Theater of Cruelty


Black Wave. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East
Forfatter: Kim Ghattas
Forlag: Henry Holt and Company (USA)
ISLAMISM / The traditional explanation for the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims is too superficial. A new, well-written analysis interprets the Middle East's major changes as a showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


When we talk about Islamism in Egypt, we almost automatically associate it with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the oldest form of Islamism in the country, and also the largest and most visible. Currently, it is also the Brotherhood that the Egyptian regime is cracking down on, because it is seen as a danger to the country's stability.

This is a crucial mistake if one wants to diagnose Egypt's Islamic challenges. For sure, the movement has fostered more radical thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, and probably the rhetoric from that side may seem dramatic and irreconcilable, but basically the Brotherhood is a humanitarian organization with a distinctly pragmatic approach to societal development.

Revolutionary or economic Islamism

One must instead turn our attention to two other Islamic directions, which are far more potent. One of them is what can be called revolutionary Islamism. It is more difficult to identify clearly because it lives in small demographic pockets and primarily attracts young men in need of a standpoint. It was inspired by the Iranian revolution in 1979 and aims to overthrow the state and create an Islamic theocracy. The funds are often violent, which was made very clear by the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981.

In 1985, 6 percent of all book publishing was religious, and today it is 84 percent, and entirely in
At the same rate, one can see the growth in the number of women who choose or feel prompted
to wear a veil or niqab.

In 1985, 6 percent of all book publishing was religious, and today it is 84 percent, and entirely in
at the same rate one can see the growth in the number of women who choose or feel
caused him to wear a veil or niqab.

But it is perhaps the third that has created the biggest changes in Egyptian society and still does, and it is difficult to relate to because it comes in a neat wrapping. It is the economic Islamism that many people embrace with a smile because on the surface it seems modern and attractive. It comes from Saudi Arabia, which for decades has spent a fair share of its oil revenues on creating a new social order throughout the region. It is a kind of cultural imperialism that, for example, has introduced Islamic banking on a large scale, and has just as violently come to dominate the Egyptian book market: in 1985, 6 percent of all book publishing was religious, in 1994 it had grown to 25 percent. , and today it is 84 percent, and at exactly the same rate one can see the growth in the number of women who choose or feel compelled to wear the veil or niqab.

The three tendencies do not live as three parallel worlds. No, they interact and strengthen each other, and this is done, among other things, by a young Egyptian traveling to Saudi Arabia to make money. He sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood, but he returns home with money in his pocket and a new Islamic worldview, and along the way he has sniffed at the revolutionary Islamism that is also present in the rich oil economies.

The Saudi development

Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas describes in his latest book, Black wave, this development in a masterful way. The starting point for her analysis is the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which goes back a long way, but which gained serious relevance in the year of the 1979 revolution.

The Iranian revolution is well known. The Shah's despotic and brutal monarchy was overthrown by an Islamic regime that was at least as brutal and oppressive, albeit in other ways. And the rings of the revolution spread throughout the region.

The historic center of Mecca was demolished to make way for the expansion of the mosque
and the rest of the city became a modern concrete hell.

In the same year, Juhayman al Otaibi and a group of followers occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca on an early November morning. Juhayman, an uneducated Bedouin from a remote province, portrayed himself as Maadi, the Muslim messianic figure who wanted to liberate the country from the wicked rule of the Saudi royal family. The drama was kept under cover, and the outside world was only needily informed. But as the uprising was suppressed, the royal family slipped into a series of dramatic tightenings to establish the right mindset. The music stopped playing, the drinking of alcohol dried up, and women's rights were curtailed to a minimum. Mecca was transformed. The historic city center was demolished to make way for the expansion of the mosque, and the rest of the city became a modern concrete hell. All to mark the role of the city and the country as the undisputed center of the Muslim world.

Photo: Wikimedia

According to Ghatta, the whole of Saudi development happened as a direct result of and in sharp competition with the Iranian revolution. Seen in that light, 1979 thus led to relentless competition between Saudis and Iranians, and it is only a superficial explanation that they are Sunni and Shia Muslims, respectively. Many other things were at stake: regional hegemony, cultural and economic dominance, as well as general self-assertion and national feelings in the long run.

Why else would a small blunt country like Lebanon be so interesting? Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni Muslim Hariri family, who, incidentally, played a role as construction matadors in Mecca, and the Iranians pumped money and all sorts of support into Hezbollah, making Lebanon a hotbed of strife between the two. Lebanon itself came only in the second or third row. With it, the conflict brought enormous structural and cultural changes. It degenerated into chaotic proxy wars, as in Yemen and Iraq.

The flimsy hope

As Kim Ghattas sees it, there was little hope in 2018. Then the Iranians took to the streets to protest against the repressive regime, and in Saudi Arabia the regime moved to cautious reforms, which was shown, among other things, by women to a certain extent was allowed to drive a car. But soon after, the black wave, which she calls the phenomenon, turned off the light again.

Economic Islamism, which on the surface seems modern and attractive,
comes from Saudi Arabia and is a kind of cultural imperialism.

Many of the elements of the account are well known. But the book combines them in new ways and thus becomes a gifted reinterpretation of the Middle Eastern tragedy. Much of this could have been avoided, the author writes, if older generations had not slept in the hour.

That said, however, it is also important to note that the pluralist debate and the opposition forces exist around the hard-pressed region. That Saudi Arabia is blessed with the great oil reserves underground is, in the country's self-understanding, often interpreted as God smiling at the country. But everywhere in the region today, there are people and free thinkers who evoke smiles and optimism in a completely different way.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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