Iranians and Saudi youth want to bury 1979

Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), right, warned against trying to appease Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) , who he described as the new Hitler. In Saudi Arabia there’s a move, from the bottom up and from the top down, to get past 1979 and birth a different social future. In Iran, there’s a move from bottom up by many youth to get past 1979, but regime hard-liners  led by Khamanei want to crush them from the top down.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), right, warned against trying to appease Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) , who he described as the new Hitler. In Saudi Arabia there’s a move, from the bottom up and from the top down, to get past 1979 and birth a different social future. In Iran, there’s a move from bottom up by many youth to get past 1979, but regime hard-liners led by Khamanei want to crush them from the top down.

By Thomas L. Friedman

The biggest question about the recent protests in Iran — combined with the recent lifting of religious restrictions in Saudi Arabia — is whether together they mark the beginning of the end of the hard-right puritanical turn that the Muslim world took in 1979, when, as Middle East expert Mamoun Fandy once observed, “Islam lost its brakes” and the whole world felt it.

The events of 1979 diminished the status of women, pluralism and modern education across the Arab-Muslim region, and they fueled religious extremist groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and ISIS, whose activities have brought ruin to so many innocent Muslims and non-Muslims alike — and so many metal detectors to airports across the globe.

I know a bit about 1979. I began my career then as a cub reporter in Beirut, where I promptly found myself writing about the following events: the ayatollahs’ takeover in Iran, creating a hard-right Shiite clerical regime bent on spreading its Islamic revolution and veiling of women across the Muslim world; and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by puritanical Sunni extremists, which freaked out the Saudi ruling family. The family reacted by purging music, fun and entertainment from their desert kingdom, strengthening the hold of the religious police over their society and redoubling the export of the most misogynist, antipluralistic interpretation of Islam to mosques and madrasas from London to Jakarta.

In addition, 1979 saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. encouragement of Islamist mujahedeen fighters, funded by Saudi Arabia, to defeat the Russians there. It also saw the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, which sharply curbed the growth of nuclear power in America. That nuclear freeze, the turmoil in the Middle East and Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 move to unleash capitalism in China helped to increase demand for fossil fuels. So Iran and Saudi Arabia had more money than ever to compete over who could spread their respective version of fundamentalist Islam farther.

But today Iran and Saudi Arabia have something new in common: A majority of their populations are under age 30, young people connected through social networks and smartphones. And a growing number of them are fed up with being told how to live their lives by old, corrupt or suffocating clerics — and they want to bury 1979 and everything it brought.

Iran has an educated population and a rich cultural heritage. It’s a nation capable of breakthroughs in science, medicine, computing and the arts. However, its regime has been focused not on empowering Iranian youth but on extending Tehran’s influence over failing Arab states, costing billions of dollars. That’s why protesters were chanting: “Death to Hezbollah” (Iran’s Lebanese Shiite mercenary army), “Death to the dictator,” (Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei) and “Let go of Syria, think about us.”

On recent trips to Saudi Arabia I heard youth express their own version of this: I want the clerics out of my face. I want to live my life without interference and realize my full potential — a sentiment particularly voiced by Saudi women. Youth also said: I want to be able to go to concerts, drive my car, start a business, mix with the other sex or see a movie. And I want to celebrate my national Saudi culture, cuisine and art — not just Islam.

But Saudi Arabia, for now, is not witnessing the violent uprisings seen in Iran. Unlike Iran, whose supreme leader is 78 years old, Saudi Arabia is effectively ruled by a millennial 32-year-old, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as M.B.S.

M.B.S. has issues. He’s been impulsive and autocratic in ways that have hurt his country and his credibility: bullying the prime minister of Lebanon to resign; diving into the Yemen war, and contributing to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis; and buying gazillion-dollar paintings and yachts while declaring war on corruption at home.

But to his credit, M.B.S. has been in tune with, and even ahead of, Saudi youth when it comes to social reforms (political power-sharing is not on the agenda), taking steps that none of his royal cousins ever dared: pulling the religious police off the streets, permitting Saudi women to drive, curbing the power of the clerics, letting women attend sporting events with men, opening cinemas, inviting Western and Arab pop stars to perform in the kingdom and vowing to restore Saudi Islam to a more “moderate,” pre-1979 iteration — all part of a plan called “Vision 2030.”

