.

Such suspicions were of course not without foundation, given that the United States clearly had no compunction about violating the sovereignty of another nation state. It was also widely believed in Iran that the rescue mission had been thwarted by the intervention of God (the convenient dust-storm) and it only strengthened the hand of the clerics even more. This strengthening of the most radical elements of the revolution by outside attempts at intervention is a constant theme of Iran in the 1980s. Nothing smothers internal dissent than an exterior threat, and nothing brings divided factions together like a heroic national struggle for survival. We can see the same dynamic at work in revolutionary France and Russia. In this sense, the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in September 1980 played a huge role in the Khomeinists’ consolidation of power. There is little doubt that Iraq was, at the outset the aggressor in the war. Seeking to take advantage of the revolutionary turmoil in the country and the army’s weakness, Saddam launched a surprise invasion on 22 September 1980 and, aided by the element of surprise, captured a significant amount of Iranian territory. Its initial air strikes on the Iranian air-force were bungled and ineffective, however, and the Iranians, once they had rallied, halted the Iraqi advance and settled in for a long drawn-out battle to expel the Iraqis from their territory.

Despite the major handicap associated with being unable to obtain spares for their equipment from the Americans, and the decimation of the army’s staff by the revolution, Iran had managed, by 1982, to push the Iraqis back across the border. The war might have ended there; Iran might have avoided the catastrophe that was to continue until 1988, but instead Khomeini and his supporters decided to pursue an aggressive war into Iraq. Those involved in decision-making still debate whose responsibility this was, no doubt because the war ultimately achieved nothing except take a million lives on each side and decimate the country’s infrastructure. It also contributed to the sense of Iranian victimhood against western plotting. It has to be said once again that they had good reasons to believe this. Partly due to the fact that Saddam Hussein was subsequently to become the caricature baddie on western tv-screens, we forget that at the time he was favoured by the west in the war, even if this was not officially admitted.


At the start of the war, Hussein’s army received the bulk of its supplies from the Soviet Union and France, but by the time of the Iranian offensive in 1982, the Americans were actively seeking ways to lend their support as well. The Iraqis used complicated financial ruses to disguise arms-procurement from the Americans and British and, even more controversially, were knowingly supplied by the same countries with the means for manufacturing chemical weapons. These were used from 1983 onwards against Iranian soldiers and later, against Kurdish civilians, most notoriously at Halabja, where 4-5,000 people were killed on 16 March 1988.


For the Iranians, this, and the fact that the Americans and the British refused to condemn Iraq for using chemical weapons, convinced them that they had no real interest in upholding human rights or international conventions like Geneva. What resolutions were taken at the UN condemned the use of chemical weapons in general, but it is to Iran’s credit that, while they did develop the capacity to manufacture them, Khomeini’s government declared their use to be unIslamic, and refused to use them. This last fact is interesting in that it left Iran at a significant disadvantage in the war. One of the main reasons they made peace in 1988 was the fear that Iraq would use chemical weapons on Tehran and other large cities. It does suggest a sincere principled religious outlook on the part of the revolutionary leaders, and not, as some have suggested, a cynical attempt to use religion to gain power. Even if we may not agree with Khomeini’s principles, it has to be acknowledge that he stuck to them, even at his own cost. In terms of international relations, this made him unpredictable, and therefore dangerous.

The hostage crisis is another example of this. Khomeini appears to have genuinely believed that the U.S. was plotting against Iran. Given the threat from the Soviet Union on their doorstep, it really would have made more sense for the Iranians to swallow their pride and restore good relations with the Americans. It has been seen that the Americans were only too willing to do so. Moderates like Banisadr, and more pragmatic clerics like Rafsanjani, were in favour of this. But Khomeini prevented it at every juncture. The hostages were held for a total of 444 days in the end. The Iranians waited until a few minutes after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as president in January 1981 to release them. In fact, the hostage crisis and the bungled rescue attempt probably had a decisive impact on the failure of Carter to secure re-election. There is significant evidence, in fact, to suggest that Reagan’s campaign secretly worked with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages to help Reagan win.

In the end, the crisis achieved little for Iran. Apart from the release of some funds  the Americans had frozen, the Iranians secured few concessions in their negotiations. In return, they earned the enmity of successive American governments and an international isolation which basically continued until the agreement of January 2016 to lift sanctions against the country. None of this was necessary or inevitable. Both countries have profoundly misunderstood and demonised one another to very little purpose. The culmination of this misunderstanding was in the years of George W.Bush’s presidency, when Iraq was portrayed as America’s nemesis in some kind of global clash of civilisations between the modern secular west and Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, the Iranian regime was bemused by this ‘axis of evil’ narrative, because they had just provided the Americans with military intelligence to help defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, whom they regarded as far more dangerous rivals than the Americans.

In fact, Iran’s conflict with the United States does not fit neatly into some narrative of an east-west clash of cultures at all. This overestimates the role played by religion in these matters. While certainly important, even at the height of revolutionary fervour in the 1980s, it was less central than is sometimes assumed. Iran’s soldiers, marching off to die in ‘human wave’ attacks against the Iraqis, were often portrayed in the western media as suicidal fanatics, dying for religion. While the rhetoric of martyrdom played a big part, research has shown that nationalism played at least as large a role in motivating them as religion. There is a discussion of this in the excellent book Revolutionary Iran by Michael Axworthy. It is also notable how little attempt was made by the Iranians to export the revolution abroad. Attempts were made to foment rebellion amongst the Shia in Iraq, with limited success. More often than not, however, they chose to defend their country against the Iranian invader; clearly national identity overrode religious. The opposite was true in Iran, where the Iraqis’ fellow Arabs in Khuzestan province might have been expected to side with Iraq, but for the most part, did not.

There were of course elements within the revolution who wanted to export it to other countries. At times, Khomeini himself seems to have encouraged this trend. Some have suggested that Iraq’s attack on Iran was driven by this fear, and that such an ambition drove Iran to prolong the war after 1982. The only place, however, in which Iran could be said to have significantly intervened was Lebanon, and in the rise of Lebanese Hezbollah, which will be dealt with in a separate post. In fact, the proponents of an expansionist Iranian revolution became, in practice, marginalised in the 1980s. Consumed by internal conflict and the Iraq war, Iran had far less influence on, for example, the war in neighbouring Afghanistan than might be expected. This is partly because the pragmatists like Rafsanjani gradually took precedence over the less prudent revolutionary elements. Pragmatism and realpolitik dictated strict Islamic principles be put aside on occasion for strategic advantage.

It has been noted in an earlier post that the Syrian regime of Assad (both father and son) was fanatical in its secularism and persecution of Islamists; it is interesting to note, however, that in the 1980s it was Islamic Iran’s most loyal ally, largely on account of the fact that they shared a common enemy in Iraq. Even more remarkable was the ambiguous relationship with Israel. Condemnation of Israel and Zionism went, of course, side by side with anti-American rhetoric in the early stages of the revolution. Israel had been a major backer of the Shah and was none too pleased to see an Islamist regime emerge in Tehran. In practice, however, there was a natural convergence of interests between Iran and Israel which could not be openly acknowledged, but which led the two countries to share intelligence, and for the Israelis to send arms to Iran. Even while they were fighting (by proxy) in Lebanon, Israel was aiding Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein, bombing Iraq’s plutonium research reactor in 1981 and even receiving permission to enter Iranian airspace for the purpose. Such collaboration, of course, had to be a closely-guarded secret.

It turned out not to be closely-guarded enough. When it came out, the Iran-Contra affair was even more shocking because, besides Israel, the backdoor means by which Iran was trading for arms included even the Great Satan itself. The Iran-Contra affair is a fascinating episode for what it reveals about the disparity between states’ avowed values and goals, and the extent to which they are prepared to subvert these apparent principles in pursuit of their strategic aims. The Americans had, since the hostage crisis, cut off all economic ties with Iran, refusing to either buy Iranian oil or sell weapons to assist them in their war with Iraq. They had also gone to some lengths to convince other countries not to sell weapons to them either, basically doing everything they could to hinder their war effort. At the same time, a war had been raging in Nicaragua since 1981 between the left-wing Sandinistas, who had overthrown the fascist dictator Somoza in 1979, and an armed group of counter-revolutionaries called the Contras. While under Carter, attempts had been made to assist the fledgling democracy under the Sandinistas, when Reagan came to power, these attempts were ended, and funding/arms was instead directed towards the Contras.

There was widespread discontent at this assistance, however, as the Contras were basically unreconstructed fascists who were engaged in widespread human-rights abuses and prepared to do almost anything to destablise Nicaragua. Although Reagan was president, Congress at this time was controlled by the Democrats, who managed to pass a bill forbidding the United States from funding the Contras. At the same time, in Lebanon (bear with me here)…a number of Americans (among other westerners) had been taken hostage by Lebanese Hezbollah, which had strong connections (some go so far as to say it was controlled by) the Islamic Republic of Iran. By its own policy of not paying ransoms to (or even negotiating with) kidnappers, the United States government was hamstrung in its efforts to secure the return of these hostages. So, the Reagan administration was faced with three things it wasn’t allowed to do-fund the Contras, ransom the hostages in Lebanon, and supply Iran with arms. It was realised that, with Israeli help, they could do all three.

