After 1979, the Saudi authorities removed women from television newscasts, blotted out the faces of women in newspaper photographs and cracked down on the already forbidden practice of women’s employment. Beach clubs and cinemas were closed. The religious police — the so-called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — were showered with funding and newly empowered.
The consequences are personal for Ghattas, who still lives at least part time in Beirut. “What happened to us?” she asks on behalf of the people of the Arab and Muslim worlds. “The question may not occur to those too young to remember a different world, or whose parents did not tell them of a youth spent reciting poetry in Peshawar, debating Marxism late into the night in the bars of Beirut or riding bicycles to picnic on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.” She reminds readers of how almost unimaginably different the region once was, recalling the seaside garden of abstract sculptures by Henry Moore, Joan Miró and other modern artists that a daring mayor once assembled in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Too many in the West, she insists, wrongly attribute the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran to age-old theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites. Sectarian animosities are described as “inevitable and eternal,” and then blamed for pulling apart Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other areas of the region.
Ghattas’s narrative upends this Western misconception. Instead of feuding over theology, Ghattas shows, Saudi Arabia and Iran transformed latent religious divisions into weapons wielded in the pursuit of political power, by cultivating and often arming sectarian militias across the region. “Before it was weaponized in the years following 1979, the Sunni-Shia schism lay mostly dormant,” Ghattas notes. Minorities like the Alawites of Syria or the Zaidi of Yemen had coexisted more or less peaceably throughout the area. And even after 1979 the hard-line rulers of Iran and Saudi Arabia have sometimes overlooked sectarian disagreements in the interest of political expedience, sometimes pursuing short-lived phases of rapprochement with each other.
Ghattas tries to pinpoint the first moments when the Saudi and Iranian religious rivalries exploded into violence. In the summer of 1987, for example, the Saudi- and American-backed Islamist strongman who ruled Pakistan became the first modern ruler to deploy one sectarian militia against another: A two-week battle in the district of Kurram near the Afghanistan border killed 52 Shiites and 120 Sunnis and left 14 villages all or partially destroyed. It was “the first premeditated, state-sponsored attack by one sectarian militia against another sect, the first such killing that the Muslim world had witnessed in modern times,” Ghattas writes. A car bombing in Najaf, Iraq, in 2003, after the American invasion, was the first time since a Saudi raid on Karbala in 1801 that Sunni Arab fighters “had specifically set out to kill Shias.”
Ghattas tells many of these stories through the eyes of myriad individual men and often women who spoke out in one way or another against the post-1979 conservative turn in the region — “all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave.”