Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East
By Amir Moosavi
On June 15-16, 2017, in the framework of Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe (EUME) a program at the Forum Transregionale Studien, and the financial support from the VolkswagenStiftung and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I organized a two-day workshop entitled “Reading the ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East.” To my knowledge, the workshop was the first of its kind to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines and geographic specializations to explore the social, political and cultural ramifications of the pivotal year 1979 in the greater Middle East. Truly interdisciplinary and transregional in its scope, it put historians, social scientists, and scholars of literary and cultural studies who focus on Iran, the Levant, Egypt and Afghanistan into conversation with one another. In this way, the workshop was an important first step in understanding just how critical the events of this year were for shifting the social, cultural and political landscapes of this region and in fact, the world.
There were many reasons for organizing a workshop devoted to the events and consequences of a singular year at that time. We are now nearly 40 years from 1979. It proved to be a landmark year that heralded a variety of historic events, ranging from the election of Thatcher in the UK, to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, to the Sandinistas defeat of Samoza in Nicaragua. The Middle East, however, witnessed an unparalleled level of transformation after the summation of several events in 1979. From start to finish, the year was a regional, watershed moment. Over the course of 365 days, the region witnessed the completion of the Iranian Revolution, the implementation of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the violent siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and at the tail end of the year, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the background, Saddam Hussein assumed full control over Iraq, the Lebanese Civil War raged (and changed), and political violence was ongoing and on the rise in both Turkey and Syria, setting the stage for the 1980 coup in the former and the 1982 Hama uprising and massacre in the latter. On top of all of this, for nearly a month North and South Yemen went to war.These events—representing violence, revolution, war, political pacts, treaties and fallouts—by and large, were not directly related to one another. Taken together, however, they would signal a major shift in the political, social and cultural landscapes of the area that stretched from North Africa to South Asia. Perhaps most notably, the face of “resistance” would change, as activists questioned their previous notions of political commitment and, as historian Hamit Bozarsalan has pointed out, the face of the (Muslim) mujahid would replace the (leftist, nationalistic, secular) fedaii of previous decades. Politics alliances realigned, especially with the emergence of political Islam as a major force on the world stage. One could also argue that the region would take an unprecedented turn towards warfare, beginning at the end of the year, in Afghanistan, and in 1980 in Iran and Iraq. Here, too, various strains of political Islam would also leave their mark on the discourses and cultures of war. Whether they were the wars of the 1980s, such as the Lebanese Civil War, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the Iran-Iraq war; or those of the 1990s—the Algerian Civil War, continued war in Afghanistan and the 1990-91 Gulf War—various strains of Islamism would now play a major role.
Scholars working in modern Middle Eastern studies, across disciplines, have recognized the importance of various years from the mid-twentieth century onward as pivotal. In the Arab world, 1948, 1967 and 2003 are some obvious examples. For Iranian studies, 1953 and 1979 are clear political, social and cultural turning points. However, 1979 is a year that has clear transregional implications that go across the national borders of the Arab and Persianate worlds that have not been fully explored in an interdisciplinary and transnational way. The presentations and discussions fostered by the workshop were a step towards filling this lacuna.
Many of the posts that follow are abbreviated versions of the talks given over the two days of the conference. Others have been submitted since then. In sum, they are attempts to raise questions and give meaning to the events of the 1979 across national borders and linguistic divisions. I hope that the posts can generate more discussion and questions about consequences of this year, which we continue to feel until the present day.
 The workshop would not have been possible without the logistical support of the EUME staff at the Forum Transregionale Studien. I also received assistance from the research network Figures of Thought | Turning Points. Cultural Practices and Social Change in the Arab World at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at Philipps-Universität Marburg.
 Hamit Bozarslan (2012): “Revisiting the Middle East’s 1979,” Economy and Society, 41:4, 565.
 This is not to say that no one has written about the fateful year. In an earlier posting on this blog, I highlighted three recent works that have examined the year as a turning point. Yet studies that incorporate 1979 as a critical rupture remain in their infant stages. See: http://trafo.hypotheses.org/6705
Amir Moosavi was a fellow of the research program Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe (EUME) 2016/17, supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the VolkswagenStiftung and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His research interests include modern Arabic and Persian literatures, with an emphasis on Iran, Iraq and the Levant, and the cultural history of the modern Middle East. His dissertation focused on Arabic and Persian fiction from the Iran-Iraq War. Amir Moosavi has taught at Brown University, NYU, Bard College, and Hunter College.
Citation: Amir Moosavi, Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.05.2018 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9587.