With the new year starting, it is now forty years since 1979. Forty of course is a biblical number, which is fitting because 1979 was a year in which religious belief became decisively political. Some of these events are still well remembered – Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, the Camp David Accords between Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin. Other key events however are often forgotten, so that 1979 does not usually get the acknowledgment it deserves as being a year of unmatched religious and political action.
The year began with the full resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and China, on New Year’s Day, ending three decades of formal estrangement between the two countries. This was followed by Deng Xiaoping visiting the White House at the end of the month, the first time a Communist leader of China had ever done so.
This new relationship had an immediate political impact when, on January 7th, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia fell to the invading Communist Vietnamese. Five weeks after that, China invaded Vietnam, launching a short but brutal war against Vietnamese forces that had been fighting the US only six years earlier.
While the political importance of China and America re-establishing their alliance is obvious, its religious significance tends to be overlooked. It has, however, helped lead to one of the largest increases in any religion in recent history: the adoption of Christianity by many tens of millions of Chinese since the 1970s. In 1979 China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement church was legalized by the Chinese government. It and many other much smaller churches have been so successful in the decades since that today China and America have probably the two largest Protestant populations in the world. China’s overall Christian population is difficult to estimate, but 100 million is a common guess.
Of course, it was in the Middle East where the biggest religious and political upheaval in 1979 took place. In Iran, the Ayatollah came to power on February 11th, the Shah having fled to Egypt three weeks earlier. In a foreshadowing of events that would come at the end of the year, on February 14ththe US ambassador was kidnapped and killed in Kabul, while on the same day Iranian militants temporarily took control of the US embassy in Tehran, kidnapping a Marine there.
But what goes down also goes up. On March 26, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed. This was an event of great significance, considering that the two countries had fought four wars against one another in the preceding three decades, yet have not fought a single war against one another in the four decades since. Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt as part of the deal, while Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel.
The month ended on a less peaceful note in a different arena of religious and political conflict: Britain. On March 30 Airey Neave, the Tory party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was assassinated outside of the British Parliament by a car bomb planted by Irish militants. The assassination took place just two days after a no confidence vote had brought down a Labour government; Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first female PM a month later.
This assassination would be followed an even larger attack later in the year. On August 27, the Provisional Irish Republican Army killed eighteen British soldiers with two roadside bombs in Northern Ireland, while on the same day killing Lord Mountbatten (an uncle of Prince Phillip, who had formerly been head of the Royal Navy, head of the Armed Forces, and Viceroy of India), his grandson, and two others by planting a bomb on his boat.
A month later, Ireland would host its own biggest religious event in decades, when the Pope visited the island. The Pope was welcomed by a crowd estimated to include 2.7 million people, nearly the entire population of the Republic of Ireland.
This however was not the Pope’s most important trip abroad in 1979, nor the one to attract the largest crowds. John Paul II, who had only become Pope at the end of 1978, was the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. He was, even more importantly, Polish, at a time when Poland was the largest country in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The Pope’s visit to Poland in June of 1979, often referred to as the nine days that changed the world, was the first trip by a Pope to a Communist country. It played a substantial role in the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement, and so in turn arguably helped end the Cold War.
The Pope’s influence also attracted enemies. When, at the end of 1979, the Pope was visiting Turkey, a man named Mehmet Ali Agca, who was then beginning a life sentence in prison for killing the editor of a Turkish newspaper earlier that year, escaped from jail and fled to Bulgaria. Two years later, Agca would shoot the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. Given Bulgaria’s position in the Warsaw Pact, many people speculate that the Soviet Union was behind this attack in some way.
