Christian Caryl: Islamist Déjà Vu: The Lessons of 1979





Christian Caryl is a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute and the editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab website.


The year 1979—when Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage, and Muslim radicals in Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, brazenly laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca—marked the debut of a new political phenomenon known as “Islamism.” To be sure, the theorists and advocates of political Islam had been around for a while, and there was an extraordinary explosion of Islamic activism around the Muslim world in the 1970s; in some countries there was even talk of a sahwa, an “awakening” of Islamic political consciousness. But few people outside of the ummah, the global community of Muslim believers, were paying any attention, and the US was caught flatfooted as Ayatollah Khomeini proceeded to transform his theory of “Islamic government” into reality. “Political Islam” was no longer a theory. It had become an active, practical force in global politics.

Perhaps it’s helpful to recall the events of 1979 as we contemplate the tragic death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and the storming of American diplomatic buildings in Cairo, Sanaa, Tunis, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. (Curiously, that same year was also the last time—until Stevens’ death—that a serving ambassador was killed overseas. The unlucky diplomat in 1979 was Adolph Dubs, killed in a Kabul hotel in a hostage-taking gone wrong.) The events this week appear at least in part to have been set off by an inflammatory anti-Muslim film. But they have been dominated by groups that were little known before the recent Arab uprisings: Salafi Islamists. Once again, a growing political force from within the Islamic world—one of which Westerners were only dimly aware—has dramatically and violently demonstrated its capacity to shape global politics....



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