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Islamic Revival and the Iranian Revolution

In the first half of the 20th century the spread of literacy, wider access to education, and the growth of modern communications networks substantially changed Middle Eastern society. With the formation of new classes and political institutions came increased pressure to end foreign rule and to widen political participation. Most early political movements were avowedly secular in their structure and objectives. The 1950s in particular seemed to be a time of great hope and optimism for the peoples of the Middle East. The rise of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his early triumphs with the Suez Crisis and at the Bandung Conference, where 29 nations of Asia and Africa demanded an independent voice in international affairs, were a source of inspiration. He rejected Western influence, embraced a policy of nonalignment with either the U.S.- or Soviet-led blocs of power, and espoused the possibility of a strong, united Arab world. The potential of socialism, or state-sponsored economic development, together with the friendship of the Soviet Union and increasing oil revenues, gave new confidence. The reality, embodied in the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, was far less inspiring.

In the 1970s Muslims in many countries began to seek, often violently, the revival of Islamic law in both governmental and wider societal spheres. There are various explanations for this “Islamic revival.” It most likely resulted from the combination of many factors, such as the perceived failure of mass political movements in the second half of the 20th century, the deeply undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes in power in almost all Middle Eastern states, and the lack of progress on major regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Other factors were the pro-Western attitudes of rulers like the shah of Iran and Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, the increasing gap both within and among states between rich and poor, and widespread misery and despair caused by war, inflation, unemployment, and poverty that had affected the region for so long. However, Islamic fundamentalist activists have rarely offered viable alternatives to the conditions they criticized.

The most successful attempt to establish an Islamic state was the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1978 and 1979. During the 1960s and 1970s Iran’s ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, attempted to modernize Iran at great speed. Although living standards rose, inflation soared and rapid migration to cities as the economy industrialized severely disrupted Iran’s traditional social structure. Many foreigners working in Iran brought Western habits and an increased demand for consumer goods, which further stressed Iran’s cultural values. Also, the shah's role as a principal ally of the United States in the Middle East made him highly unpopular. Religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in exile since 1963 for criticizing the shah, broadcast messages from Iraq and later from Paris to his followers. Matters came to a head in 1978, when hundreds of demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police. In January 1979 the ayatollah’s followers forced the shah to flee Iran, and Khomeini returned the next month. He and his supporters set up an Islamic republic by a referendum in April 1979.

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