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-Qaida, Hezbollah and the Islamic State, 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.
The spontaneous demonstrations that just erupted across Iran were triggered by the release, through social networks, of the latest national budget. Unemployed Iranian youth saw just how much money was being poured into the Islamic Revolutionary Guards – and their adventures in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen – and into Islamic institutions, and even, as The New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink put it, into “someone who was upkeeping the library of his deceased ayatollah father.” This at a time when the government was canceling subsidies to 30 million low-income Iranians.
Iran has an educated population and a rich cultural heritage. It’s a nation capable of breakthroughs in science, medicine, computing and the arts. However, its regime has been focused not on empowering Iranian youth but on extending Tehran’s influence over failing Arab states, costing billions of dollars. That’s why protesters were chanting: “Death to Hezbollah” (Iran’s Lebanese Shiite mercenary army), “Death to the dictator,” (Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei) and “Let go of Syria, think about us.”
On recent trips to Saudi Arabia I heard youth express their own version of this: I want the clerics out of my face. I want to live my life without interference and realize my full potential – a sentiment particularly voiced by Saudi women. Youth also said: I want to be able to go to concerts, drive my car, start a business, mix with the other sex or see a movie. And I want to celebrate my national Saudi culture, cuisine and art – not just Islam.
But Saudi Arabia, for now, is not witnessing the violent uprisings seen in Iran. Unlike Iran, whose supreme leader is 78 years old, Saudi Arabia is effectively ruled by a millennial 32-year-old, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.
MBS has issues. He’s been impulsive and autocratic in ways that have hurt his country and his credibility: bullying the prime minister of Lebanon to resign; diving into the Yemen war, and contributing to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis; and buying gazillion-dollar paintings and yachts while declaring war on corruption at home.
But to his credit, MBS has been in tune with, and even ahead of, Saudi youth when it comes to social reforms (political power-sharing is not on the agenda), taking steps that none of his royal cousins ever dared: pulling the religious police off the streets, permitting Saudi women to drive, curbing the power of the clerics, letting women attend sporting events with men, opening cinemas, inviting Western and Arab pop stars to perform in the kingdom and vowing to restore Saudi Islam to a more “moderate,” pre-1979 iteration – all part of a plan called “Vision 2030.”
MBS is, in effect, trying to build a Saudi version of China’s “one-country, two systems,” a Persin Gulf businessman remarked to me. If you’re religious and want Mecca, it will be there for you. If you’re not religious and want Disney World, MBS is ready to build that now, too. M.B.S. is no longer wedded to just one Saudi Arabia – and the still dominant tribal culture there means a lot of youth still defer to the monarchy and the military. Where MBS has to watch his way is with the religious establishment, which can still activate the large pool of less-educated and pious rural and small-town Saudis, if they feel social norms are changing too fast or massive youth unemployment isn’t being fixed.
Iran’s hard-line leaders, by contrast, have no interest in one country, two systems. And Iran’s more modern society has moved away from monarchy, so youth are not afraid to take to the streets. And the more the ayatollahs rule like a religious monarchy – plundering their society while wrapping themselves in the cloak of religion – the more young Iranians resent them.
Iran’s more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, said as much in public remarks on Monday: “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations. The problem is that we want two generations after us to live the way we [want] them to.”
One of the most interesting questions today, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, “is whose strategic vision is more sustainable and attainable – MBS' Vision 2030 or Ali Khamenei’s vision of 1979. MBS is a modern ruler presiding over a predominantly traditional society, and Khamenei is a traditional leader presiding over a more modern society.”
In Saudi Arabia there’s a move, from the bottom up and from the top down, to get past 1979 and birth a different social future. In Iran, there’s a move from bottom up by many youth to get past 1979, but regime hard-liners want to crush them from the top down.
We should root for both the Iranian and Saudi youth movements to bury 1979. It would be a gift for Muslims the world over – and for the world at large, which has spent trillions of dollars countering the furies fueled by that pivotal year.