Basically, the scheme worked like this: Israel would secretly supply Iran with American weapons and spare parts, Iran would pay Israel, who would pass on these funds to the Contras in return for replacement of their weapons by America. In return for this, Iran would ensure that the Islamist groups in Lebanon would release their American hostages. This was going on from November 1985, and worked like a charm until August of the following year, when the arrangement was leaked by a Lebanese newspaper. It was shortly afterwards confirmed by both the Iranians and Americans, for both of whom it was deeply embarrassing, and who both made every effort to limit the damage and shelter top-level officials from responsibility. What it does show that there was no obstacle in private to dealings with the ‘enemy’, but that public postures based on either religious principle or commitment to human rights and democracy, were largely a fiction, and indeed remain so to this day.

By the time of the Iran-Contra scandal, it can be said that the Islamic revolution in Iran had well and truly consolidated its power, and was here to stay. There is no hard and fast date we can put this at. Personally, I think the decree of December 1982 is a good point at which we can say the revolution came to an end. In this, the government sought to bring under its control the various komitehs and Revolutionary Guard groups, clearly asserting its right to a monopoly of violence, to rein in the revolutionary fervour that had served it well to that point but which, as in all revolutions, could ultimately become destabilising if given free rein too long. This is not to say that Iran was from then on a stable, untroubled society. Far from it, apart from the devastation caused by the war with Iraq, there continued to be rivalries and disputes in the corridors of power. Perhaps the most prominent confrontation was between Khomeini and his designated successor, Hussein-Ali Montazeri (below), who had once belonged to the most radical wing of the revolution, and was one of the most eager to export it abroad.


As the 1980s progressed, however, Montazeri also became concerned with the government’s growing authoritarianism, his critique growing in confidence as he became more clearly identified as successor to Khomeini and a group of followers correspondingly gathered around him. His downfall came in the aftermath of the execution of thousands of mostly left-wing prisoners in 1988, which Khomeini had personally ordered. Montazeri was sidelined and eventually placed under house arrest, but remained a prominent critic of the Islamic republic (which he claimed was not being run on Islamic lines) until his death in 2009. His funeral, incidentally, became a rallying point for the protests of that year against the re-election of Ahmadinejad.

When Khomeini did die in 1989, his replacement was Ali Khamenei, who had been elected president in 1981 to replace the assassinated Rajai. Khameini’s prime minister, Mir Hosein Musavi (the pairing lasted until 1989), was to become a leader of the reformist movement of 2009, in which he ran against Ahmadinejad and accused the latter’s campaign of fixing the results. As the prison massacres would indicate, Iran became in many ways as repressive as it had been under the Shah. The organisation created to replace SAVAK, the SAVAMA, differed little, not only in its name, but in terms of cruelty. Some of its members were even recruited from former SAVAK operatives, rehabilitated for the purpose. Notwithstanding all of these teething troubles, by 1982, the essentials of the Islamic regime were in place, and no alternative, whether leftist, or sympathetic towards the Shah, stood any chance of replacing it. This is a massive element in the story of political Islam over the past half century: the establishment of an Islamic state of 50 (today 80) million people, governed along theocratic lines, in the heart of the what America liked to see as its middle-eastern strategic chessboard, and which was literally on the Soviet Union’s doorstep. It has already been noted, however, how surprisingly limited was Iran’s role as a fomenter of Islamic revolution abroad. Although the Iranian revolution produced a regime that was outwardly hostile to ‘the west’ and the United States in particular, it would be deeply misleading to conclude from this that, from this point on, political Islam and the west were locked in an ideological battle which has continued unbroken to this day. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The country which confounds this narrative is Afghanistan, where many of the forces that would come to characterise the Salafist movement of the 1990s onwards would coalesce. Before we come to the Afghan wars which followed the Soviet invasion of 1979, however, it might be useful to backtrack a bit and explain some of the other conflicts which have fed into the growth of militant Islam. One of my main purposes in this blog, after all, has been to explain some of the lesser-known corners of the Muslim world, whose wars occasionally pop up in the news and which seem incomprehensible to most of us. One of the most incomprehensible of these conflicts, which has been mentioned once or twice in this post, was Lebanon, which was ostensibly one of the most prosperous and peaceful corners of the middle-east until a devastating and prolonged civil war erupted in 1975. This will be the subject of the next post. After that, my plan is to make detours to Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq and Libya, as well as Yemen and the Persian Gulf states, to examine the development of political Islam in these countries (as opposed to a comprehensive history of them) in the last few decades. Afghanistan will then be examined, in many ways the fulcrum around which this story revolves, as well as the Algerian and Yugoslav civil wars, which were also vital episodes.

End of part 4

Featured image above: eyes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 4. Iran: Revolution #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 3. Iran: Revolution #1


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In 1979, political Islam became headline news in the west with the Iranian revolution, which brought a 76 year-old cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Before this, the rise of Islam as a factor in geopolitics was acknowledged only by those with a specialist interest in the region; afterwards, there could  be no ignoring it. In retrospect, one of the most surprising things about it was the extent to which it surprised its contemporaries. In 1978, a CIA report on Iran stated that ‘the shah will be an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s’ and that ‘there will be no radical change in Iranian political behaviour in the near future.’ Iran, it was confidently asserted, ‘is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.’ Within a year, however, a 2,500 year-old monarchy had been overthrown and an Islamic republic instituted in its place. The latter fact confounded expectations that, if there was to be change, it would come from the progressive forces of the left rather than the clerics or ullama. It is important, therefore, to understand the roots of the crisis that  gripped Iran and examine why, in ridding itself of its autocratic ruler, it bucked the trend of so many revolutions in the west and instead of embracing enlightenment-based ideologies turned instead to (what appeared to many outsiders at any rate) the past.

In broad outline, the roots of the revolution in Iran bear similarities to the concurrent attempt at an Islamist revolution in Egypt which was discussed in the last post. Like in Egypt, a western-backed ruler presided over a period of rapid economic growth which benefited a tiny elite. This growth was fueled by an influx of capital from the west and was accompanied by a turbulent and disorientating cultural westernisation of the country. These processes alienated a large proportion of the population which remained poor, but excluded from any influence over the ruling of the country through the absence of any democratic processes. Much of this discontent stemmed from the huge numbers of people from rural areas who had moved to the cities in search of work and were often left impoverished, rootless and alienated-a receptive audience to opponents of the Shah’s rule. The Shah, however, appears to have been oblivious to the existence of this seething mass of resentment, right up until the eve of his deposition. Here is the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in modest casual attire:

To understand how his deposition came to this pass, it is important to note that Iran had not been an autocracy from time immemorial. It is often noted that the fall of the Shah ended a 2,500 year-old institution, but the Pahlavi dynasty were blow-ins, only recently founded by an Iranian army officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi, in 1925. He had been too close to the Germans during the second world war and was forced to abdicate by the allies in favour of his 22 year-old son. Mohammad Reza was a staunch western ally who allowed allied supplies through to their Soviet allies on its northern border. After the war, the early years of the Shah’s reign saw a weakening of his role in the country and moves towards a more democratic, pluralistic Iran. It might be thought that the country’s new American masters would be in favour of these modernising forces, but one thing determined that they would take the side of the autocratic, anti-democratic Shah. Once again, we are talking about oil.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been founded in 1908 in order to exploit an oil find in the west of Iran. They built what would become the largest oil refinery in the world for the next fifty years. As oil became more and more central to the strategic interests of the west, keeping control over Iran became correspondingly more important. To Britain, especially in the 1950s (having been bankrupted in world war two) cheap Iranian oil was regarded as a vital mainstay of the economy, and a means of obtaining critical foreign currency through its re-sale. It is ironic that at a time when a British Labour government was embarking on an unprecedented program of nationalisations at home, it was not prepared to countenance such measures in a country like Iran, which it felt it could push around, diplomatically and (if necessary) militarily. Pushing Iran around, however, was not as straightforward a task as in territories like Saudi Arabia, newly-minted states which could be manipulated and bought with the promise of investment and arms, or those areas which had been under Ottoman control and fell under British and French power after world war one. Iran was an independent kingdom (it continued to style itself an ’empire’) with a long and proud history as one of the centres of ancient civilisation. The invasion of the country by British and Soviet troops in 1941 was a humiliation that would not be quickly forgotten. The installation of the younger Pahlavi, as well as incidents in the coming years, would cement his reputation in the eyes of many Iranians as a foreign-imposed ruler. These incidents would confirm that the British and Americans indeed saw him as a means to safeguard their economic interests in the country.

These interests came under threat from the forces that were unleashed as Iranians were given more control over how their country was run. In 1951, elections brought to power a prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, whose party (the National Front) sought to nationalise Iran’s oil and manage it in the interests of Iran’s people instead of a small number of foreign investors. Here is a picture of Mosaddegh as a child, standing next to an empty chair, meeting the Shah on his appointment as prime minister, and later in life under house arrest (yep-this isn’t going to end well for him).


Mosaddegh’s government introduced a range of reforms that would form the bedrock of any modern, stable democracy: extending the franchise, social welfare, public works projects. Due to his party’s commitment to bringing Iran’s oil under Iranian control, however, the British (whose interests were directly threatened) and the Americans (who, as usual, saw the hand of the Soviets and communism in everything Mosaddegh did) determined to destroy his project. In the Shah they found a ready ally. He had already been trying to shore up the power of the monarchy in the years since coming to power. An outpouring of sympathy following an assassination attempt in 1949 was used to amend the constitution to increase his powers. As an aside, it is interesting to reflect as well on the mis-identification of the Shah’s would-be assassin. Keen to make the incident fit into a narrative of himself as an anti-communist crusader, it was assumed the perpetrator was a member of the communist Tudeh party. In fact, he was a religious fundamentalist disgruntled at the Shah’s secularist leanings. This is a foreshadowing of the Shah’s future persistent failure to recognise the relative strengths of his enemies within the country, and specifically the strength of the clergy’s opposition.

The Shah’s attempts to increase his powers was one of the main factors which motivated the formation and mobilisation of Mossadegh’s movement, which viewed a return to monarchical autocracy as a step backward. With its moves to nationalise Iran’s oil, however, the British and Americans took covert action. The CIA and MI6 collaborated on a coup to replace Mossadegh with a military leader of their choice as prime minister, one who would yield to the Shah’s demands for greater influence and, of course, forget any notions of confiscating western oil interests in the country. This plot was masterminded by the head of the CIA, Alan Dulles (below, far right) and co-ordinated on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt Jnr. (below, middle), a grandson of former president Theodore Roosevelt.


The coup did not, at first, go smoothly for the conspirators. The initial attack on 15 August 1953 failed to remove Mossadegh, who instead had the general who attempted to dismiss him arrested. The expected support did not rally to the Shah, who panicked and fled the country, first to Iraq and then to Italy. Although seemingly in control of the situation, Mossadegh made a fatal blunder at this point. While the general who had been appointed prime minister, Fazlollah Zahedi (above, far left), remained at large, Mossadegh told his supporters (who had come out into the streets to ensure he remained in power) that the danger had passed, and that they should return to their homes. Zahedi, meanwhile, was rallying support to his cause with the help of lavish funds from the CIA (as a historical footnote, Zahedi had been arrested during world war two as a Nazi collaborator but no-one seemed bothered by that now). The Americans and British realised that whatever opposition to Mossadegh that existed had to be spurred into action. Provocateurs were hired to pretend to be communist protestors, who ran amok in the markets, vandalising businesses and creating the impression that a communist revolution was imminent. A panicked population were organised by another group of paid activists who posed as partisans of the Shah, and fought the ‘communist’ protestors. The army, already unsound in its allegiance to Mossadegh, came out in support of Zahedi, and within days, he was appointed prime minister and Mossadegh arrested.

With breath-taking speed then, Iran’s tentative steps towards creating a modern, secular democrasy were smothered by the 1953 coup. Although his death sentence was commuted by the Shah, Mossadegh remained under house arrest until he died in 1967. The Shah returned to Iran in the company of Dulles, and over the next two decades assumed greater and greater powers to himself, creating an autocratic police state and controlling his increasingly disgruntled population with the help of his secret police, SAVAK, founded in 1957 with American and Israeli assistance. SAVAK became notorious for its studied and systematic use of torture and killing of prisoners, often those who were guilty of no other crime than criticising the regime. Needless to say, the year after the coup, the Anglo-Iranian oil company resumed operations.

The removal of Mossadegh was a pivotal moment in the modern history of Iran, and one remembered and resented by the more progressive elements in Iranian society to this day. Mossadegh was in many ways comparable to Nasser in Egypt, a modernising nationalist and anti-imperialist who stood up to the old colonial powers, the plan to nationalise Iran’s oil being comparable to Nasser’s more successful nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The effect his removal had on Iranians can be gauged by imagining the effect Nasser’s removal would have had on Egyptians if the British and French had had their way and managed to remove him in 1956. Mossadegh became a martyr and a symbol for many Iranians of the better society they might have had, had democracy been allowed to take root in the country. The coup is also a textbook example, however, of the kind of event that is either misunderstood or entirely unknown to westerners, often those holding strong opinions or even with responsibility for policy towards Iran. In a 2006 interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the journalist John Snow remarked that many of the difficulties in Britain’s relationship with Iran went back to the coup against Mossadegh; Blair reportedly looked at him blankly and confessed that he had never even heard of Mossadegh or the events of 1953.

All dissent was forced either underground or abroad in the years that followed. It would be wrong, however, to claim that all of the Shah’s policies were necessarily retrograde and despotic. In the early sixties, a series of reforms were introduced which he liked to refer to as the ‘white revolution’. The centrepiece of this program was a series of land reforms that sought to transform the still-feudal character of Iranian landholding to one of small independent landowners. Peasants, who had hitherto been sharecroppers, or in some cases little better than serfs, were given cheap loans to buy the lands they worked from the great landowners. In elaborate ceremonies, the Shah would travel around the country handing out the title-deeds to these lands to his grateful subjects. Much of this was political theater, orchestrated by the Shah to portray himself as the benefactor of his people. In fact, the land reforms had been the brainchild of his agriculture  minister, Hasan Arsanjani, who was sacked before their implementation so that the Shah could take credit. It would also appear that the Shah, acutely conscious of the need to establish his power on a more firm social basis, carried out these reforms in order to create for himself a power-base among the poor, and to break the power of the old landed aristocracy.

This ‘white revolution’ was, therefore, actually the harnessing of genuinely progressive ideas by the Shah to buttress his authority against potential threats to his authority, such as his own parliament. From the removal of prime minister Ali Amini in 1962, such opposition was increasingly sidelined and prime ministers became mere puppets of the monarch. It remains true, however, that many of these ideas were modernising and progressive. A campaign was launched to spread literacy throughout a largely illiterate population, a new electoral law sought to give rights to participate in politics (to the limit extent that the public could participate in politics) to both non-Muslims and women, who had up until then not been allowed to vote. It was these latter policies in particular which provoked opposition from the one group in Iranian society that had not been thoroughly cowed into submission: the clergy. This was the only group that the Shah was wary of alienating, yet alienate them he did.

This had not always been the case. Fearing the onset of communism at the time of the coup, much of the clergy had rallied to the Shah’s side at that juncture. Great swathes of the clergy continued to adhere to the principle of non-interference in politics. They were led by the example of the Grand Ayatollah (the senior religious figure in Shia Islam) Seyyed Borujerdi, who resided in the holy city of Qom and preached quietism among the clergy in political matters. Not all of Borujerdi’s followers, however, shared his attitude. Another strain of thought was emerging in the early 1960s as a reaction to the Shah’s reforms. This argued that the clergy had an active, even pre-eminent, role to play in political life, and when Borujerdi died in 1961, one of his students who had been constrained by his teacher while he was alive threw off this constraint and became the leading clerical critic of the Shah and his ‘white revolution’. His name was Ruhollah Khomeini. Here is Khomeini in 1964 and later in life, sometime in the 1970s:


In 1964, Khomeini led a protest that centered around two bills being passed through parliament at the Shah’s behest-one, a $200 million loan from the United States, and another (on which it was clearly contingent) new law granting American personnel in the country immunity from prosecution in Iranian courts. Khomeini articulated the deep sense of humiliation felt by the masses towards these arrangements, pointing out that:

‘Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted, but if an American cook runs over the Shah, no one will have the right to interfere with him. Why? Because they wanted a loan and America demanded this in return. Iran has sold itself to obtain these dollars. The government has sold our independence, reduced us to the level of a colony.’

Khomeini became a talismanic figure in Iran partly because almost no-one else dared to speak out openly against the regime. He said the most scathing, outrageous things about the Shah and his government, seemingly indifferent to the personal danger he was putting himself in. Spells of imprisonment made no difference; he would be released and they would claim he had promised to keep quiet; Khomeini would deny the existence of any such agreement and continue his denunciations. His aura of mystique grew with the government’s reluctance to deal conclusively with him. Instead of placing him under arrest, either at home or in prison, or having him killed, the Shah chose to send Khomeini into foreign exile in 1965. First he went to to Turkey, but soon afterwards moved to Najaf, a city in Iraq with a long history of providing refuge to Sh’ite clerics who had opposed tyrannical Shahs. Perhaps it was less a sign of his fear of the cleric than a sign of his overweening dominance over the country at this point that the Shah forgot the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. No doubt he later came to regret this allowing Khomeini to leave and agitate against him from abroad.

