The Contest for the Muslim World

A book about the Middle East titled Black Wave would naturally lead prospective readers to guess that it must be about the impact of oil. This is not the case in Kim Ghattas’s new work (except tangentially), which has the somewhat unwieldy subtitle: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. The pivot year of her story is 1979 for the unsurprising reason it contains the Iranian revolution, the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by someone who thought he was the Mahdi, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Together they constitute the Black Wave of which she speaks. The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the driving engine as they compete for influence and leadership across the Muslim world.

The name of the game is religious legitimacy: who can claim it? Ghattas writes, “Both of them would transform their country of origin and then ripple across the Arab and Muslim world for decades to come, bringing with them darkness and oppression.” As a result of these events, the quietest Iranian Shia morphed into international theocratic revolutionaries; the Wahhabi Saudis became even more Wahhabi and embarked on a mission to homogenize the Muslim world in their own image; and the folk Islam of Afghanistan was Talibanized. “Nothing has changed the Arab and Muslim world as deeply and fundamentally as the events of 1979,” she writes. This may be a slight exaggeration, but she is certainly right that it has never been the same since. The character of a large part of the Muslim world suffered a change for the worse. Her treatment includes events in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan.

In the introduction, Ghattas says that her work provides “a new reading of known events, some forgotten, some overlooked, most heretofore seen in isolation. Brought together, spanning four decades of history in seven countries, they shatter many accepted truths about the region and shed an unprecedented light on how the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolved and mutated over time, with consequences no one could have foreseen in 1979.” This is an extravagant claim. I don’t know anyone familiar with the Middle East to whom these things are not already known. The events in this book have been covered in exhausting detail by many others. And I am unsure what “truths” it shatters.

Lay these claims aside, however, and you will find a nonetheless very compelling historical work principally on the strength of the stories Ghattas tells. She is a very good storyteller, and the way in which she relates them is what makes her work so singularly successful. Beirut-born Ghattas writes with passion about a part of the world she clearly loves. Her book interweaves many personal stories of the individuals involved in a way that brings history alive. She captures the hopes and dreams of her characters and the devastation of their disappointments. She writes as an historical dramatist. In fact, she fictionalizes part of her narrative with depictions of various characters’ inner thoughts, while providing no supporting information on how she could possibly know them. However, her conjectures make sense and are probably not far off the mark. For sure, the dramatizations add real grip to the stories, which are so well told that one has to keep reading to find out what happens next—even though this is well-known history.

Also, Ghattas excels in weaving a rich tapestry of ideological influences as they thread themselves through various movements and countries. She has a keen appreciation for the war of ideas and how it moves people. Ghattas traces the cross-fertilization of Islamist ideas from the Pakistani Mawdudi to the Egyptian Qutb, and from Qutb to Ayatollah Khomeini—moving from Sunni to Shia worlds, and back again. Radical ideas, she shows, have great cross-cultural appeal.

A Personal Touch

Here’s an example of how Ghattas ties personal tales to historical developments. Ghattas uses the story of Mehtab Channa Rasdi, a popular female news anchor in Pakistan, as a litmus test for the strength of Islamist influences in that country. After Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s military coup in 1978, she was told she had to wear a veil on television. Defiantly, she responded: “I’m not going to cover my head because some dictator wants me to cover.” After a call from the presidential palace, she was removed.

Ghattas limns Saudi Arabia for its role in the Islamization of Pakistan. Maarouf Dawalibi, an advisor to King Khaled, arrived in Pakistan, espousing “the elimination of secular systems and of their replacement by shari’a law as the greatest hope for all mankind.” Surreptitiously, Dawalibi drafted Pakistan’s new Islamic laws. Zia installed Nizam-e-Mustafa (Rule of the Prophet Muhammad) under Saudi guidance.

