What do late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Russian-Afghan War, famous Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul II and the Iranian revolution have in common? It doesn’t really look they have anything in common except perhaps one thing which is: The year 1979.
This strange year witnessed the emergence of names and incidents which changed the face of the world into what we know today. Thatcher, the prophet of capitalism and the open market which the world now knows, assumed her tasks as prime minister in 1979. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan which contributed to the fracture of the Soviet empire and created the incubator in which terror groups grew up also happened in 1979.
China would not have had this economic power today if it hadn’t been for Xiaoping’s radical reforms which were that same year. Pope John Paul II defied communism and contributed to reviving the Catholic Church. He became the pope in 1978 but his most courageous steps were in 1979. And of course who can forget the Iranian revolution which erupted in that strange year?
The whole world is fed up with al Qaeda’s terrorist operations and other organizations that adopt violence in the name of religion. But political Islam has risen in an unprecedented way with the Iranian revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979Mamdouh AlMuhaini
In his book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, American Journalist Christian Caryl skillfully explains this year which – if we look back – is viewed as the most important year which opened a new chapter in the book of modern history.
It’s interesting that many observers expected that the decade of the 1970s was a mere shade of the decade that preceded it. There was the sense of chaos and lack of order due to assassinating Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, the repercussions of the Vietnamese War and the increased consumption of drugs and alcohol. It was a bleak decade passing by without any guidance but in its exactly last year, history took a sharp turn which we are still under its positive and negative repercussions.
If 1979 is the decisive turn, then the events which led to it were a series of historical interactions that surged, sometimes in a logical manner and sometimes in a strange one, to explode all at once in this year.
Before we get to Thatcher who became prime minister in 1979, we need to go back to know this solid and stubborn woman whom her father, the grocer, taught her how to pave her own way and make others follow it and not the other way around (this father who planted in his stubborn daughter the values of diligence and determination was conservative on the social level and liberal on the economic level).
Thatcher who specialized in chemistry at university mockingly replied to those who asked her about becoming the first female prime minister and said: “I am not the first woman but the first scientist to become a prime minister!” However this strong revolutionary confidence and tendency for change which she was well-known for remained repressed inside her and only gradually appeared.
She deeply believed in the values of the market and competition but she only showed a little of this strong tendency because she did not want to risk her gradual political rise. She was a youthful and cautious politician swinging between idealism and realism.
She was practical and was not ready to make statements that may harm her political status especially in the 1950s and 1960s when talking about the open market and competition was viewed as heresy that contradicts with the economic doctrine that’s solidified in the notion of the government’s control of the economy.
Even when Thatcher became the education secretary, she could not impose her policies and ideas and ended her term without making any noticeable changes (no one remembers her except by her decision to abolish free milk for schoolchildren and afterwards she was nicknamed "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”).
Even inside her Conservative Party, there weren’t plenty of figures who agreed with her complete belief that competition and the open market are the suitable recipe for the deteriorating British economy.
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The Conservative Party Leader at the time Edward Heath (who became prime minister between 1970 and 1974) believed in pairing between the state control and the free economy. However the British economy continued to decline and inflation increased by an unprecedented rates. Unemployment also increased and a series of protests and strikes ensued.
Great Britain which formed the global economy bended on its knees and requested a loan from the International Monetary Fund which it once helped establish, and it was the first industrial country to take such a move.
At that critical time and during that strange year, Thatcher came to change the economic formula and completely change the picture. Thatcher saw in herself a rebel and a revolutionary against the economic doctrine that has solidified since World War II and which at first succeeded for several reasons but almost drowned the country afterwards. This iron lady did not believe in consensus or agreement but she was inclined to radical polarization and change. Her ideas succeeded and her principles prevailed. Britain has since 1979 taken an economic and cultural path that’s mounting till this moment.
Xiaoping's vision for China
Famous Chinese reformist leader Xiaoping passed through harsher and more difficult circumstances than those Thatcher passed through. Although he was close to Mao whom he admired after he managed the war of the Japanese invasion, he brought him closer and distanced him and respected him and humiliated him, and in the end he returned to him after he felt that the cultural revolution he launched achieved its goals, although it represented a disaster to the Chinese economy and society.
Xiaoping was always a pragmatic man with a cold mind. He only raised his voice to criticize the situation in China when the time was right. Xiaoping, who before he succeeds in his third marriage, lost his first wife and whom his second wife humiliated him after she decided to separate from him and make it public, transformed from a social character who likes to engage in conversation into an unsociable person.
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However in all cases he did not lose his sharp intelligence and his cold realism, the author of the book said Mao pointed to him once during a meeting with American officials and said: “That little man there has a great future ahead of him.” This little man did in fact prove that he was the best thing to happen to China in the past decades. His historical decisions to open the Chinese market, privatize agricultural lands and open the door for foreign investments marked the beginning of the rise of the Chinese giant which did not stop growing.
Xiaoping’s visit to the US in 1979 shook him despite some of the funny and confusing incidents which happened during it. At a dinner which former American President Jimmy Carter held in his honor, actress Shirley MacLaine sat next to him and said when she visited China during the Cultural Revolution, she was struck by the scene of the professor as he ploughed the ground. Xiaoping, who himself suffered from this revolution, looked at her in contempt and said: “Professors should be teaching university classes not planting vegetables!”
Xiaoping then returned to China and he had a different China for the future in his mind. The China which communism exhausted was an underdeveloped ruin at the time when its neighbors like Singapore and Japan were developing and prospering.
Xiaoping, the man who made the famous statement: “It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, then made his biggest move in 1979, and China and the world changed after this.
The Polish pope
The Polish Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope to ascend the papal pyramid in 1978 since more than 400 years. His visit to Poland, which was under Soviet influence, was seen as the first crack in the body of the Eastern bloc that collapsed ten years later. This Pope went to his native country, and there he delivered 39 speeches challenging directly the Marxist ideology.
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Those speeches touched the millions of passionate Polish hearts that crowded to listen to him. Polish people, who were forced to accept Marxist thought never separated from their connection to the Catholic Church. For long centuries, Polish people tied their national identity to the church, and this continued even after their country was under communist influence. The pope, who was known for his ability to give speeches and influence, pushed for this notion, and didn’t speak about money or material things or the economy, but on the importance of the spiritual aspect in one’s life.
That year could mark the beginning of the return of politicized religion to Europe, which then escalated to reach the United States, where the mix of religion and politics played an important role.
But the return of political Islam was stronger and deeper, not in the West, but in the East. The signs of the Afghan war started to appear with Afghan President Mohammed Daoud Khan, but it actually began in 1979. One of the reasons that lead to the destruction of the Soviet empire, but it turned Afghanistan into an incubator for terrorist groups seeking power and influence.
The whole world is fed up with al Qaeda’s terrorist operations and other organizations that adopt violence in the name of religion. But political Islam has risen in an unprecedented way with the Iranian revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The Shah, who launched the so-called White Revolution aimed at modernizing his country, did not think the mullahs could remove him from his throne and dispel his dream, but this is what happened.
The writer says that the events that occurred that year, and the ideas of the characters that emerged in it are what formed the reality that we live in now. “Whether we like it or not, the market and the politicized religion are some of the most influencing powers in this century.” The writer remembers important events like that the emergence of Microsoft was in that year, and the beginning of the so-called income imbalance in the US also began that year.
But he forgets important events such as the arrival of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the presidency which was also in that year. As well as the beginning of the rise of radical thought. Of course, the coincidence alone has made this year a turning point in history in a way that no one expected, and changed the face of the world forever.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Mamdouh AlMuhaini is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s digital platforms. He can be followed on Twitter @malmhuain.