To all outwards appearances, however, the Shah had nothing to worry about in the decade that followed. A plebiscite overwhelmingly approved his reforms (government-sponsored proposals at this time tended to always be approved by 99% margins and thus such results are questionable). What public protest there was, was put down ferociously by the police. Many were killed, others rounded up and tortured; from this point on, state terror was the order of the day and it could be argued that any peaceful, constitutional challenge to the Shah’s power became impossible. The opposition of the clergy was dismissed by the Shah as ‘black reaction’, the work of a handful of reactionaries who wished to drag the country back to the middle ages. For the most part, however, the Shah either chose to see, or chose to portray, all opposition as the work of ‘communists’. As his stranglehold over the country tightened, his arrogance and ultimate hubris swelled.

This was particularly the case after the onset of the oil crisis, which started in 1973, when the oil-producing nations of OPEC retaliated for the United States’ assistance to Israel during the Yom Kippur war (see previous post) by announcing an oil embargo against the Americans and selected allies. This occurred at a time of rising oil-consumption in the west and resulted in a sharp rise in the price of the commodity and everything that depends on it, that is to say, everything that the economy of the entire industrialised west depends on.


The oil-crisis was, in the longer-term, a main cause of the economic contraction that affected the west in the 1970s. To examine this aspect is outside of the scope of this blog. It’s immediate effect on the Middle East, and Iran in particular, was to flood the region with petrodollars. Did the people of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran benefit from this boon, with the introduction of comprehensive welfare states, better public health and education, improved transport and communications infrastructure?

No, they didn’t.

Maintaining our focus on Iran, it becomes clear that much of this windfall was spent on arms. The Shah had a longstanding obsession with making Iran’s army the third most powerful in the world (he was always careful to stress that-the third-that he had no aspirations to rival the U.S. or the Soviet Union. He also repeatedly reminded them he had no interest in developing nuclear weapons. They don’t seem to have been unduly worried in any case. Given the reluctance to allow Iran to even develop nuclear power for civil uses in the last last decade, it’s interesting to note that in the Shah’s era, Iran was positively encouraged by the west to develop nuclear power, as this ad demonstrates:

The government did not limit its spending to arms purchases of course. Vast sums of money were also spent on prestige building projects and lavish parties to convince the outside world that Iran had been transformed overnight into an advanced industrial state. A notorious example of this was the celebrations that took place at the ancient city of Persepolis in 1971, to commemorate 2500 years of Iran’s monarchy. The Shah invited royal families from all across the world to witness gigantic re-enactments of pivotal events from Persian history; everyone stayed in a huge purpose-built city of air-conditioned tents and dined on a lavish meal prepared by Maxim’s of Paris at huge expense. The whole event lasted for four days and cost somewhere in the region of $20 million. Because it took place out in the desert nowhere near where anyone actually lived (which made it very easy to defend against potential protests or attacks), the infrastructure built for the festival could not be converted to any other use. The following pictures give some idea of the opulence of the occasion:


It was, of course, a huge slap in the face for the poverty-stricken masses of Iran and a sign of how increasingly out-of-touch with reality the Shah had become. The truth was that, despite the Shah’s obsession with transforming Iran into a modern society, the transformation was only on the surface. It only applied to a tiny elite surrounding the Shah and his family and it did not extend to giving up his autocratic power, or sharing the country’s wealth outside this elite. The massive building projects which took place in the cities brought a huge influx of poor labourers in from the countryside; economic growth that was impressive on paper caused spiraling inflation which left these people materially not much better off than they had been back in their villages and, crucially, cut off from their own networks of support and social inclusion. This restless and disaffected urban proletarian would become the foot soldiers of the revolution. When the Shah did decide to do something about inflation, the austerity measures he imposed impacted most severely on the poor, only intensifying their hatred of him.

Even those few who benefited to some extent from the influx of foreign revenue and capital suffered from the massively inflated rents in the big cities. For a time, it could be argued that they were consoled for the lack of political freedoms by a surrogate pursuit of material wealth. Ironically, however, it was through their increasing exposure to western culture that educated Iranians became aware of political values and rights that were denied to them at home. Not being able to vote in meaningful elections, form political parties, or even openly criticise the government for fear of imprisonment or worse, was, many Iranians realised, not the norm in those countries which the Shah ostensibly aspired to make Iran like. The Shah himself implicitly conceded this when he remarked ‘when Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden’. Perhaps if he had appeased them, things might have been different, but the educated middle classes were among the most fervent supporters of the Shah’s overthrow, if not its replacement with a theocracy.

As much as economic turmoil, a crucial catalyst for revolution were the cultural changes which accompanied the hardship of these years. The Shah oversaw an aggressive westernisation of the upper and middle classes which, just like the financial influx into the country, affected very few but was looked upon resentfully by many. A similar phenomenon has been noted of Egypt in the 1970s in the last post. Isolated in their bubble of seeming-invincibility and opulence, the ruling elite forgot that, despite the kind of superficial modernisation with which they had surrounded themselves, Iran remained for the most part a deeply conservative and pious society. Here is an ad from the 1970s for something called Rayovac. The girl in the miniskirt caressing the bodybuilder…you can imagine the Ayatollah grinding his teeth.

While this seems very tame, even quaint, to us now, it has to be understood that this was a foreign culture being imposed on a people who, for the most part, regarded it as decadent, shocking and vulgar. While such a culture might have been welcomed if accompanied by political liberalisation and improved living-standards (compare the Americanisation of western Europe after world war two), in Iran it was accompanied by rising prices, a police state and censorship. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that so many rejected it so vehemently.

These conditions continued to worsen as the 1970s wore on. It took a series of violent and prolonged protests for the government to actually lose control. A significant turning point in this spiraling violence was the death of Khomeini’s son, who had remained in Iran, in late 1977. Many suspected the involvement of SAVAK and, when an article appeared in a government-affiliated newspaper in January 1978 which insulted the Ayatollah, accusing him of treason, collaborating with foreign enemies of Iran, and being a homosexual, furious protests broke out in defence of Khomeini, first in Qom, then elsewhere. The security forces opened fire and killed protesters, and were even alleged to have prevented local hospitals from donating blood to save lives. This was only the first of a series of atrocities, culminating in ‘Black Friday’ in September of that year, when the police killed dozens of unarmed demonstrators in Tehran. This is often considered the ‘point of no return’ for both the revolution and the Shah.

The army fires on protesters, Black Friday, 8 September 1978

The leading ayatollah remaining in the country, Shariatmadari, decreed the Shah’s actions to be unIslamic and decreed forty days of public mourning for the victims. These forty-day periods fed into a cycle of protests, atrocity feeding further rioting, which provoked further atrocities from the government. Brute force, however, was no longer effective in cowing the population into submission. To analyse why the Iranian people found the resolve to face down the regime at this point explains, in many ways, why the revolution took the form it did.

One reason was that conditions had become so dire for many that they had less to lose. This is a fundamental underlying many social upheavals in history. Leave people with little to lose and they will confront power more recklessly than they might otherwise. Another element was the belief in the necessity of martyrdom and sacrifice, always strong in Sh’ia Islam. As the protests of 1978 gathered momentum, Khomeini made a pronouncement that the tree of revolution would have to be watered with blood. The ante was upped noticeably this point as unarmed demonstrators confronted an army that began to lose its nerve in the face of this determination. This was not helped by the Shah, who could not decide whether to crush the uprising with unalloyed brute force or to offer concessions. On some occasions the troops were undermined by the Shah, who ordered them not to fire and even publicly condemned them for carrying out killings that he had ordered; on other occasions they were ordered to use all necessary force. Too late, the Shah offered concessions-liberalising of the political system and the dismantling of SAVAK-but instead of satiating their demands for change, it was perceived by the emboldened opposition as a sign of weakness and a spur to push on with the objective of overthrowing the Shah.

Another factor was the tacit encouragement given to the opposition from outside. One of the most humanitarian presidents of modern times, Jimmy Carter, had become president in 1976 and, in his campaign rhetoric, dropped some hints that he would pressurise the Iranian government into opening up its political system to meaningful opposition. In the 1970s, the Shah’s regime, once the darling of the western media, had come under increasing scrutiny by a public in the west alerted (for example by the Vietnam war) to the folly of supporting repressive dictatorships abroad. Iran’s human rights record was condemned by Amnesty International and his visits abroad began to attract protest. Although Carter toned down the rhetoric about human rights once he actually had power, his presidency left the Iranian opposition with the impression that they had his tacit support. It was, at least, no longer clear how far the Americans would go to keep the Shah in power. Many came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t lift a finger. They were right.

