Category Archives: Central Asia

Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, economics, India, Iran, language, military, Pakistan, war

How Persia Turned Shi‘a

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2546-69, 2585-99:

It is uncertain just when the Safavids turned Shi‘a; in the religious context of that time and place, the question is somewhat artificial. Shi‘a notions were just one part of an eclectic mix. By the end of the fifteenth century a new Safavid leader, Esma‘il, was able to expand Safavid influence at the expense of the Aq-Qoyunlu, who had been weakened by disputes over the dynastic succession. Esma‘il was himself the grandson of Uzun Hasan, the great Aq-Qoyunlu chief of the 1460s and 1470s, and may have emulated some of his grandfather’s charismatic and messianic leadership style. In 1501 Esma‘il and his Qezelbash followers conquered Tabriz (the old Seljuk capital) in northwestern Iran, and Esma‘il declared himself shah. He was only fourteen years old. A contemporary Italian visitor described him as fair and handsome, not very tall, stout and strong with broad shoulders and reddish hair. He had long moustaches (a Qezelbash characteristic, prominent in many contemporary illustrations), was left-handed, and was skilled with the bow.

At the time of his conquest of Tabriz, Esma‘il proclaimed Twelver Shi‘ism as the new religion of his territories. Esma‘il’s Shi‘ism took an extreme form, which required the faithful to curse the memory of the first three caliphs that had preceded Ali. This was very offensive to Sunni Muslims, who venerated those caliphs, along with Ali, as the Rashidun or righteous caliphs. Esma‘il’s demand intensified the division between the Safavids and their enemies, especially the staunchly Sunni Ottomans to the west. Recent scholarship suggests that even if there was a pro-Shi‘a tendency among the Qezelbash earlier, Esma‘il’s declaration of Shi‘ism in 1501 was a deliberate political act.

Within a further ten years Esma‘il conquered the rest of Iran and all the territories of the old Sassanid Empire, including Mesopotamia and the old Abbasid capital of Baghdad. He defeated the remnants of the Aq-Qoyunlu, as well as the Uzbeks in the northeast and various rebels. Two followers of one rebel leader were captured in 1504, taken to Isfahan, and roasted on spits as kebabs. Esma‘il ordered his companions to eat the kebab to show their loyalty (this is not the only example of cannibalism as a kind of extreme fetish among the Qezelbash).

Esma‘il attempted to consolidate his control by asserting Shi‘ism throughout his new domains (though the conventional view that this was achieved in a short time and that the import of Shi‘a scholars from outside Iran was significant in the process has been put into doubt). He also did his best to suppress rival Sufi orders. It is important to stress that although there had been strong Shi‘a elements in Iran for centuries before 1501, and important Shi‘a shrines like Qom and Mashhad, Iran had been predominantly Sunni, like most of the rest of the Islamic world. The center of Shi‘ism had been the shrine cities of southern Iraq.

But Esma‘il’s hopes of westward expansion, aiming to take advantage of the Shi‘a orientation of many more Turkic tribes in eastern Anatolia, were destroyed when the élan of the Qezelbash was blown away by Ottoman cannon at the Battle of Chaldiran, northwest of Tabriz, in 1514. A legend says that Esma‘il vented his frustration by slashing at a cannon with his sword, leaving a deep gash in the barrel.

After this defeat Esma‘il could no longer sustain the loyalty of the Qezelbash at its previous high pitch, nor their belief in his divine mission. He went into mourning and took to drink. Wars between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi‘a Safavids continued for many years, made more bitter by the religious schism. Tabriz, Baghdad, and the shrine towns of Iraq changed hands several times. Shi‘a were persecuted and killed within the Ottoman territories, particularly in eastern Anatolia where they were regarded as actual or potential traitors. The Safavids turned Iran into the predominantly Shi‘a state it is today, and there were spasmodic episodes of persecution there too, especially of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews—despite the ostensible protected status of at least the latter two groups as “People of the Book.” One could make a parallel with the way that religious persecution intensified either side of the Roman/Persian border in the fourth century AD, in the reign of Shapur II, after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The Safavid monarchs also turned against the Sufis, despite the Safavids’ Sufi heritage. The Sufis were persecuted to the point that the only surviving Sufi order was the Safavid one, and the others disappeared or went underground. In the long term, the main beneficiary of this were the Shi‘a ulema. This was important because the Sufis had previously had a dominant or almost dominant position in the religious life of Iran, especially in the countryside.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, military, nationalism, religion, Turkey

Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, Iran, migration, military, Mongolia, nationalism, religion, scholarship, Turkey

Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Caucasus, Central Asia, Indonesia, Islam, Mediterranean, Middle East, Philippines, South Asia, U.S., USSR, war

Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, Islam, military, nationalism, philosophy

Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 997-1035:

Afghanistan in the 1970s thus offered a textbook example of what the economists like to call a “rentier state”—one that lives by exploiting the advantages of good fortune (natural resources or favorable strategic position) rather than capitalizing on the talents and skills of its people. There were deep-seated historical reasons for this. Afghan rulers had long governed according to a somewhat minimalist philosophy, dictated, to some extent, by the country’s bewildering ethnic diversity and its fantastically rugged terrain. Roads were few and far between. The high mountains and deep valleys fragmented the population, exacerbating differences of language and custom. When the Soviets finally completed the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the world’s highest traffic tunnel at the time, they supplied the missing link to a road that connected the northern and southern halves of the country for the first time in its history. The Americans, meanwhile, had already built the first east-west highway, from Kabul to Kandahar. This new infrastructure transformed Afghanistan’s economy and dramatically simplified the government’s ability to communicate with the interior.

Even so, the average Afghan’s dealings with Kabul remained shallow and infrequent. The primary function of the local administration was less to provide people with public services, few of which were available in the countryside to begin with, than to prevent them from organizing opposition. Most people correspondingly regarded officials as a remote and somewhat unnecessary presence, better avoided than engaged. American anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who conducted field research in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, noted that, for most Afghans in the countryside, “government” meant not a concept but a place, namely, the local government compound. “On passing out its front gate, and particularly after leaving the road that led to it, ‘government’ ended,” he wrote. (And this, in turn, helps to explain why literacy rates in the country were so shockingly low. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of the population could read or write—and only 2 percent of women.)

The real power in most communities came from traditional leaders, usually tribal notables or landowners. The local khan might provide jobs, adjudicate disputes, or allocate resources (especially water, that scarce but vital commodity for this overwhelmingly rural population), and his authority rippled through the intricate networks of kinship that structured most of society. The leader’s followers judged his legitimacy in part according to his success at distributing wealth. In the old days, that might have meant the booty from battle, but in the 1960s and 1970s, this often translated into access to a cushy government job or a place in the university in Kabul. Afghanistan is often described rather loosely as a “tribal society,” but the reality is more complex, given the fantastic ethnic and social diversity of the place. The word Afghans use for the defining characteristic of their society is qawm, which can refer not only to networks of blood relationships but also to linguistic, religious, and geographical traits that shape the group to which an individual belongs. A Turkic-speaking Uzbek might define himself above all by the dialect that he speaks, a Persian-speaking Tajik by the district that he hails from, a Pashtun by his tribal affiliation.

If anything could be said to unite them all, it is religion. Virtually all Afghans are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. (The most prominent exception are the Hazaras, an ethnic group, descended from the Mongols, who happen to be Shiites.) Even in the 1960s and ’70s, observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.

Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history, Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status—Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox—such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized, and fragmented.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, Islam, language, nationalism, U.S., USSR

1979, A Turning Point

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 236-279:

These five stories—rich in event and grand personalities—would be worth telling in themselves. But do they really have that much to do with each other? Surely, Britain’s first female prime minister has nothing in common with Iranian Shiism’s leading militant cleric. And what could possibly unite the bishop of Rome, the budding Islamists of Afghanistan, and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party? The fact that they lived through the same historical inflection point, one might argue, does not mean that their stories are linked. Coincidence is not correlation.

In fact, though, they have much more in common than at first meets the eye. The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the twentieth century. These five stories—the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad, Thatcher’s election victory, the pope’s first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China’s economic reforms—deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.

Not all of the historical figures whose fates converged that year necessarily thought of themselves as conservatives, and none of them tried to turn back the clock to some hallowed status quo ante. This is precisely because they were all reacting, in their own ways, to a long period of revolutionary fervor that expressed itself in movements ranging from social democracy to Maoism—and it is striking that they were all variously denounced by their enemies on the Left as “reactionaries,” “obscurantists,” “feudalists,” “counterrevolutionaries,” or “capitalist roaders” who aimed above all to defy the march of progress.

There was a grain of truth to these accusations. The protagonists of 1979 were, in their own ways, participants in a great backlash against revolutionary overreach. Deng Xiaoping rejected the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in favor of pragmatic economic development—a move that, despite Deng’s disclaimers, entailed a gradual restoration of capitalist institutions. Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state was fueled by his violent repudiation of the shah’s state-led modernization program (known as the “White Revolution”) as well as the Marxist ideas that dominated Iran’s powerful leftist opposition movements. (The shah, indeed, denounced the Shiite clerics as the “black reaction” in contrast to the “red reaction” of the Marxists.) Afghanistan’s Islamic insurgents took up arms against the Moscow-sponsored government in Kabul. John Paul II used Christian faith as the basis for a moral crusade against the godless materialism of the Soviet system. And Margaret Thatcher aimed to roll back the social democratic consensus that had taken hold in Great Britain after World War II.

At the same time, it was easy to underestimate just how much these leaders had actually absorbed from their opponents on the utopian Left. A conservative can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order; a counterrevolutionary, by contrast, is a conservative who has learned from the revolution. John Paul II, who had spent most of his adult life under the Communist system, knew the Marxist classics intimately and devoted considerable intellectual and pastoral effort to countering their arguments—knowledge that helped him to shape his program of moral and cultural resistance. (It also left him with an intense interest in the politics of the working class that informed his patronage of the Solidarity movement—as well as feeding a deep skepticism about Western-style capitalism.) Khomeini and his clerical allies appropriated Marxist rhetoric and ideas wherever they could, forging a new brand of religious militancy that railed against colonialism and inequality; socialist notions of nationalization and state management later played a large role in the Islamist government’s postrevolutionary economic policy. (One historian describes the resulting synthesis as “revolutionary traditionalism.”) Afghanistan’s jihadists borrowed from the Communist playbook by building revolutionary political parties and comprehensive ideological systems to go with them. Margaret Thatcher, who studied at Oxford when Marxism was the reigning political fashion, fused her conservative instincts with a most unconservative penchant for crusading rhetoric, ideological aggression, and programmatic litmus tests. It was precisely for this reason that many of the Conservative Party comrades-in-arms who accompanied her into government in 1979 questioned just how “conservative” she really was. As for Deng Xiaoping, he insisted on maintaining the institutional supremacy of the Communist Party even as he charted a course away from central planning and toward state capitalism. Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad describes Deng’s reform program as “a counterrevolution in economics and political orientation the likes of which the world had never seen.”

It was entirely in keeping with this spirit that Thatcher proudly reported to a Conservative Party rally in April 1979 that her political opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. “Well,” she declared, “there’s a lot to react against!” It was, indeed, precisely this peculiar spirit of defiance that gave the year its transformative power. The decisions of these leaders decisively defined the world in which we live—one in which communist and socialist thought has faded, markets dominate economic thinking, and politicized religion looms large. Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Britain, China, democracy, economics, Iran, Islam, nationalism, philosophy, Poland, religion, war