Ghattas also excoriates Zia for the radical brand of Islam he inculcated in the madrassas of the Afghan refugee camps along Pakistan’s western border. This was done with heavy Saudi financial support. Ironically, it was also done with American support. Preoccupied with inflicting a loss on the Soviet Union, the United States blindly agreed to allow Zia to funnel American aid exclusively through his military intelligence service, the ISI, which insured the money went mainly to Islamist Afghan groups. The ISI continues to support the Taliban to this day. Thus, the United States helped create the very problem it went on to fight for nearly 20 years.

Only after Zia’s death in an airplane accident in 1988, was Mehtab able to return to television to cover the election of her friend Benazir Bhutto. However, Mehtab noticed that by this time the Islamization process had set deep roots. She still refused to wear a veil, but many other women continued to do so even though the dress code restrictions had been lifted.

Spreading the Message

Ghattas is very good on the impact of audio cassettes in the Middle East, especially in fomenting the Iranian Revolution, but misses some of the significance of the profusion of satellite channels on the growth of Salafism and Islamism. This was not simply a matter of getting Islamist preacher Yusef al-Qaradawi delivered into their living rooms. All of a sudden, Middle Eastern peoples had the West visually shoved in their faces on a daily basis. The sense of their material inferiority in comparison to it became more acute. How could such prosperity exist among infidels while the faithful were impoverished? Or had they, perhaps, been unfaithful, and was this Allah’s punishment? Their only recourse was their religion and, therefore, they tended toward fanaticism. Many reacted by becoming Islamist. One could see it in the dress code. Hijabs and burqas proliferated.

What is one to make of the larger tale of woe Ghattas relates? Ghattas begins the book with the question “what happened to us?” Referring to the Arab renaissance, al-Nahda (the awakening), that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ghattas writes that, “There were many reasons why the period of enlightenment ultimately faltered, including colonial repression but also repeated American instigated coups that helped bring strongmen to power across the Middle East. The political and cultural maturing of the region was thwarted.” The book provides a perfectly fine answer to the question of what happened. The dimensions of the disaster are ably and persuasively set forth. But why did it happen? Is it the Saudi-Iranian rivalry of 40 years that was responsible for the setbacks of enlightened thought and progress that would otherwise have come about? Ghattas succeeds in making dramatically clear that the destruction from this rivalry was extensive, but may be engaged in some wishful thinking if she believes that, in its absence, a renaissance awaited the Middle East. Such a hope ignores the underlying fundamental problem that is responsible for its highly dysfunctional character.

The key is touched upon in the story Ghattas tells of Egyptian professor Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd (transliterated Zeid in the book). In 1995, an Egyptian Shariah court declared Zayd an apostate and annulled his marriage. Zayd and his wife chose exile, rather than divorce. (His 2004 book Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam tells the story.) Ghattas understands this trial as a manifestation of the rise of Salafism and a concomitant suppression of liberal thought. But what was the controversy really about?

The Nature of the Qur’an

In one of his last interviews, Zayd explained:

Sunni Muslim theology has remained largely frozen in its ninth century mold, as developed by the conservative Ash’arites. We need to revisit fundamental theological concepts today, which the Sunni ‘ulama, by and large, have ignored, for there can be no reform possible in Muslim societies without reform in theology.

This is a point that Ghattas does not explore in any depth, but it is the essential issue. Zayd was referring to perhaps the most bitter and costly dispute that took place within Islam. It concerned the nature of the Qur’an. Has it coexisted with Allah in eternity, or was it created? The first theological school of Islam, the Mu’tazilites, held that the Qur’an, although the word of God, was created in time and was contingent upon the historical circumstances in which it was revealed. What’s more, the Qur’an had to have been created in time; otherwise, the historical events it relates would have to have been predetermined. Then there would be no free will or moral responsibility. The doctrine of Khalq al-qu’ran, the createdness of the Qur’an, left room for man’s free choice. Ghattas counterpoises only the Hanbali legal school as the opposition to the Muʿtazilites. Hanbalism is the most literalist and retrograde school of Islamic jurisprudence. (It continues to predominate in Saudi Arabia today.) Ibn Hanbal certainly was an antagonist, but the opposing theological school, which goes unmentioned in her book, was Ash’arism, which held that the Qur’an was not created in time. It has co-existed with Allah from eternity in Arabic, exactly as it exists today. This teaching came with a corresponding sense of fatalism. Ghattas does mention that Mu’tazilism and free will became state doctrines, but seems to think that the spread of the Hanbali legal school led to its demise. This was not so. It was the ascendancy of the Ash’arite school, under the sponsorship of successive caliphs, that spelled the end of rational inquiry in theology and eventually of philosophy itself. Ash’arism grew to become the majority theological orthodoxy in the Sunni Middle East, and remains so to this day. Its deleterious influence can be grasped not only by its doctrine of fatalism, but by its denial of cause and effect in the natural world.