The government progressively lost control of the situation throughout 1978. In October, the Shah requested that Khomeini be expelled from Iraq. Saddam Hussein actually offered to have the Ayatollah assassinated at this point but, once again, the Shah failed to act decisively. Khomeini first sought refuge in Kuwait, but was refused. Other Muslim countries were considered before he decided to settle in a quiet suburb outside Paris. While thousands of miles away, the Shah’s allowing Khomeini to escape to France was another huge blunder. With better access to communications and the resources of the Iranian exiled community, the Ayatollah was in fact better able to lead the revolution from Paris than he had been in Iraq.

The personal leadership of Khomeini is something that must be acknowledged in any account of the Iranian revolution. Few single individuals in recent history have exercised such a control over masses of people. At times in the coming months, it seemed as if Khomeini merely needed to express his wish that something be done for it to happen. His charisma and sheer will was a central dynamic of the revolution and, in many ways, it was incomprehensible to outsiders. Seventy-six at the time of the revolution, and having lived outside Iran for 14 years, even up until the point of his return to Iran, it was expected by most observers that the old cleric would assume a vague spiritual role in the post-revolutionary period, like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. As will be seen, they could not have been more wrong. Despite the fact that many of the protesters were carrying pictures of Khomeini and that the country was flooded with recorded cassette-tapes of his sermons, the Shah continued, until well into 1977, to ignore the threat from organised religion.What belated attempt he made to address grievances were largely addressed to the middle-class, educated and western-influenced opposition-the heirs of the National Front and Mossadegh. In fact, this element of the opposition, who were allied with the clergy for convenience’s sake, do not seem to have considered that a theocracy ruled by Khomeini and his allies was a serious possibility. They appear to have believed that they could use the clerics’ influence over the masses and then discard them once the Shah was disposed of. In fact, the opposite was about to happen.

Given what followed the revolution, it is easy to forget in retrospect that the forces which deposed the Shah were multifaceted, a variety of pressure groups with wildly diverging interests. It was far from inevitable that the Islamists should so thoroughly take over in the way they subsequently did. The reasons for this are various. As already noted, it is partly to do with the way the Shah and his security apparatus concentrated most of their repression on the left-wing opposition. When the time came, the clergy and their supporters were in far better shape to take advantage of the opportunity to build a new administration. The mosque became the natural focus for organised dissent, as opposed to unions, workplaces or social clubs; the clerics tapped into the widespread discontent far more successfully than the left.

Indeed, if there was any individual who rivaled Khomeini as the soul of dissent in Iran during the 1970s, it was Ali Shariati. He was a sociologist and philosopher whose writings fused European socialist ideals, third-world liberationism and Islam, and he was hugely influential in the ideological ferment of the revolutionary period. While arguing that Islam could be a revolutionary force for good, he protested against an institutionalised Islam and in favour of one focused less on prayer, piety and theology and instead on action, social justice and equality. Shariati translated Fanon’s anti-imperialist classic, Les Damnés de la Terre (English: ‘The Wretched of the Earth’) into Persian and, like Fanon, was deeply influenced by the Algerians’ war of liberation against France. He posited a history of his faith that contrasted a ‘black Shi’ism’, led by the clergy, which had been allied with and legitimised the rule of an elite throughout history, with his own brand of ‘red Shi’ism’, which puts the tenets of the faith into action in promoting revolution among the masses. While comparing one of the earliest Caliphs with Che Guevara, Shariati argued that, over time, the ‘black Shi’ism’ of the clergy had come to eclipse the Shi’ism of the people.

In this picture, demonstrators during the revolution carry pictures of Shariati (front), as well as Mossadegh (behind):

Revolutionaries hold up large pictures of Ali Shariati (front) and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (back).

This photograph, incidentally, is by Maryam Zandi, whose work was suppressed by the Iranian government until she was finally allowed to exhibit her pictures of the revolution in 2015. There are more here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2016/feb/08/iran-1979-revolution-photograhy-maryam-zandi-pictures-enqelab-e-57. They are a fascinating document of this tumultuous period. What comes across from these images is the diversity of political views contesting the Shah’s rule. I mention Ali Shariati because in many ways he represents a path not taken during the revolution, having died in 1977 (around the same time as Khomeini’s son) of a heart-attack, although many people believed he had been killed by SAVAK-just one more of the grievances which fed into the protests of 1978.

Events moved fast in early 1979. In January, the Shah made one last push to placate the opposition, by appointing a new prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, who was a member of Mossadegh’s National Front. Sweeping reforms, including the overhaul of SAVAK and trial of its officials, were announced, but all of this was too late. Egged on by Khomeini in France, who ruled out all compromise with the old regime, the demonstrators intensified their demands for the abdication of the Shah. He bowed to the inevitable and, at Bakhtiar’s request, left the country on the 16 January, pretending that it was only for a holiday, but everyone knew that he was fleeing. At the airport, a soldier threw himself at the Shah’s feet begging him not to leave. I am not sure why the queen looks so happy in this picture-maybe happy just to be leaving, or because, reportedly, she had taken so many tranquilisers to get her through the experience.


Within a fortnight, Khomeini was on a flight from Paris to Tehran. According to the best estimates, 5 million people came out onto the streets to greet him. This BBC report from the time gives a good sense of the sheer chaos of the event and the hysteria accompanying it:

While Bakhtiar’s government remained, the people’s demands for change now went way beyond a return to the status quo before the 1953 coup. Khomeini quickly forced a confrontation with the remnants of the old regime, ordering his followers to ignore the government’s curfew. A showdown loomed between the army and Khomeini’s supporters, many of whom were now armed with weapons looted from police stations and soldiers who had gone over to their side. A crucial moment came on 10 February when the army declared neutrality in order to avoid the prospect of a civil war within its ranks. Withdrawing to barracks, it ceded control of the country to the revolutionaries, Bakhtiar fled the country in disguise. He would be sentenced to death in absentia by the Islamic regime in 1980, although he survived several assassination attempts in France until they finally got him  in 1991.

I have titled this post ‘Revolution #1’ for a reason. It quickly became clear when writing this that to really understand the Iranian revolution would lead to a level of detailed analysis unwieldy for a single post. It is the event around which revolves the entrance of Islam into politics in the last half century, and for that reason it is important and it behooves us to understand what exactly happened. I think it can also be usefully examined not as one but two revolutions-the one that removed the Shah which has been examined here and the one by which Khomeini and his followers imposed an Islamic form of government on the country and sidelined (to put it mildly) his erstwhile allies and now rivals in the more secular, left-wing wing of the revolution. This second revolution will be examined in the next post, as will the role of the United States in what followed. In the aftermath of the revolution, both the United States and Iran embarked on a campaign of demonisation of the other which resulted in decades of misconception and ignorance about the other nation and its intentions. When we look at what was really going on behind the scenes at the time, however, we find that all was not as it seemed.

End of part 3

Featured image above: Legs of unfinished statue of the shah, Sa’dabad palace, Tehran.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 3. Iran: Revolution #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 1


I wrote this because, in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris on 13 November, I wanted to provide as concise and clear an account as possible of the events which have led us to this impasse. I wanted to do this, because I noticed it was hard to find a good source online that explained, in a way accessible to non-specialists, the emergence and rise of radical Islamism in an historically accurate way, illustrating (and not merely asserting) its relationship with foreign intervention in the Muslim world over the last century. Having said that, what follows is, in truth, far from brief. These are complicated issues, and if we demand explanations that can only be squeezed into a tweet or a facebook post, we are truly doomed to ignorance. If you really want to understand, read on. If you haven’t the patience, please don’t go around asking why the next time some lunatic blows himself up in a crowd of people in some European or American city.

Most of all, I was moved to write this because the official ‘explanation’ of the horrific violence meted out by Islamic extremists against innocent civilians has, for many years now, seemed to me deeply unconvincing, and ignores so much of the historical context of our relationship with the Muslim world. Such ‘explanations’, dribbled out continuously by the 24-hour news media, usually lay stress on the religious ideology of groups like IS and Al-Qaeda, arguing that the root cause of the conflict is something intrinsic to Islam, that makes them ‘hate our freedoms’ and want to wage unending war against us. Many people are satisfied with this narrative: ‘radicalised’ fanatics are the motive factor behind this conflict, which is a ‘clash of civilisations’ that has been going on for centuries between ‘them’ (backward, intolerant, implacable) and ‘us’ (liberal, free, peace-loving). The evidence at hand simply does not support such conclusions however.

In what follows, it may appear that I am at pains to exonerate Islam of responsibility for the violence carried out in its name. This is not my intention. Exoneration, vindication or justification are not the point here, but explanation. That said, it often happens that those who seek to explain the roots of Islamist militancy are accused of justifying it. It seems clear to me (and I remember well how this was the case in the weeks and months after 9-11) that such accusations are usually nothing more than an attempt to shut down debate and prevent discussion of the historical context of these events. Those who would wish us to blindly support our rulers’ attacks on ‘them’ have good reasons for not wanting an open and broad-ranging discussion of these issues.

To lay my cards on the table, I am in fact temperamentally ill-disposed to religion as a general rule. If I found the evidence suggested it was the primary motive factor behind the rise of violent Islamism, I would be all too willing to reach that conclusion. I am also a historian, however, and a historian must take account of the evidence, even when it leads her/him to conclusions she/he would rather not reach. On a very basic level, it seems impossible to ignore the context in which this movement has emerged, and to conclude that other circumstances beyond religion have fostered its growth. While violent sects will always attract a few individuals, the simple ideological attractiveness of militant Islam alone seems insufficient to account for the droves of people, so filled with hate they are prepared to take their own lives to take revenge on their enemy. It is the conditions from which these people have emerged that I wish to describe in what follows.

This is no more than a sketch, a potted history of political Islam in the modern world, which  tracks its genesis and growth as a reaction to western intervention in the Muslim world over the last century. The modern period will be focused on here, because a longer view, stretching back indeed to the beginnings of Islam in the seventh century, quickly disabuses us of the notion that ‘the west’ and Islam has been at loggerheads, locked in some kind of titanic struggle for supremacy ever since the time of Muhammad. A passing familiarity with the history of the Islamic world in the centuries since will also reveal as false the idea that Islam has always been an aggressively militant and expansionist religion, intent on winning new converts by force and exterminating infidels. Certainly in its early centuries, with the creation and expansion of the Caliphates, this was the case. From the first Christian Crusades at the end of the eleventh century, however, the conflict in which Islam found itself in with ‘the west’ could more accurately described as defensive than aggressive.

Furthermore, and even more interestingly, as the Crusades petered out in the fifteenth century, Islam as a whole exhibited far more tolerance and religious pluralism than European Christianity. While Christians were burning heretics and engaging in endless religious wars up until the seventeenth century, religious minorities within the Ottoman empire (the main power in the Muslim world up until modern times) were guaranteed, under the ‘Millet system’, freedom of worship and to be judged according to their own legal codes. For the Ottomans, no doubt brutal and imperialistic in their political and military ambitions, religion and the expansion of Islam seems to have played little part in their calculations.

The point of this foray into the more distant past is to show that there is no continuity between modern political Islam and the militancy that characterised the religion in its early history, although both IS and western elites (for different reasons) would like us to believe that. In fact, it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and emerged from a specific set of historical circumstances which many of us are blissfully ignorant of. It is these events that have created the conditions by which religious fanatics who, under normal circumstances, would be seen as laughable fringe members of society, have come to be regarded as a credible alternative by people who have lost faith in all other ideological alternatives.

The post WW1 ‘settlement’

To describe these circumstances, the best place to start is the aftermath of the First World War, and the break-up of the Ottoman empire in the decade after its conclusion. The Ottoman’s had already lost a number of its territories in the decades before the war. The following map shows the territorial arrangements that were reached between the allies, France (purple) and Britain (pink), dividing the Levant into their own zones of control. The dates indicate the year in which the respective territories broke away from Ottoman control and into the sphere of British or French influence.


Many of the Arabs living in these territories, who had helped the allies defeat the Ottoman Turks, had been led to expect some form of independence after the war was over. Having made commitments to support such aspirations, the British and French secretly negotiated the Sykes–Picot Agreement, by which they agreed to carve up the spoils of the Ottoman collapse between them without taking into account local interests. Not surprisingly, the disappointment and sense of betrayal was therefore acute among some Arabs on account of this. This resulted in uprisings against both their new British and French rulers, in Kurdistan (1919), Iraq (1920), Jordan (1923) and in Syria (1920 and 1925-7), all of which were brutally suppressed by the colonial powers. Egypt, which had passed from Ottoman to British control several decades earlier, was nominally granted independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1922, but the British retained control over defence, imperial communications and the protection of foreigners within the country, as well as the territory of Sudan to the south. Egypt’s so-called independence was therefore severely restricted, something the Egyptians were themselves only too aware of. We will return to Egypt after the Second World War. Other parts of North Africa were likewise subject to the dictates of imperial politics; Algeria and Libya in particular will feature in this story later on and it is there the early background history will be filled in.

The situation was even more complicated in the newly-created British ‘Mandate’ of Palestine, due to the presence of another significant religious minority, namely the Jews. While the Arabs in the region had been led to believe they would be granted self-government after the war, the British government had also, in 1917, promised the Zionist movement support in their campaign to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in the region, the ‘Balfour declaration’, named after the British foreign secretary at the time, Arthur Balfour. At the same time, it will be remembered, they and the French were secretly negotiating to divide up the region between them.

It is no surprise then that the Israel/Palestine region therefore was plagued by instability, as two different ethno-religious groups campaigned for their own independent states and increasingly came into violent confrontation with each other and the British authorities. In the 1930s, the Arabs led an armed uprising, attacking both the British and Zionists. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany intensified in the 1930s, the number of Jewish refugees coming into the area swelled and further exacerbated tensions. This led the British to impose restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases, and ultimately led to an armed campaign by Jewish underground groups against the British during the Second World War. This would ultimately lead to the establishment of the state of Israel (1948) and the expulsion of about 700,000 Arabs from the area. These would form a huge Palestinian refugee population which exists to this day. The foundation of Israel was to have huge significance for the relationship between Muslims and the west, most immediately in the Arab-Israeli war which marked its birth. But we are running ahead of ourselves. Before we address this, we must first return to the inter-war period and note two important themes which it is important to take into account. One is the way local elites were sometimes rewarded by the colonial power to ward off resistance by the Arabs. The other is the growth of Arab Nationalism.

Arabia in the inter-war period

You may be wondering what the story is with the large blue area on the map above. Was this enormous area of the former Ottoman empire allowed go its own way by the British and French after the war? Well, yes and no. While the post-war arrangements did provoke armed insurgency in the region, a number of powerful figures in the region were allowed by the new overlords to found their own ‘independent’ kingdoms and emirates. Two dynasties are important in this respect, the Hashemites and the Saud. This is Hussein bin Ali (left), and his two sons, Abdullah (centre) and Faisal (right).


This was the Hashemite dynasty, one of the most powerful ruling families of Arabia, and were induced to assist the British in the war against the Ottomans by the promise of rule over the own kingdoms after the war. The patriarch, Hussein, was initially sceptical of co-operation with the British, but following correspondence with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, he  agreed to support a revolt against the Turks in 1916, in return for independent rule over a vast span of territory from Egypt to Persia. The British, with reservations, agreed to this, but as has already been seen they simultaneously made contradictory promises to  both the Jews in Palestine and their allies the French. It may be asked why the British went to such lengths to win over a local ruler in a region which, for much of the previous centuries had been a backwater with little importance in geopolitical considerations. The answer is that they were anxious to secure oil supplies from Persia, which the Turks could potentially cut off.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the tremendous importance that oil and petroleum products were assuming  in modern industrial society at this time, on account of the invention of the internal combustion engine and the boom in car production, among its other uses. It is surely no co-incidence that Arabia suddenly became of vital importance in western power politics at the same time. Just before the First World War, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been set up to secure a supply of oil for the British in what is today Iran. The British navy, under Winston Churchill, was converting its ships from coal to oil in this period; to secure a supply of oil was therefore doubly important.

To return to Hussein bin Ali, with the defeat of the Turks, he was only recognised by the British as ruler of a relatively small area of western Arabia called the Hejaz, although this area did include the very prestigious cities of Mecca and Medina. The Hashemites had been, for some years, in conflict with the rulers of neighbouring Nejd (see map above), the Saud dynasty. In 1924, when Hussein’s kingdom was attacked by the Saud, the British declined to assist him and he was defeated, fleeing into exile. The Saud dynasty, led by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, had been expanding their territory for some years from a core area around Riyadh, which would become the capital of the state they founded (1932) from their conquered territories, Saudi Arabia.

By the sheer scale of his conquests (by the end of the 1920s he dominated almost the entire Arabian peninsula) Ibn Saud made himself indispensable to the British in the increasingly important region. Recognising this, he undertook not to threaten British territories in the region, in return for which he was supplied with money and weapons. With these, he was able to further strengthen his hold over the peninsula. This is Ibn Saud, talking to President Roosevelt on board an American warship anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt in 1945.


As the Second World War drew to a close, an exhausted Britain was clearly on the decline and its imperial interests being eclipsed by American ones. That an American president was prepared to make a detour after the Yalta conference attests to the importance they now placed upon friendly relations with Saud, even more so after the discovery of vast oil reserves in 1938. It cannot be stressed enough that the necessity of securing control over the oil supply became of primary importance in the region. The following graph shows the relative explosion in oil consumption in the decades after 1920:


Ibn Saud and his sons (each subsequent king of Saudi Arabia would be one of his estimated 45 sons) were thus able to sell their co-operation to the highest bidder, and became the United States’ most important strategic ally in the region, besides Israel.

