Those who study modern Islamist terrorism and insurgency have never been able to provide (or perhaps have never been interested in providing) good historical parallels to what the world has witnessed since 1979. That was the year when Juhayman al-’Utaybi and his “Brethren” (al-Ikhwan) occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a jarring incident for the Saudi royal dynasty that led to a gradual shift among the Kingdom’s religious institutions towards more conservative Salafism. Need I remind anyone that 1979 was also the year of the (Shi’a) Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the burning of the American Embassy in Islamabad.
It is true that smaller, more mobile and more effective technology enabling the conduct of violent acts (accurate, reliable and user-friendly small arms, IEDs, suicide bombings) probably stifle historical parallels to Islamist insurrections outside recent modernity. Yet I was struck by the familiarity of one rationale behind the 1979 Mecca insurrection as narrated by Pascal Menoret of the University of Paris-Sorbonne.
Menoret’s study quotes the 2007 account of Nasir al-Huzaymi, a former member of the Brethren: “The Brethren had broken the obstacle of respectful fear between the mufti and the believer.” Menoret continues: “This direct experience of the sacred text is partly responsible for bringing the Brethren to their textual and later political adventurism.”
This—as well as other descriptions of “back to basics” interpretations of Islam leading to recent violence—sound quite similar to the motivations behind Christian religious violence between the establishment of the Schmalkaldic League in 1530 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and most closely reflect the approaches of the Calvinists and Anabaptists (although many of these groups espoused non-violent approaches.) Both in the Christian world of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the Muslim world of the 20th and 21st, a set of politically-influenced revolutionary movements couched in “back to basics” religious rhetoric fought violently to overturn the established political-religious nexus. I can think of a few other common traits between the two contexts—quasi-communalism, strict opposition to idolatry, theocracy and religious fatalism—among others.
Before I get flooded by Calvinist hate-mail, I should say that there are, naturally, several major divergences. One is that the Reformation of Christendom led to an irreversible religious and political rift between Protestants and Catholics. By contrasts, the uprisings among Sunni Muslims since 1979 have caused state-sponsored religious institutions to move decisively towards the Right, in an effort to preempt further politico-religious rebellion. What was also unusual about the Protestant revolutions was that they were overtly supported by feudal subalterns attempting to establish their relative political autonomies from the centre. So the parallels are not exact, but I see a doctoral thesis somewhere here!