These are the theological issues to which Zayd was referring and it was why he got into so much trouble. He was certainly correct in stating that there can be no real reform in Muslim societies without theological reform. Theological deformations cannot be corrected with political, economic, sociological, or psychological programs. One of Zayd’s colleagues at Cairo University, Hasan Hanafi, later wrote that efforts at reform have failed because they “started with social, political and economic structures rather than with inherited intellectual substructures, which remained unchanged even as liberal, western enlightenment-derived structure was superimposed over them.” This has not worked because “the imported freedom therefore perches on an infrastructure of inherited fatalism, while the imported Rights of Man sit atop a substructure of the inherited Rights of God, in the same way that the imported sciences are superimposed over an infrastructural legacy of miracles.” As this brilliantly insightful sentence implies, the real problem is theological, and it is at this level reform must take place. This is what Zayd was trying to do. Despite the many merits of her book, Ghattas does not appear to understand the problem at this level. It is why her diagnoses of the sources of dysfunction in the Middle East are more superficial.

I must take issue with Ghattas’ statement toward the end of the book that:

Although our countries have been changed by the hegemonizing influences of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the headlines in the Western media have always reduced matters of extraordinary depth and complexity to a mere snapshot, which more often than not has catered to an orientalist audience that regards Arab and Muslim cultures as backward and to security-focused policymakers.

On any given day, the Middle East Media Research Institute’s translations offer a clear picture of who is reducing what or whom. And it is not the “orientalists.” Listen to or watch the programs broadcast throughout the Middle East and read its press, and you will wonder what fun house mirror you are looking into. It is rife with outlandish claims, conspiracy theories, vituperation against the Jews and the West, and attacks on each other. This is not to say that there is not some very fine Arab journalism, but it does not predominate. The lingua franca is fantasy. Anyone who doubts this needs only look at the recent deranged and paranoid coverage of the coronavirus for confirmation.

Heartbreak and Hope

With justified bitterness, Ghattas writes: “Far too many progressive minds in the wider Middle East have been left to fend for themselves for decades, as they and their countries were bludgeoned to death by forces of darkness, forces, such as Zia in Pakistan that most often served Western interests.” One thing is for sure; no Western governments, with the billions of dollars spent on counter-radicalization campaigns and programs, have lifted a finger to help any of these people despite its being in their own interests to do so. This is not out of malice. It is out of religious and cultural illiteracy. Since we in the West have so little clue as to the nature of the profound problem within Islam, we have no appreciation for the Muslims who are trying to address it.

Despite the dire tale she tells, Ghattas chooses optimism in the end. However, it doesn’t seem likely that the culture in the Middle East is going to allow for the development of genuine democratic constitutional rule anytime soon, precisely because it has not restored the integrity of reason, because majority Sunni Islam still denies the existence of natural law—without which it is impossible to develop sound constitutional theory. The problem is a deformed theology that has produced a dysfunctional culture.

Without a different theology, can one have democracy? Iranian philosopher-in-exile, Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush, answered:

You need some philosophical underpinning, even theological underpinning in order to have a real democratic system. Your God cannot be a despotic God anymore. A despotic God would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights. So you even have to change your idea of God.

One can only hope this will happen. Otherwise, Ghattas will have to write another heartbreaking book.