Chapter 27 The Era of Decolonization

Section 6 Nationalism, Decolonization and Independence in Southwest Asia

The wave of nationalism that flooded over East and South Asia after World War II also affected the countries of Southwest Asia and Africa. During the war, the Allies had re-imposed their power over some Middle Eastern countries that had been independent. Both their actions during the war and their relative slowness at relinquishing power after the war soon brought on a renewed nationalist reaction. As in the rest of the world, the demands for greater independence and an end to colonialism in Southwest Asia were also shaped by the divisions of the Cold War.


In Iran, for example, Britain and the Soviet Union had occupied the country in order to use it as a secure line of supply and communications for the Soviet war effort. Britain had deposed Reza Shah and placed his young son Muhammad Reza Shah on the throne as a kind of puppet ruler. After the war, Soviet agents refused to leave northern Iran and actually helped set up a short-lived Soviet republic. In the south too, the British in particular continued to wield enormous influence and power.

            Iranian nationalists, led by Dr. Muhammad Mossadegh, became determined to regain full control over their country from the Europeans. In 1951, in a move that captured the imagination of the non-Western world and outraged many Westerners, Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry, which was dominated by the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company. With the Cold War just getting under way, such actions set the stage for major trouble between Iran and the Western powers. 

Egypt. In Egypt, too, Britain had intervened during the war in internal Egyptian politics to make sure that they would have an Egyptian Cabinet sympathetic to their war effort. At one point in 1942, the British Ambassador, Lord Killearn, had surrounded the king’s palace with tanks and delivered an ultimatum to change the government or be deposed. King Farouk gave in, though he later told a visitor that he had almost shot Killearn on the spot with a pistol he kept under his cushion on the throne.[37]

            After the war, continuing British military occupation of both Egypt and the Sudan led many Egyptians to raise their nationalist demands of “Evacuation [of British troops]” and “Unity of the Nile Valley” once again. Continuing British resistance to recognizing the Sudan as a part of Egypt only made the situation worse. As King Farouk proved unable to achieve the demands of most Egyptians for true freedom from foreign domination, in 1952 a group of army officers staged a coup and overthrew the monarchy. Soon, colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as the president of the new Egyptian republic.

            Nasser appealed to Egyptians using symbols and language that reminded them of their Arab and Islamic past. He also emphasized major reforms, particularly in land holding, industrialization, and expanded government-sponsored education. By withdrawing Egypt’s claim to the Sudan, and allowing that country to become self-governing in 1953, he also managed to negotiate a final British withdrawal from Egypt after some 70 years of military occupation. 

Syria and Lebanon. The French had made a similar withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon some ten years earlier. After Germany's defeat of France in 1940, British and Free-French forces had moved into Vichy-held Syria and Lebanon to prevent the Germans from using them as bases. Despite the demands of Syrian nationalists, as well as their own promises of self-government, the French still refused to give up control of the country. Finally, after several years of fighting, in 1945 French troops relinquished control and Syria became an independent republic.

            Meanwhile, in Lebanon French officials had promised independence in 1941. A new constitution established a government based on proportional representation of the country’s major religious groups with the Christians holding a slight majority. By a “gentleman’s agreement” the various offices of state were divided among the various religious communities. With the new constitution favoring Christians in place, in 1943 France recognized Lebanon’s independence and in 1946 the last French troops left the country.

The Arab-Israeli Dilemma

Perhaps the most difficult problem confronted by both the colonial powers and the newly emerging states of Southwest Asia was the status of Palestine. In 1948, as Britain abandoned the mandate for Palestine in exasperation, Zionist leaders proclaimed the new state of Israel. War between the Jews and the Arab states broke out immediately. Although Israel survived this and other wars, for many long years, the legacy of bitterness between Jews and Arabs cast a shadow of violence and uncertainty over the peace of the world. 

The Creation of Israel. As the extent and horror of the Holocaust became public knowledge after World War II, many people around the world came to agree with the Zionists that the Jews must be given a country of their own. After considerable struggle, including an on-going war with Zionist terrorists, in 1947 Britain decided to abandon the mandate. After the United Nations endorsed a plan for partition between Arabs and Jews, in the summer of 1948 Jewish Agency leader David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the creation of the state of Israel.

