Why This Time, It’s Different

Dr. Saud Alsarhan

The year 1979 was a seminal year in the Islamic world. Two events stand out: the Iranian Revolution successfully overthrew the secular regime of the shah and replaced it with the Shiite political Islamist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Fearing the presumed atheism and anti-Muslim sentiment popularly associated with communism across the Muslim world, militant groups were inspired by the Iranian revolutionary model, and a modern interpretation of jihad, or holy war, gained popularity among Muslim youth the world over. The phenomenon of the mujahidin was not only inspired by Khomeinist Islamism, but, particularly in the Arab world, by the rise in popularity of Sunni political Islamism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had slowly infiltrated various administrative, educational, religious, and state apparatuses across the Arab world after being exiled from Egypt in the mid-twentieth century. A third event, this time in Saudi Arabia, would also mark the year as defining: for the first time since the quelling of the rebellion of the Ikhwan tribal fanatics in the 1920s, a heavily armed apocalyptic fanatic proclaimed himself the Mahdi (Savior) and occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks.