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.