M.B.S. is, in effect, trying to build a Saudi version of China’s “one-country, two systems,” a gulf businessman remarked to me. If you’re religious and want Mecca, it will be there for you. If you’re not religious and want Disney World, M.B.S. is ready to build that now, too. M.B.S. is no longer wedded to just one Saudi Arabia — and the still dominant tribal culture there means a lot of youth still defer to the monarchy and the military. Where M.B.S. has to watch his way is with the religious establishment, which can still activate the large pool of less-educated and pious rural and small-town Saudis, if they feel social norms are changing too fast or massive youth unemployment isn’t being fixed.

Iran’s hard-line leaders, by contrast, have no interest in one country, two systems. And Iran’s more modern society has moved away from monarchy, so youth are not afraid to take to the streets. And the more the ayatollahs rule like a religious monarchy — plundering their society while wrapping themselves in the cloak of religion — the more young Iranians resent them.

Iran’s more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, said as much in public remarks on Monday: “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations. The problem is that we want two generations after us to live the way we [want] them to.”

Therefore, one of the most interesting questions today, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, “is whose strategic vision is more sustainable and attainable — M.B.S.’s Vision 2030 or Ali Khamenei’s vision of 1979. M.B.S. is a modern ruler presiding over a predominantly traditional society, and Khamenei is a traditional leader presiding over a more modern society.”

In Saudi Arabia there’s a move, from the bottom up and from the top down, to get past 1979 and birth a different social future. In Iran, there’s a move from bottom up by many youth to get past 1979, but regime hard-liners want to crush them from the top down.

We should root for both the Iranian and Saudi youth movements to bury 1979. It would be a gift for Muslims the world over — and for the world at large, which has spent trillions of dollars countering the furies fueled by that pivotal year.


  • Arzna

    1979 should be buried .
    I traveled to both prior to 1979 . Both countries changed to the worse after 1979.
    The whole world should support the the youth in both countries to help bury 1979

    • Y K

      1979 was (self-inflicted) hell in Iran. In the civilized world it was a pretty good year, actually.

  • William Petro

    Is there anyone in the middle East that believes the wahhabis will let MSB get away with this?

    • Arzna

      His advisers think that MBS can get away with it because he has the backing of the Saudi youth ( the majority ) . I think he is on his way to bury the Wahhabi extremists . I think extremism in the region should be given the pink slip ( terminated ) . Time for moderation , what do you think ?

    • Hind Abyad
  • The Naked Prey

    I think Western youth are ready to bury 1948, especially in the US, where we feel its effects in our wallets increasingly every year.

    • Y K

      People like you usually don’t have enough dough to buy a bus ticket, pal. So what do you need a wallet for? 🙂

      • The Naked Prey

        My friend, people like me live on fat military pensions thanks to our indispensable value to the Imperial/Zionist project, and have little need for bus tickets. Also, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the benefits that people like me receive grow with each military failure by Imperial forces, such as after US military failures in Iraq, and Israeli military failures in Lebanon. Indeed, it is the positive effect that the latter has had on my financial situation that caused me to be interested in Lebanese affairs in the first place. I don’t have any other connection to the country or its affairs. I am of European descent and Christian background.

        I was referring to the noticeable effect on the youth, who can’t find anything for work but dead end jobs and still live with their parents. The cost of the Iraq war alone represents 10% of the national debt, and growing.

        Accordingly, efforts to distract the youth are in full swing. Young people are learning that the wealth of their nation has been drained especially by the Zionist project in ever increasing numbers in spite of these efforts. The fact that the heads of social media companies are being pressured by the government to exercise greater control of the content available on their platforms indicates that the elites are well aware of the dangers that lie ahead.

        Those of us who have financial stakes in the continued existence of this power structure, such as military pensioners, are also acutely aware of the dangers that lie ahead. And those of us with a pessimistic outlook on its future continue to make preparations in the increasingly likely possibility of its failure.

    • Niemals

      Because you refer to the youth in the United States, you must be resident there.
      But I do not understand why you refer to “are ready to bury 1948”?

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