Book review: Strange Rebels

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 4:20pm

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century
by Christian Caryl
3.5 stars

Jonathan Derbyshire

In his riveting account of decisive global convulsions that occurred in that year, Christian Caryl notes that "most outsiders couldn't fathom what was happening in Iran". How could obscurantist religious atavism be mobilising millions in a country that, under the shah, had become more modern, more western and, it seemed, more secular?

Strange Rebels is in part a book about what happens when the world stops co-operating with ideological categories and they lose their explanatory power. It is also an extended demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.

Consider another of the events of 1979 that Caryl discusses, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No sooner had the US lost its Iranian client to an insurrectionist form of Shia Islam than it was preparing to facilitate jihad against the Russians in the Hindu Kush through its sponsorship of the Afghan mujahideen - with results it could not or did not foresee. "Both Washington and Moscow," Caryl writes, " failed to predict the forces that the invasion would unleash."

The Islamist uprising against the puppet government that began in March 1979 caught the Soviets out, just as the Americans had been blindsided by the Iranian revolution. When they intervened in December to prop up the government, the Russians thought they were dealing with a rural insurgency rather than a disciplined movement of Islamic revolutionaries, intoxicated by the example of Iran and as hostile to traditional religious authority as they were to the godless materialism of the regime in Kabul. Spooked by the fear that the Soviet Union was making another move in the "great game" it had been playing in Afghanistan since the 19th century, the US funnelled money to the rebels through Pakistan.

Caryl has an even bigger story to tell, however, and here the book is rather less convincing. He argues that three other events in 1979 were as consequential as the revolution in Iran and the Russians' entanglement in Afghanistan: the visit of Pope John Paul II to his Polish homeland; Margaret Thatcher's election as British prime minister; and the economic reforms launched in China by Deng Xiaoping. Each of them, Caryl writes, helped to shape the world we live in today, one in which "markets dominate economic thinking" and "politicised religion looms large".

Caryl has succeeded in showing that 1979 marked the birth of the multipolar world we inhabit today, in which new powers, China included, use global markets to advance their interests and in which religion, far from disappearing as a political force, has reasserted itself with a vengeance.

Guardian News & Media