Besides the importance of oil, it is also vital to our story to recognise the fact that Saudi Arabia, assisted by the west, has been a bulwark of conservatism and religious fundamentalism in the middle east. This is largely on account of an alliance between the ruling Saud and the adherents of a movement within Islam called Wahhabism. This religious ideology is a strand within a wider movement known as Salafism, which calls for a rejection of innovations and heretical practices that they argue have crept into Islam in the centuries since it was founded. They call, therefore, for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf (ancestor), hence the name of the movement as a whole. The alliance between the Saud and Wahhabism goes back to the eighteenth century, originating in the Nejd region. Fuelled by petrodollars, the movement has expanded throughout Arabia since the mid-twentieth century.

In the early years of Ibn Saud’s consolidation of power, he did find himself in conflict with some of the more strict Wahhabis, who wished to keep foreigners and modern technology out of the country. These elements were defeated by Saud, and a trade-off accepted by the Wahhabis, that in return for its promotion by the ruling dynasty, it would accept Saud’s dealings with outsiders on which his power was based, and the modernisation of the country to the extent that it was necessary to extract the oil. It is an irony of Saudi religious policy that a movement which regards as objectionable the trappings of modern life, such as technology, as well as and dealings with non-Muslims, should become dependant for its vitality on these very things. The efforts of Wahhabism to expand its influence beyond Arabia, and the support which it will give to militant Jihadist groups later on make it a crucial part of this story. It should be noted at this stage, however, that these Jihadists are only a small minority within the Salafi movement, but for obvious reasons have received far more attention than other strands, who either avoid politics altogether or expressly disavow armed force.

To return to the Sauds’ rivals, the Hashemites. While Hussein bin Ali had been deposed by the burgeoning Saudi state, Hussein’s sons were to prove more astute in their dealings with the west. Faisal (most westerners familiar with him will probably picture Alec Guinness, who played him in the film Lawrence of Arabia) was an active leader of the Arab campaign against the Turks and, with the British, led the liberation of Damascus from Ottoman rule in 1918. He then set himself up, with British recognition, as the head of a Syrian kingdom. British concessions to the French, however, sacrificed Faisal’s interests, and Syria was handed over the the French in 1920. French attempts to control Syria had already provoked an armed revolt the previous year, and Faisal now led a brief military campaign to resist the imposition of French mandatory rule. This failed, and he was forced to flee to exile in Britain.

Faisal’s ambitions to rule an Arab kingdom were far from over however. The territories east of Syria and the Levant had been conquered and occupied by the British at the end of the war. These had originally been three Ottoman provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. They contained a variety of ethnic and religious groups, and to bunch them together in one ‘country’ like this was a classic example of colonial powers creating nations-and problems for the future-with little regard to the identity of the people actually living there. This is exactly what the British did with these territories. They called the new country Iraq. Initially, the plan had been to make the area a British mandate territory called Mesopotamia, but the local Arab population, as well as the Kurds in the north of the country, revolted in 1920.

After initial successes, due to the scarce British resources in the area, the British brought in aircraft and extra troops, and this turned the tide against the Iraqis. A sense of the contempt in which the Arabs were held by the British can be gauged from the serious discussions which took place to use poison gas against them, if the ‘need’ should arise. Winston Churchill (who had by now been made Secretary of State for War) wrote in 1919: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” for its “moral effect”, that is, to “spread a lively terror”. Lest it appear that Churchill was singular in this respect, the British Manual of Military Law at the time stated that the rules of war did not apply  “in wars with uncivilized States and tribes” in which commanding officers were advised to use their own discretion.

Although it continues to be the subject of debate, poison gas does not appear to have been used in the event. The campaign as a whole, however, cost the British more than the entire Arab revolt against the Turks had, and made them modify their plans for the region. Realising concessions had to be made to aspirations of Arab independence, the British chose instead to create a monarchy in Iraq, although maintaining indirect rule (let’s not forget the oil!) through the mandate. They chose Faisal, who was practically unknown to the locals, as their puppet king. Faisal attempted to foster pan-Arab unity, bringing in many Syrians and Lebanese to the Iraqi kingdom (which was resented by the locals) and maintaining hope of a unified Arab state at some future date. With the mandate expiring in 1932, the British negotiated a treaty of alliance with the newly-independent kingdom, especially important after discovery of a huge oil-field in the north of the country in 1927, found by a consortium of companies, the largest of which was the aforementioned Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

Oil gusher spouting near Kirkuk, c.1932

Faisal died, possibly poisoned, while visiting Switzerland in 1933. His successors lasted until 1958, when a coup removed the king and created a republic. This was part of a movement rejecting colonial domination by Arab states, personified most famously by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, who shook off British rule in 1952. These events will be discussed in the section below concerning Arab nationalism.

One entity created in this period that would prove more enduring than the Iraqi kingdom was that of Jordan. This was awarded as an emirate in 1921 to Abdullah, Hussein bin Ali’s other son, and subsequently made a kingdom in 1946. Abdullah was given this as a reward by the British for not intervening in support of Faisal when the French took Syria from his brother. Abdullah ruled Jordan with an iron fist, and he and his successors (his great-grandson rules today) would be seen as one of the west’s more dependable allies in the region. Jordan’s role would become particularly key in the events surrounding the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. Before we examine this, however, it may be useful to stop and take stock of the situation following the end of World War Two.

Arab nationalism

Given the intentions I expressed at the beginning of this piece, you might expect that I would link grievances among Muslims with the genesis of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, the overwhelming response of the Arab world to European imperialism in these years did not take a backward-looking or religious form at all. The ideological challenge to British and French rule in the region came instead from Arab nationalism. This was a secular movement, often vaguely-socialist in character, which sought to imitate European nation-building and combine the benefits of western technology, while championing Arab identity. It often included a Pan-Arab dimension, and sought to establish a large and unified state stretching across North Africa to Iraq. What is important to remember at this point is that the Arab nationalists were rivals to the Islamists, and would become bitter rivals. Outside Saudi Arabia, secular nationalists held overwhelming power in most Muslim countries until the Iranian revolution of 1979, and brutally suppressed Islamist organisations. Indeed, there would develop a kind of religious fanaticism in the way governments like Nasser’s in Egypt and Assad’s in Syria dealt with the Islamists’ movement, a brutality that no doubt fostered the militant tendency in political Islam and hardened its resistance.

But this repression would intensify later on, when the secular nationalists were on the defensive against a growing Islamist threat. Immediately after World War Two, they were in the ascendancy, and Arabs across the middle east placed their faith in leaders who represented modernising, secular, anti-imperialist leaders. No leader was more emblematic of this movement, its rise and downfall, than Gamal Abdel Nasser.


Nasser was an officer in the Egyptian army under the British-backed King Farouk. In the 1940s, he and other military personnel grew increasingly dissatisfied with not only British domination of Egypt, but the king’s rule as a whole. While nominally independent, the extent of British control over Egyptian affairs can be seen in the fact that the British Ambassador, in 1942, forced the king to dismiss his prime minister for having pro-Axis sympathies. Nationalists like Nasser, and his fellow officers in the clandestine group, which would become known as the ‘Free Officers Movement’, naturally saw such incidents as a humiliation, and indicative of the degenerate state of the country under the king. Defeat in the 1948 war against Israel further fuelled public discontent with the regime. The success of a 1949 coup in Syria (see below) further emboldened the officers, and they finally deposed the king in 1952 and established a republic.

At first Nasser, while the power behind the coup, remained in the background, allowing the older General Muhammad Naguib to assume the post of first President. He had Naguib (who would remain under house arrest for 18 years) removed in 1954 and became President himself. Both the coup, and Nasser himself, were tremendously popular among the Egyptian people. The Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution, even though their ultimate objectives were quite different from Nasser’s secular nationalist ones. They took Naguib’s side in the power-struggle of 1954, however, and after one of its members attempted to assassinate Nasser that year, they were suppressed and thousands of its members (as well as communists and other opponents) were arrested and some sentenced to death. Mistrusting his plans for the modernisation of Egypt to the vagaries of free elections, Nasser banned opposition parties and instituted a one-party state. Despite all this his popularity, not only in Egypt, but among Arabs elsewhere, soared. A great deal of this had to do with his role in the Suez canal crisis of 1956.

This crisis, often read in the west as the swansong of British imperialism, arose when Nasser announced that the Suez canal, which was in the hands of a private European company, would be nationalised and run by the Egyptian republic. His army immediately occupied the canal and closed it to Israeli shipping. This move was widely seen as a response to the British and Americans’ abrupt withdrawal of a loan to build the Aswan dam. Nasser now promised that funds generated by Egypt’s execution of sovereignty over the dam would provide the necessary funds (the dam-a huge engineering project, was completed in 1970). This move enraged the old imperial powers, who (despite a UN security council resolution supporting Nasser’s move) made an agreement with Israel to re-occupy the canal and remove Nasser from power.