            Within hours, the new Israelis had to defend themselves against invading Arab armies determined to crush Zionism and establish an independent Palestinian state. “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre,” declared the secretary general of the Arab League Azzam Pasha. The Arabs were divided among themselves, however, and failed to coordinate their attacks.

            When the war ended in 1949, Israel had more territory than the partition plan had called for, and nearly a million Arab refugees had fled the country. Many fled as a result of the terror inspired by the Irgun’s assault on an Arab village at Deir Yassin, where they massacred all the inhabitants including women, and children. It was a calculated effort to frighten other Arabs into fleeing the country. As Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, explained: 

“We intend to attack, conquer and keep until we have the whole of Palestine and Transjordan in a greater Jewish state. . . . We hope to improve our methods in future and make it possible to spare women and children.”[38] 

The ploy worked but the fleeing Palestinians simply created another major refugee problem.

Independent Israel. Victory in the 1948 war secured Israel’s existence. One of the first things the new Jewish government did was to proclaim the so-called Law of the Return, according to which every Jew was automatically guaranteed citizenship in the new state. Between 1949 and 1952, roughly 600,000 Jews from all over the world took advantage of the Law of Return and made their homes in Israel. Many came from Arab countries, though not all were forced out.

            After independence, the Israelis continued many of the development projects already begun under the Jewish Agency. They also established a vigorous new democracy, in which the prime minister and the Cabinet were responsible to the Knesset, or parliament, under the overall authority of the largely ceremonial head of state, the president. All adult citizens, men and women, including the remaining Arabs, could vote. Israel’s firm commitment to democracy distinguished it from the surrounding Arab states of the region.

            The new democracy had its problems, however. Many Arabs who had remained in the country felt themselves to be second-class citizens. Nor were the Jews themselves united. Many different political parties emerged, ranging from the far left to the far right. Increasingly important were the Orthodox religious parties. Although most Orthodox Jews had opposed the creation of the new state, believing that only God could return the Jews to the Promised Land, after independence many accepted the reality. Anxious to counter the secularism of the original Zionist leadership, the new religious parties soon gained enormous influence in many coalition governments.

The Suez Crisis

Defeat by Israel shook the self-confidence of many in the Arab states. In Egypt it contributed to the revolution that overthrew the monarchy. As the United States began to support the new country, radical Arab leaders turned to the Soviet Union for aid—in an effort to play the superpowers off against one another. They also looked for ways in which to assert their independence.

            In 1956, for example, Egyptian President Abdel Nasser moved abruptly to nationalize the strategically important Suez Canal. In part it was in retaliation for a loan that the United States had first agreed to provide for the new Aswan High Dam on the Nile, but later withdrew due to Egyptian acceptance of Soviet arms. Although he provided compensation to the Canal owners, Nasser used Egyptian police and military forces to take over the canal. The revenues from the canal, through which much of the world’s shipping flowed, would help to finance Egypt’s development plans.

            In response, France, Britain, and Israel conspired to invade Egypt, retake the canal, and depose or assassinate Nasser. When the invasion began in October, however, it precipitated a major international uproar, known as the Suez Crisis. The United States eventually threatened to cut off all aid to Britain unless the invasion stopped – and the campaign promptly collapsed. In the process, Nasser became a hero to the Arab world and European imperialism was finally discredited. U.N. troops were sent in to patrol a ceasefire line and Britain, France, and Israel withdrew their forces from Egypt.

Renewed Conflict with Israel

Over the next two decades, Arab-Israeli relations remained tense. In 1967, fearful of another impending attack, the Israelis launched a pre-emptive strike of their own. In the so-called Six Day War, Israeli forces overran the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights on the Syrian border, and east Jerusalem, which they promptly annexed. Proclaiming Jerusalem as their eternal capital, they defied a U.N ruling that the city should be internationalized as a holy city to many faiths. The Six Day War radicalized the Arab-Israeli struggle. In Iraq and Syria, brutal dictators, Saddam Hussain and Hafiz Asad, came to power as a result of the defeat. In addition, Palestinians turned to international terrorism to strike back at Israel. In 1972, for example, Palestinian terrorists seized and killed members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich.

            In 1973, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, in alliance with Syria launched a final war designed to break Israel once and for all. Attacking on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Egyptians caught the Isreali prime minister Golda Meir and her military experts off guard. Although at first the attacking forces pushed her troops back, Meir rallied the Israelis to defend their still-young state.

            BIO Meir herself had been one of the leaders of the Zionist movement since the 1920s. She had been born in Kiev, Russia in 1898 as Goldie Mabovitch. In Czarist Russia, the young Golda experienced anti-Semitism at first hand. Fleeing the on-going pogroms, she and her family moved to the United States in 1906. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin Golda grew up to become a teacher.

            In 1917, Goldie became Goldie Meyerson when she married Morris Meyerson. In 1921 they emigrated to Palestine to join the new Zionist settlements. There Goldie threw herself into the Zionist movement and labor politics. By 1946, she had established herself as one of the leaders of the Zionist community and became head of the political department of the Jewish Agency. In 1956, Goldie became Israel’s foreign minister. At the same time, she adopted amore Hebrew-sounding name—Golda Meir. In 1969, Golda Meir was elected as Israel’s first woman prime minister, a post she held until her retirement in 1974. When she died in 1978, Israelis mourned her as if she had been the mother of the new nation.

Camp David Accords. The Yom Kippur War finally convinced both Sadat and many Israelis of the need to make peace. As the level of terrorist violence rose all around the world, in 1977 Sadat astonished the world by flying from Cairo to Tel Aviv in Israel with an offer to open a dialogue with the Israelis. In a speech to the Knesset he explained his object: 

“I have chosen to set aside all precedents and traditions known by warring countries. . . . I have chosen to come to you with an open heart and an open mind. I have chosen to give this great impetus to all international efforts exerted for peace. . . . Not to manouver, or win a round, but for us to win together, the most dangerous of rounds embattled in modern history, the battle of permanent peace based on justice.


It is not my battle alone. Nor is it the battle of the leadership in Israel alone. It is the battle of all and every citizen in all our territories, whose right it is to live in peace. It is the commitment of conscience and responsibility in the hearts of millions.”[39] 

In the summer of 1978 at President Jimmy Carter’s country retreat, Begin, Sadat, and Carter hammered out the so-called Camp David Accords, which laid out a process for achieving peace. The following year Egypt and Israel signed a formal peace treaty ending the war between them that had been going on officially since 1948. 

The Intifada. As Egypt made peace, however, the other Arab states and the PLO became more hard-line than ever. Terrorism increased around the world. PLO activity in Lebanon contributed to the outbreak of a vicious civil war between Muslims and Christians. In 1982, Israel invaded them country in an effort to drive out or destroy the PLO. Then, in 1987, Palestinians living in the West Bank and other territories occupied by Israel began a major uprising, known as the intifada, or “shaking.” Day after day, young Palestinians threw rocks, bottles, and anything else they could lay their hands on at Israeli soldiers patrolling the areas.

            Under the constant pressure of the intifada, many Israelis began to argue that it would be all right to exchange the land they held in the occupied territories for peace. Others resisted this, however, insisting that Israel was by right all of the territory once held by the ancient Jewish tribes. The collapse of the Soviet Union placed even more pressure on the Israelis. As thousands of Russian Jews began to leave the Soviet Union, many came to Israel under the Law of the Return. Land and jobs had to be found for these new citizens and settlements in Arab territory continued to go up. So too did terrorist incidents. 

Palestinian self-government. Despite the efforts of extremists on both sides to stop the peace process, however, by the early 1990s leaders on both sides were committed to it. After intensely secret negotiations, in 1993 and 1994, PLO chief Yasir Arafat and Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin finally met and agreed on terms for Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories. The three men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

            Even as self-rule began to take effect, however, in the spring of 1995 the Israeli government resumed its policy of allowing Jewish settlement in Arab territories. Moreover, in an effort to reinforce their claim to Jerusalem as the one and only Jewish capital, they also began to confiscate Arab land in east Jerusalem for further Jewish settlement. Such measures rocked the peace process and made both sides uneasy. The future remained uncertain.

Economic Developments and Social Change

As Arab-Israeli antagonisms continued to plague the region, the Middle East and North Africa became even more strategically important than ever due to their enormous oil reserves. Some of the new states became enormously wealthy from the vast oil supplies that lay under their ground. As they used their wealth to fund modernization programs, society and culture throughout the region began to undergo enormous change. 

Oil and Cold War. By the beginning of World War II it was clear that the states bordering the Persian Gulf were all sitting on the world’s largest known oil reserves. After the war, as oil became the single most important source of energy for industrial society, the Middle East and North Africa became a major focal point of world attention. As American oil companies entered the field competing against Anglo-Iranian and other British and Dutch companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell, they transformed the position of the local rulers and their peoples.

            As the importance of oil became clear in the aftermath of World War II, King Ibn Saud began to wonder why he was not receiving more of the profits from his oil. Similar questions halfway around the world in Venezuela had led to an agreement that Venezuela and the oil companies would each receive about 50% of the industry’s profits. In 1950, under Saudi pressure, the Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco, which had been formed to exploit the Saudi concession, agreed to the 50-50 rule in Arabia. 

OPEC. The 50-50 rule soon became the standard throughout the Middle East and North Africa and massive amounts of money began to flow into the oil countries. Oil wealth meant power. Many people began to speak of the influence of petro-dollars in the world’s markets. In 1960 Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the oil-producing countries of Latin America joined together to form OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Other oil producers, such as Nigeria, joined later. OPEC worked hard to take control of the entire global oil industry, particularly to set production levels and control world prices.

            The power of OPEC reached its height in 1973. During the Arab-Israeli war of that year, the Arab oil countries used their oil as a weapon, declaring an Oil Embargo against countries supporting Israel. By cutting their own production only about 15%, they drove up prices for Western consumers, especially in the United States, and consumers had to wait in long lines for less and less available gasoline. Only after the cease-fire between Egypt and Israel was the embargo lifted. Meanwhile, Japan, which depended on Arab producers for about 80% of its oil supplies, formally changed its position on the Arab-Israeli dispute from one of neutrality to one of support for the Arab side—such was the power of oil in the modern world.[40]

            Eventually, however, the pressures of the world market and the OPEC countries’ own need for revenue broke the power of the cartel to truly control world prices. By the 1980s, increased production had resulted in an oil glut—more oil on the market than there was demand—and prices began to fall again. Nevertheless, the Middle Eastern and North African countries that controlled the world’s greatest oil reserves remained influential and strategically important. 

Cold War problems. As the industrial economies of the Western world and Japan became increasingly dependent on the vital substance for energy, so too the region became a major object of Cold War rivalries. As British power in the region declined after World War II, that of the United States replaced it in many ways. The shift from the power of the old colonial powers to the new superpowers was first demonstrated in Iran. There, in 1951, the nationalist prime minister, Dr. Muhammad Mossadegh, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company for greater Iranian participation in both the running of the Iranian oil industry and its profits. Frustrated by the intransigence of the British, Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry.

            Mossadegh’s actions alarmed not only the British but also the United States, whose allies in Western Europe depended on Iranian oil. Moreover, at the height of the struggle with the British, Mossadegh’s government accepted the support of the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh. Although Mossadegh himself was not a communist, his apparent willingness to work with the Tudeh Party in Iran seemed unacceptably dangerous to Washington. Consequently, with British prodding the American Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup that toppled Mossadegh from power—and with him constitutional government in Iran. In his place, the United States installed the young Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as an absolute ruler. The new shah initially became a firm supporter of the West and set out to modernize and westernize Iran as rapidly as possible.

            The presence of oil also contributed greatly to the alliance structure that emerged in the Middle East after the war. The United States not only accepted responsibility for defending the Northern Tier but also established close ties with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states. On the other hand, the U.S. also remained firm allies with Israel—a policy that often strained American relations with the Islamic and Arab states of the region.

Economic development and modernization

As the oil-owning countries began to pump billions of dollars into development schemes throughout the Middle East, the pace of change begun under colonial rule intensified. More modern methods of farming began to spread in many Middle Eastern countries. After World War II, tractors and other machines, chemical fertilizers, and improved seeds began to be used more widely in places like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Morocco. At the same time, a falling death rate throughout the region led to a rapid increase in population. In the 1930s, for example, Egypt’s rate of population increase was only about 1% per year. By 1960 it had more than doubled to between 2.5 and 3%.[41]

            Both the rise in population and improved methods of farming also caused more and more people to move to the cities. Rapid urbanization led to even greater demands for further food production and more economic development. Throughout the region, such changes led to the development not only of more food supplies, but also the production of cash crops for the export market.[42]

            The modernization of farming and the use of oil revenues to build new hydroelectric and irrigation projects also led more and more people to switch from herding animals, which had previously seemed the most efficient use of the dry climate in most countries, to agriculture. In the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, for example, Iraqi merchants began to lease land for farming from local tribal shaykhs in order to grow products for export. [43]

            In Iran, the Shah used his increasing wealth from oil to fund his so-called White Revolution, which began in 1963. In addition to industrial development and modernization, the Shah also fostered Westernization. Like his father before him he hoped to transform Iran into a modern power on western lines. He especially wanted to distance himself and the state from the Islamic past and instead appealed to his people’s sense of Iranian identity and nationalism. In the early 1970s he went so far as to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a massive 2500th anniversary celebration of the Iranian monarchy. Such policies angered many Iranians, however, especially the influential mullahs, or Shi’ite clergy. The Shah met growing opposition to his plans with repression.

Social and Cultural Changes

Both independence and economic development also led to more rapid social change. As more and more people flocked into the cities of the Middle East, most peoples’ standards of living rose. The new Arab middle classes began to move into those parts of the cities formerly inhabited by foreigners, while newly arrived migrants from the countryside moved into the sections vacated by the middle classes. Many middle class Arabs began to adopt European styles of clothing and entertainment. People of all religious faiths moved more freely together, where once they had each been confined to their own quarters of the cities. As the new governments increased state education, their children also went to the same secular schools. 

Changing urban landscape. The modernizing governments also began to change the face of the cities. Modern boulevards were built through what had once been a maze of small, narrow streets. More and more cars began to appear on the new roads. Prosperous families with cars no longer had to live close to their work but could commute. New office buildings also began to dot the landscape. Cities throughout the region began to sprawl much like cities in the Western world. Cairo, for example, grew rapidly along both banks of the Nile and on islands in the river. Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, became famous as a resort city, with the splendid Casino du Liban sitting atop Mt. Lebanon overlooking the whole sparkling city beside the sea.

            As the populations of Middle Eastern countries grew rapidly, modern city planning also began. In Egypt, for example, a new garden city was created outside Cairo, Madinat Nasr. Such projects also contributed to renewed interest in traditional Islamic architectural designs. In Saudi Arabia, the government built a huge modern airport and other facilities for the pilgrimage, using modern materials such as steel-reinforced concrete, but also with modern adaptations of traditional Islamic styles. In the era of modernization, recordings broadcast over loudspeakers from the minarets of the mosques replaced even the traditional muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer.

            At the same time, rapid urbanization also led to the same kind of problems that had plagued European cities in the early days of urbanization. High levels of unemployment often led to the development of slums in which the urban poor and unemployed lived. Overcrowding in the cities forced many people looking for work to leave their families behind in their villages—a practice that often weakened traditional family ties. The importance of the extended family often gave way to a growing emphasis on the nuclear family. Middle Eastern workers even traveled abroad in search of work. Millions of Turks, for example, migrated to Germany in search of jobs. Algerians and other North African workers flocked to France for the same reason. 

Continuity in the countryside. As more and more people moved to the cities, they also began to send money home to their families in the countryside. In addition, land reforms undertaken in the later 1950s and 1960s in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, began to change peoples’ lives. Electricity began to spread beyond the cities into the countryside as more and more independent governments spent funds on nationwide modernization. Not least, new highways and a growing number of cars not only opened up life for city-dwellers, but also exposed people in the countryside to more and more outside contacts. One of the most important contributors to change was the rapid distribution in the late 1950s and 1960s of transistor radios, which soon connected even the most remote villages to at least some news from the wider world. 

Changing roles for women. The strains of increasing urbanization and modernization were perhaps most clearly seen in the changing roles and status of women. Where traditionally women were supposed to dress modestly and remain under the authority of their fathers or husbands, many women in the growing cities began to work outside the home. Some governments, such as those of Iran under the Shah and Turkey under Ataturk, deliberately passed laws prohibiting women from wearing the traditional veil to hide their faces and features from the eyes of strange men. As more and more women joined the work force in large cities like Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, they too began to leave the veil behind.

            Education contributed to the changes in women’s status and roles in society. Even in poor countries in the Middle East, girls were going to school and more and more women were learning to read and write. Consequently, they were no longer bound by their traditional jobs, such as tending livestock or gardening at home in the country. In modern cities they could also find work in shops and offices, or even in factories when there was a shortage of male laborers. In addition, more and more women were becoming professionals—doctors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers. In some countries, such as Iraq and Tunisia, women even served at high levels in the government.

            In the villages, once their men had gone to look for work in the cities women also gained greater responsibilities. They had to decide for themselves what to plant, for example, and when to plant. They might also have to take responsibility for getting their crops to market. They also continued to have primary responsibility for raising the children.

            Nevertheless, for many, the traditions of the past continued to be the ideal—traditions that emphasized the primary position of men, and the importance of women remaining faithful and obedient to them. Particularly in the villages, women’s lives continued to revolve around traditional Islamic ideals and the holy law—as the Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat described through the main character of one of her stories: 

“She . . . raised her hand to her lips, kissing it back and front in thanks for His generosity. . . . During Ahmed’s lifetime she would stand behind him as he performed the prayers, following the movements as he bowed down and then prostrated himself, listening reverently to the words he recited and knowing that he who stands behind the man leading the prayers and following his movements has himself performed the prayers . . . with his death she had given up performing the regular prayers.”[44] 

Many women were increasingly challenging such attitudes, however, and calling  for changes in traditional Islamic attitudes toward women in general.

The Resurgence of Islam

As Muslims around the world continued to confront the challenges of modernization and the threat of westernization, many began to reemphasize their sense of religious identity. A new movement, Islamic “fundamentalism,” gained increasing ground as the Islamic world responded to these challenges. For some this meant rejecting the modern, materialistic world. For others, however, it meant reasserting traditional religious values without also rejecting the benefits of modern technology. The most important case of this resurgence occurred in Iran. 

Religious Nationalism. The peoples of the Middle East and Africa experienced enormous changes and dislocation after World War II. In an effort to cope with these upheavals, many began to reassert traditional values and familiar forms of identity. In the Islamic world in particular, these efforts to cope with change brought on a revival of interest in religion. In part, religious revival allowed them to reconnect with their traditional past and achieve a sense of continuity. At the same time, Islamic revival also provided a means of rejecting Western cultural influences by means of a kind of religious nationalism.

            One of the most influential of the Islamic revival movements was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had begun in Egypt between the wars. Perhaps its most eloquent spokesman was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who was eventually executed for conspiring against the secular Egyptian government. Although Qutb did not oppose modernization as such, he did warn Muslims against adopting the values of the West since they were not rooted in the teachings of the Qur’an. “The Muslim community,” he once wrote, “was established for the role of leadership of humanity. It must derive its customs as well as its ideology from the source that chose it for leadership.”[45]

            Others involved in the Islamic resurgence, however, opted for a less rigorous and literal interpretation of their religion. Arab leaders like Nasser were always able to use Islamic symbolism to appeal for support. In 1969, Muammar Qaddafi overthrew the Libyan monarchy and also appealed to Islam for his authority. Qaddafi’s Islam was truly revolutionary. For Qaddafi as for Nasser, Islam had much in common with socialism. As he explained in his “Green Book:” 

“As the Muslims have strayed far from Islam, a review is demanded. The [Libyan revolution] is a revolution rectifying Islam, presenting Islam correctly, purifying Islam of the reactionary practices which dressed it in retrograde clothingnot its own. Because Islam is progressive, it is a universalist revolution at the height of the left. The Islamic revolution . . . is neo-scientific socialism.” 

            Qaddafi was not the only Islamic revolutionary. Terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon also justified their methods by insisting that they were fighting for the faith. In Afghanistan too, the Mujahidin, or freedom fighters who fought against the Soviet invasion of their country in the 1980s, saw themselves as religious warriors—even calling their fight a jihad. Throughout the Islamic world, from Africa to East Asia, Islam provided a compelling force on which Muslims could rebuild their sense of identity in the face of external challenges.

