Following the defeat of Egypt and other Arab armies by Israel in the 1967 war, Nasserism, a k a Arab nationalism, the abiding ideology of the day, was demolished. In its wake came two broad alternatives: The first, manifested by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in his 1977 trip to Israel, was a bid to cast the Arab world’s future with the West, economic liberalization, modernization and acceptance of Israel. The weakness of “Sadatism,” though, was that it was an elite ideology with no cultural roots. The Egyptian state made peace with Israel, but Arab societies never followed.
The second Arab-Muslim response emerged in 1979. To start, there was the takeover that year of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists who challenged the religious credentials of the Saudi ruling family. The Saudi rulers responded by forging a new bargain with their Islamists: Let us stay in power and we will give you a free hand in setting social norms, relations between the sexes and religious education inside Saudi Arabia ”” and abundant resources to spread Sunni Wahabi fundamentalism abroad.
The Saudi lurch backward coincided with Iran’s revolution in 1979, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. That revolution set up a competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for who was the real leader of the Muslim world, and it triggered a surge in oil prices that gave both fundamentalist regimes the resources to export their brands of puritanical Islam, through mosques and schools, farther than ever.
“Islam lost its brakes in 1979,” said Mamoun Fandy, a Middle East expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. And there was no moderate countertrend.