Britain and France were not what they had once been, however. Both exhausted by the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had now superseded them as the real power in the region, and this was soon made abundantly clear. While Israeli invaded the Sinai desert, and British-French forces took Port Said, the tripartite invasion was condemned by President Eisenhower of the United States, and the three countries were forced to withdraw. Despite the poor performance of the Egyptian military, Nasser was left, not only in power, but in possession of the canal, and he became an icon of Arab nationalists across the middle east. One of his great ambitions had been the creation of a pan-Arab state, and what was hoped would be the first step in this process took place in 1958 with the unification of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic.

As it would transpire, this was the closest anyone ever got to the formation of a united Arab state, and it lasted only three years. To look at how it came about, it is worth backtracking a bit and looking at events in Syria after the Second World War, a period and country little understood by western observers. The process by which Syria became an independent country was a lengthy and messy one, involving the negotiation of an independence treaty in 1936, which the French parliament refused to ratify, the taking over of the country by Vichy France in 1940, and its liberation by Free French and English forces the following year. Once again declaring its independence, Syria was not recognised as a sovereign state until 1944, by everyone…except France. Even after admittance to the United Nations in 1945, France bombed the country in order to pressurise its leaders to grant them economic privileges after independence. Later that year, the French were forced by a U.N. resolution to withdraw and the country was finally and unambiguously independent. The numerous revolts against French rule, dating back to the 1920s, as well as the persistent attempts of France to treat Syria as a colony, even after it had been become clear that its independence was inevitable, left a legacy of bitterness towards the French in Syria, and an awareness of the unnecessary violence and death inflicted on the country. It is worth remembering in the context of French bombing of the country today that, while this legacy is little remembered by the French, Syrians are acutely conscious of it.

The towering figure of Syrian politics in its early years of independence was Shukri al-Quwatli, who had been a leader of the struggle against the French since the 1920s. He is a difficult politician to pin down on a left-right spectrum. He is best understood as a nationalist and anti-imperialist, for whom the fight for independence dominated his career. Here he is in 1943, looking grumpy after his election as president of the country:

Portrait of Shukri al-Quwatli in 1943.jpeg

While the Americans assisted in freeing Syria from French control, in the years after independence, Quwatli’s relations with the United States became increasingly strained, not least because of the Americans’ support for Israel. The Americans for their part, were concerned at Quwatli’s increasingly friendly relations with the Syrian Communist Party. The final straw was his blocking of American plans to build an oil pipeline through Syria, to transport oil from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. Not for the first time, the American secret services helped organise a military coup to remove Quwatli from power and install rulers who would prove more amenable to their interests. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war the previous year no doubt contributed to Quwatli’s deepening unpopularity and, in 1949, the army’s chief of staff, Husni al-Za’im, took power and the president was imprisoned. Needless to say, the passing of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline through Syrian territory was immediately given the go-ahead after the coup. The new military rulers of the country clamped down on leftists and communists into the bargain.

Husni al-Za’im, however, only lasted until August of the same year, before he was deposed and executed by his fellow officers. In December, the third military coup of 1949 was carried out, bringing Adib Shishakli to power, although in the following years he would use a number of civilian figures to front his government until openly assuming the title of president in 1953. In these years Shishakli essentially operated a dictatorship, in which all opposition was silenced and, although elections took place, their legitimacy can be gauged by the result of the 1953 presidential election, in which Shishakli was the only candidate permitted, and won 99.7% of the vote. This is Shiskali, in a portrait by the Time magazine cover artist, Boris Chaliapin.

Adib al-Shishakli by Boris Chaliapin

Although not a close ally (because of his opposition to Israel) Shishakli was nevertheless closer to the Americans than the Russians. If the Americans thought they had decisively brought Syria into their sphere of influence, however, they were mistaken. Events in the country did not follow the usual script, because Shishakli was deposed in 1954 by (yet another) military coup. While the army continued to exert a great influence on the direction of Syrian politics, free(ish) elections were held in the following years. Quwatli even returned as president in 1955.

The years following Shishakli’s removal saw Syria drift into the Soviet sphere of influence. One of the most decisive events to cause this was the assassination in 1956 of a leading army officer, Adnan al-Malki, who was known to be hostile to American and British plans for Syria, by a member of a nationalist party who was widely believed to be acting at the behest of the CIA. In addition to this, it was discovered that the former dictator Shishakli was actively plotting a return to power with American/British assistance. The plot was foiled and Shishakli was later murdered in Brazil by a fellow Syrian who tracked him down in his place of exile. Syria, meanwhile, began to receive arms and assistance from the Soviet Union, although it would be misleading to view the country at this point as a communist satellite. The Soviets were content at this stage to use Syria, as well as Egypt, as a bridgehead of influence in the region. Friendly relations were enough, and their attitude is indicated by their acceptance of Nasser’s refusal to legalise the communist party in Egypt. Speaking of Nasser, his popularity among Syrians skyrocketed after Suez, as did the attractiveness of union with Egypt which, as seen above, was declared in 1958, Quwatli stepping aside to allow Nasser to assume leadership of the United Arab Republic.

Postage stamp of the short-lived UAR, 1958

Nasser was an authoritarian figure and immediately banned all other political parties in Syria. This did not necessarily dampen his immense popularity in Egypt, but in Syria, the relationship quickly soured. Even groups who agreed with Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, such as the Ba’ath party, were banned, and the overbearing attitude of Egyptian officials rankled Syrians, especially within the army. Realising it was not a union of equals, army personnel began to plot secession and in 1961, a section of the military (supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a business community alienated by Nasser’s nationalisation programme) staged another coup in Damascus which detached Syria from the union and restored party politics in the country. In the elections that followed, the two largest parties were those who had dominated Syrian politics in the 1950s. In the long term, the third and fourth largest parties are more important: in third place, the Ba’athists won 20 seats, and the Muslim Brotherhood won 10. As noted above, Ba’athism shared many values in common with Nasser, but had become to view itself as a rival movement with common, pan-Arab goals. It was more overtly socialist in Syria than Egypt and, as will be later seen, will dominate the country from this point on until the present day. We will look at its ideology and roots later on.

The Muslim Brotherhood will come to represent the great rival of the Ba’athists in Syria. For a blog that purports to tell the story of political Islam’s development, it will seem strange that it has hardly been mentioned. This is because, within the period covered up to now, it was a relatively marginal presence, politically-speaking. It did, however, have its roots in the same anti-colonial struggle from which the Arab nationalists emerged. The difference was that, whereas nationalists wanted to resist European domination by the selective co-option of European administrative and technical methods, the Islamists sought their model for a future society in the Quran and a rejection of not just European domination over their countries, but western culture as a whole.

Revivalist or purificatory movements were nothing new in Islam (witness the Wahhabis in Arabia), but what distinguished the Islamists was a growing conviction that they should engage in the worldly business of politics, and that Quranic (Sharia) law represented a basis on which to organise the legal and political system of a country. Once again, because it’s often assumed the Islamists advocated violent means, it must be stressed that political Islam and Jihadism are not synonymous. Although it has flirted with violence, for much of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has sought to achieve its ends through the peaceful propagation of its programme, charity work, offering social services and healthcare in a country where the state’s provision of these was sorely lacking. This distinguishes them from a group like Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya for example, which sought in the 1990s to overthrow the Egyptian government by violence and the often-indiscriminate killing of civilians.

One of the big problems with the view of Islam in the west is that very often, little account is taken of deep and significant fissures and rivalries within both Islam, and even within political Islam. The fact that Saudi Arabia once funded the Muslim Brotherhood, but now regards it as a terrorist organisation should alert us to the fact that the term ‘Islamist’ covers a range of political positions, often in deadly rivalry with one another. Another misconception is that the Islamists have always been in an antagonistic relationship to the west, which has sought to promote progressive values and secularism in the region. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the bastion of conservative Islam in the region, has been the most steadfast ally of the west in the region, excepting only Israel. As will be seen, a number of the most progressive modernising regimes in the Arab world have been undermined and even overthrown by western intrigues.


The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna (above), initially intended the movement as a means of fostering Islamic identity amongst workers for the multinational companies operating the Suez canal. Over the years, the movement grew into a part of the anti-colonial struggle, and elements within it sanctioned violence as well as social work and preaching. As noted above, it was initially allied with Nasser’s campaign to dethrone the king, but was later suppressed by him when it became clear their objectives were incompatible. In the fifties and sixties, therefore, while no doubt an important political entity in the consciousness of Egyptians and other Arabs, Islam was effectively shut out of influence on politics.

Branches of the Brotherhood have of course existed in most Sunni Muslim countries. In Syria, it would come to form the main opposition after the takeover of power by the Ba’athists in 1963. This rise to power of the Ba’ath party in both Syria and Iraq, their conflict with the forces of political Islam in these countries as well as other secular states like Egypt, will form a major part of the next episode. But to place all these events in context, it is necessary to look more closely at an issue that, perhaps more than any other, has been a bone of contention between the west and the Muslim world. This is the creation and expansion of the state of Israel.

End of part 0ne.


Featured image: Ibn Saud and Winston Churchill, meeting in Egypt, 1945.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 1