3 events in 1979 changed Islamic world, led to extremism, says author Iqbal Hasnain

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First, the Islamic Revolution in Iran cleaved the Muslim world along sectarian lines with the establishment of the first Shia state. Second, the siege of Mecca ignited the conservative Sahwa (Islamic awakening) movement in Saudi Arabia, blending Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist ideologies. And third, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the birth of violent extremist groups like al-Qaeda and its offshoots.

“All these three pivotal points led to the surge of fundamentalist or Islamist jihad,” said Hasnain. He added that what began as a “normal struggle between invading forces and local communities” warped from nationalism to a violent ideological shift with devastating repercussions.

Iqbal S Hasnain | Photo: Twitter/@Rupa_Books

Hasnain further elaborated on the global impact of these events by sharing personal anecdotes from his time studying in the UK. He said he encountered strong anti-Western sentiment among students from Middle Eastern countries during his glaciology programme at the University of Manchester in the 1990s. During Friday prayers in a large hall, he said, student speakers often delivered khutbahs (sermons) against Western culture and American exploitation of their regions, with some even advocating for jihad. As American involvement in the Middle East increased, especially with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, this hostility intensified.

During the book discussion, audience members raised questions about Hasnain’s narrative. One participant, Sumanjeet Choudhary, a retired corporate executive, inquired why there wasn’t more opposition to jihadist activities despite Islam’s rich history and the presence of prominent leaders.

Hasnain countered this view with the example of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who has urged Moroccans worldwide to embrace tolerance and reject Islamist extremism.

“King Mohammed VI came out and he stopped the funding [of madrasas] from Saudi Arabia. He changed the whole narrative in the madrasas,” Hasnain said. He acknowledged, however, that while there is an ongoing debate within Muslim communities and their leadership about how to address extremism, it is “not very visible”.

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Ripple effects

Hasnain’s book traces the rise of anti-pluralism, misogyny, and severe intolerance within the Arab world. The 1979 Shia Islamic Revolution in Iran, he said, shook the Sunni Arab world. In response, Saudi Arabia, fearing a Shiite revival, actively promoted puritanical Wahhabi Salafism, a strand of Islam that’s deeply hostile not only to Shias but also to Sunni Sufis. He, however, implicates the West as well. In February 1989, after nearly a decade of occupation, the Soviet army left Afghanistan, leaving behind a fractured nation, where tribal warlords and mujahideen groups engaged in an intense tussle for power. The US, having lost interest, “abandoned” the region, he added, leaving a vacuum for the likes of Osama bin Laden to fill.

Ultimately, Hasnain argues that the events of 1979 triggered a chain reaction, including 9/11, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS. In 2021, in what seems like an eerie echo of the past, the US withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, leaving it with no democratic foundation and back in the grip of the Taliban.

When a participant asked about the impact of the 1979 events on India, Hasnain answered that the after-effects “were not limited to West Asia”, with radicalisation spreading to all corners of the world. “In India, to some extent, it was [mitigated] because India practiced a more moderate form of Islam, Hanafi Sufi Islam, which emphasised trade,” he added.

However, as more Indians went to work in Saudi Arabia, they were influenced by Salafi ideology, Hasnain said. For instance, those who’d grown up celebrating Eid-e-Milad (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) stopped doing so after stints in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabis do not observe such festivities.

One of the panel’s members was former Indian ambassador to Qatar KP Fabian. Chiming in, he said that it was important to monitor developments in Muslim-majority countries, given India’s sizeable Muslim population. There may be political borders but “ideas come without a visa”, he pointed out, and vigilance is essential. He also claimed that Arab countries are keeping an eye on India’s Muslims. “They are watching us,” Fabian said. “They are also discreet.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

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