2013 Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl – review Jonathan Derbyshire on convulsions that created today's multipolar world
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl – review
Jonathan Derbyshire on convulsions that created today's multipolar world
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Religion and revolution … People in Tehran show their support for Ayatollah Khomeini in a photo dated 5 Jun 1979 Photograph: Christine Spengler/ Christine Spengler/Sygma/Corbi
In October 1978, the French philosopher Michel Foucault visited Iran on an assignment for the political weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. The previous month, troops loyal to the embattled shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had opened fire on demonstrators in Jaleh Square in the centre of Tehran. Scores were killed on what came to be known as Black Friday.
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century
Foucault observed that the hundreds of thousands who took part in the vast, angry processions that choked the streets of the Iranian capital in the weeks that followed were chanting not only "Death to the shah", but also "Islam, Islam, Khomeini, we will follow you" and "Khomeini for king". For the time being, though, their king over the water, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remained in exile, holed up in a suburb of Paris from where he plotted Pahlavi's downfall. He would eventually return to Iran on an Air France jet on 1 February 1979, by which time the shah and his family had already fled.
In his riveting account of this and other decisive global convulsions that occurred in the space of that single year, Christian Caryl notes that "most outsiders couldn't fathom what was happening in Iran". How could obscurantist religious atavism be mobilising millions in a country that, under the shah, had become more modern, more western and, it seemed, more secular? Foucault's dispatches from Tehran were one exception to the general incomprehension of western observers, best exemplified by the US president Jimmy Carter's dismissal of Khomeini as "crazy".
Foucault grasped very quickly something that only became apparent to others much later (in many cases not until after 9/11) – namely, what Caryl accurately describes as the "odd fusion" of religion and revolutionary politics that made Islamism so potent and, at least to those whose outlook was still shaped by the ideological and geopolitical polarities of the cold war, so baffling. He feared that the secular opposition to the shah was far too sanguine about what this religious mobilisation signified. Don't think, he warned them, that all this fervour is merely the misplaced expression of legitimate rage at the Pahlavi regime, and that it will dissipate once the dictatorship is overthrown. He was right to be worried, of course, though his reporting got him into trouble back home in France, where he was denounced as an apologist for the nascent Iranian theocracy.
Caryl is good on the cognitive dissonance induced by the Islamic revolution in Iran. He quotes the Iraqi dissident and secular leftist Kanan Makiya recalling how events next door in Tehran took him and his comrades by surprise. "Here we had forces we thought we had confined to … history that reappeared … All the categories … had fallen apart."
Strange Rebels, then, is in part a book about what happens when the world stops co-operating with ideological categories and they lose their explanatory power. It is also an extended demonstration of the law of unintended consequences. Consider another of the events of 1979 that Caryl discusses, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No sooner had the US lost its Iranian client to an insurrectionist form of Shia Islam than it was preparing to facilitate jihad against the Russians in the Hindu Kush through its sponsorship of the Afghan mujahideen – with results that it could not or did not foresee. "Both Washington and Moscow," Caryl writes, "failed to predict the forces that the invasion would unleash."
The Islamist uprising against the puppet government of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) that began in Herat in March 1979 caught the Soviets out, just as the Americans had been blindsided by the Iranian revolution. When they finally intervened in December to prop up the PDPA, the Russians thought they were dealing with a rural insurgency rather than a disciplined movement of Islamic revolutionaries, intoxicated by the example of Iran and as hostile to traditional religious authority as they were to the godless materialism of the regime in Kabul. Spooked by the fear that the Soviet Union was making another move in the "great game" it had been playing in Afghanistan since the 19th century, the Americans, who began funnelling money to the rebels through the Pakistani intelligence services, made the same mistake.
Caryl might have made more of the role played by Pakistan in all this – especially the programme of "Islamisation" that was launched by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 (under the influence of the theologian Abul Ala Mawdudi, who Caryl identifies as an early proponent of the idea that there was a universally binding duty to wage jihad in Afghanistan). This was surely a decisive moment in the globalisation of political Islam that he rightly says is one of the enduring legacies of the events of that tumultuous year.
Caryl has an even bigger story to tell, however, and here the book is rather less convincing. He argues that three other events in 1979 were in their own way as consequential as the revolution in Iran and the Soviet Union's fatal entanglement in Afghanistan: the visit of Pope John Paul II to his Polish homeland; Margaret Thatcher's election as British prime minister; and the economic reforms launched in China byDen g Xiaoping. Each of them, Caryl maintains, helped to shape the world we live in today, one in which "markets dominate economic thinking" and "politicised religion looms large".
He's right to say that the collective swoon of Poland's Catholics at the sight of Karol Wojtyla kissing the tarmac at Warsaw airport was just as disruptive of assumptions about the ineluctable progress of secular modernisation as were the inflamed enthusiasms of the followers of Khomeini. But Caryl goes much further: he suggests that each of the five events he examines can be understood as a backlash against the "great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the 20th century" – as if Iran under the shah, for example, had been a sort of analogue of Wilson-era Britain, except with an unusually vicious secret police. And conflating the neoliberal capitalism bequeathed by Thatcherism with the authoritarian market state created by Deng out of the ruins of the cultural revolution obscures more than it explains. If, as Caryl argues, Thatcher was a "missionary of markets", then her creed was undone by the extraordinary success of the Chinese in building a market economy without the kind of liberal political institutions that many in the west, Thatcher included, insisted must accompany it.
Caryl needn't have overstated his case in this way. For what he has succeeded in doing is to show that 1979 marked the birth of the multipolar world we inhabit today, in which new powers, China included, use global markets to advance their interests and in which religion, far from disappearing as a political force, has reasserted itself with a vengeance. And for doing that, he is to be applauded.