The Iranian Revolution. By far the greatest stimulus to the growing resurgence of Islam came in 1979, when Islamic leaders led the revolution against the Shah in Iran. As elsewhere, modernization and with it Westernization provided the motivation for revolution. The Shah himself was proud of the massive changes he had sent in motion in his efforts to modernize the country. The White Revolution, he declared: 

“Combined the principles of capitalism . . . with socialism, even communism. . . . There’s never been so much change in 3,000 years. The whole structure is [being turned] upside down.”[46] 

Such sentiments only illustrated how far from the thinking of ordinary Iranians the Shah had gone. By 1978, the stage was set for mass riots and demonstrations against the Shah. The leader in the movement was one of the highest Shi’ite religious scholars of the country, Ayatollah Ruhollah Hendi Khomeini, who had been exiled for opposition to the Shah.

            Khomeini rejected the growing materialism of the West’s values and mode of living. He used the term “Westoxication” to describe what he called “the dazzling effect that the material progress of the imperialist countries has had on some members of our society.” At the same time, Khomeini did not reject modern technology itself. From France, he used modern technology in the form of cassette tapes and modern telecommunications systems to spread his message in Iran. With the way thus prepared, when the Shah left Iran in January 1979 Khomeini himself returned to Teheran in triumph. Within the year, he had been proclaimed the supreme religious guide, or faqih, of the new Islamic Republic, a post he retained until his death in June 1989.

            Khomeini and his colleagues preached against the United States and Britain as the “Great Satans.” They also approved, in November 1979, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Teheran by militant anti-Western students. The seizure of all the occupants as hostages set off the Iranian hostage crisis. Banning western customs introduced by the Shah, they returned to strict Shi’ite customs. Women once again had to wear the body-covering chadur in public, for example. In addition, they also imprisoned and executed many of their opponents, or anyone they suspected of being unreliable. Like the Shah, they imposed strict censorship throughout Iran.

            When Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in 1980, hoping to use the confusion of the revolution to make some territorial gains, Khomeini rallied the country to resist. As the war dragged on, he called on Iranian men, women, and children to fight in the name of Islam and if necessary to die as “martyrs.” He only agreed to a ceasefire in 1988 with considerable reluctance. Meanwhile, Khomeini also sponsored all groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon that continued the struggle against Israel.

Women and the Islamic Resurgence. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Islamic resurgence for many people in the world was its consequences for women. In the course of modernization, women’s movements had begun to emerge in some Middle Eastern countries along with a growing sense of frustration by many women at the limitations placed on them by traditional Islamic values. Forugh Farrokhzad, one Iran’s leading modern poets, expressed the frustration in one of her poems: 

“My sister, take your rights

from those who keep you weak,

from those who through a thousand ploys

keep you seated in a house. . . .


Rise, uproot oppression,

revive the heart drenched in blood

Struggle, struggle to transform laws

for the sake of your own freedom.”[47] 

            Although some westernized women, like Jehan Sadat of Egypt, called for women's rights comparable to those in the West, however, others rejected the secularism of Western values. In part, perhaps, this was because in many Islamic countries women actually had long had some rights that women in the West had only recently attained. As the Islamic resurgence increased in the 1980s and 1990s, more and more women in the Islamic world proclaimed their values and rights as women as laid down in the Qur'an.

            In Iran and elsewhere, for example, many women again began wearing the veil that had been prohibited by westernizing and modernizing rulers like the Shah. Such customs became a symbol of their pride in Islamic conceptions of women's rights in opposition to the secularism of the West[48]—a sentiment expressed in a poem written by the Iranian poet Tahereh Saffar-Zadeh in honor of Ayatollah Khomeini: 

“Soul of God spreading justice

you are the ancestor of all heroes

the hero among prophets

in an era of ubiquitous murder

an era of conniving imposters

of bribe-givers and night-seekers

in the darkest night of history

you are the east in every universe

with nothing between you and the sun.” 

As they also continued to fulfill their traditional roles as mothers, Muslim women would undoubtedly keep Islam as a focal point of identity for future generations.