Three momentous events mark 1979 as the year in which modern jihad, having evolved over the course of the century, emerged as a global movement: the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran, the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While the conditions for an Islamist explosion had existed for a long time, these events were the spark.
On April 1, 1979, following the overthrow of the shah and the return of the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in France, the Shiite populace of Iran voted in a national referendum to become an Islamic republic. A new constitution outlined the central role of divine revelation in determining Iran’s laws, which would be based on the Koran and the Sunnah, the traditions of Islam. Then on November 4, a crowd of student protesters who were loyal to Khomeini and committed to taking their revolution to the “great Satan,” America, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took sixty-six Americans hostage. Most of them would remain in captivity until the day Ronald Reagan took Jimmy Carter’s place in the White House. Focused on rescuing their imprisoned countrymen, Americans had a poor understanding of the broader picture in Iran. The elderly Khomeini was not seen as a serious alternative to the royal Pahlavi family, who were friendly to the United States. But the revolutionary cleric and his new guard of religious fanatics were able to exploit the ancient Persian reserves of pride and resilience, quickly imposing a Shia version of theocracy in which Islam and politics were totally reintegrated. The mullahs of Tehran became the center of political as well as religious power in Tehran.
Demonstrators hold up a poster of exiled Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini during an anti-shah demonstration in Tehran in 1978 / AP
The Shia of Iran thus demonstrated to the world—including the Sunnis, many of whom would be envious—that the theocratic caliph- ate was viable in the modern world. It also demonstrated that Muslims not only should but could reject the Western separation of politics and faith. Modernity’s separation of Allah’s writ and governance could be reversed.
Just as important, the success of the Iranian revolution and the embassy attack proved that the United States, and by inference all other great powers, was not invulnerable. The Muslim world did not have to be the powerless victim of Western machinations, such as interference in Iran’s domestic affairs and overarching control of the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Twelve days after the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, about three hundred armed Islamists, inexperienced and ill- equipped, seized control of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam and the equivalent of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These men were interested in a holy war not against infidel Christians or Jews but against their fellow Muslims. Led by a man who would later declare himself the long-awaited mahdi—just as Mohammed Ahmad had done years before in Khartoum—these jihadists invoked the principle of takfirism to declare any Muslim who disagreed with them an apostate, a false Muslim, starting with the royal family, the house of Saud, whom they saw as puppets of the infidel West. Their war was first with their fellow Muslims who had fallen away from the path of purity. The militants managed to hold the Grand Mosque for almost two weeks, a stunning accomplishment. But it was only after the siege was finally broken and most of the jihadists killed—with the covert assistance of French commandos—that the implications of this jihadi attack and the breadth of the conspiracy became clear.
In his definitive account, The Siege of Mecca, Yaroslav Trofimov reports that the attackers were not simply a collection of embittered loners or isolated fundamentalists. They shared their hatred of the Saudi regime and their “apostate” countrymen with an influential group of Saudi clerics, key members of the ulema, the religious leaders of the country. These clerics lamented the loss of faith that had made the global community of Muslims, the ummah, weak, allowing it to be dominated by the infidel West. Recall that the Saudi state was founded on a compact between the house of Saud and the fundamentalist cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al Wahhab. In the eyes of these puritanical clerics, the behavior of the royal family and the spread of Western influence across the Arabian Peninsula were signs that it was time for that compact to be revoked. The clerics encouraged a turn to violence, offering a religious sanction for jihad against the house of Saud and the other “apostate” Muslims of Saudi Arabia.
After the siege of the Grand Mosque was put down, the jihadis’ connection to the influential Saudi clerics was unearthed and the individual imams were identified by Saudi intelligence. The king then invited them to the palace, where instead of having them incarcerated or beheaded, he made them an offer that was difficult to refuse. He proposed a new compact: The propagation of jihadist ideology within the country, on Islamic soil—dar al Islam—would be utterly haram, or forbidden. In exchange for a promise that the ideology would never again threaten the kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the house of Saud, the government would support its propagation in infidel lands (dar al harb) around the globe. This commitment, backed by a massive influx of petrodollars, made the kingdom the most important force behind the spread of fundamentalist and radicalized Islamic ideology around the world.