Acga would later claim that a reason for the shooting was that the Pope had orchestrated the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, a siege which was taking place when Acga made his jail break in November of 1979. This siege, which lasted for two weeks at the holiest site in Islam, involved tens of thousands of hostages, several hundred gunmen, and one false messiah. It took place on the first day of the new millennium of the Islamic calendar (1400 A.H.), during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Saudi forces finally ended the siege after a number of failed attempts and hundreds of deaths, by secretly enlisting the help of France, which sent three of its Special Forces soldiers to Mecca. They quickly converted to Islam in order to enter the holy city, then used gas to sedate the gunmen, who by then had taken refuge in the catacombs beneath the Mosque.
The siege arguably had a major impact on Saudi culture and foreign policy, and a direct legacy in future events such as the emergence of Al Qaeda. It is a sad, fascinating story worth reading about, one that is often forgotten due to a Saudi media blackout and the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis, which had begun several weeks earlier and was consuming much of America’s attention.
At the time, the siege had a number of immediate consequences, owing partly to confusion as to who had orchestrated it. As we have already seen, Acga claimed the Pope was involved. Many others believed the US was behind the siege. This resulted in the destruction of US embassies by mobs in Libya and Pakistan on December 3. Others believed Shia revolutionaries in Iran were behind it. This led to an uprising in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the country’s Shia minority population lives (and where most of its oil is located). People there had been attempting to celebrate Ashura on November 25, a major Shia holiday prohibited in Saudi Arabia.
Shia-Sunni political relationships were also deteriorating elsewhere in the Middle East in 1979, part of a process that helped lead to the most deadly war in the recent history of the region, the Iran-Iraq War, the following year. At the start of the year Iraq and Syria had been discussing the possibility of unifying their armed forces and merging into a single state, to counter Egypt’s new relationship with the US and Israel. The Shia Islamic revolution in Iran however created the possibility of a closer relationship between Iran and Syria. Syria’s government, led by Hafez al- Assad and the country’s minority Allawite (a branch of Shia Islam, sort of) elite, was at the time fighting Sunni groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Syria also had interests in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), a religious sectarian war in which Shia forces – a few years later emerging as the Party of God, Hezzbolah – were being energized by the Iranian revolution as well as by Israel’s invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Shia-inhabited South Lebanon in 1978.
In Iraq the reverse situation existed. The Iranian revolution frightened Iraq’s Sunni elite, in part because a majority of Iraq’s population were disenfranchised Shia. This may have led Saddam Hussein, then vice president of Iraq, to overthrow his elder cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the president, on July 16, 1979. A week later Saddam carried out a public purge of Iraqi politicians, claiming they had been plotting with Syria to overthrow the government of Iraq. The following April, he ordered the execution of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr (whose son-in-law, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, is today arguably the most influential politician in Iraq), along with al Sadr’s sister Amina, before beginning an eight-year war against the ayatollahs in Iran in the fall.
The year ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve. This was followed two days later by the Soviets killing their former ally, Communist Afghan President Hafizulla Amin. US president Jimmy Carter then signed the order for the CIA to provide lethal aid to the Afghan mujahedeen. Most of this aid was facilitated by the Pakistani regime of Zia ul Haq, who came to power in a coup at the end of 1978 and would, more than any other figure, be responsible for transforming the Pakistani state from secular to theocratic. The decade-long resistance of the mujahedeen against the Soviets and their allies would result in the deaths of perhaps a million people.
Thus it can be seen that 1979 was also a turning point in the extremely violent Cold War. From a time of “national malaise” in the US (to reference the famous speech by Carter that year), which was dealing with an energy crisis, a hostage crisis, and recent memories of Vietnam, 1979 would set in motion forces that would lead to a US victory in the Cold War ten years later. But then, it would also lead the US to its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the start of another new millennium.
Ultimately, 1979 was significant not only because of its mix of religion and politics, a mix which obviously was not new at the time and has not gone away since. It was also important because the events of that year helped to shape the views of a generation of people who, today having reached their fifties, sixties, or seventies, can now shape events themselves. Perhaps this has contributed to the fact that American relationships with Iran and Russia remain hostile just like they were in 1979, while American relationships with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt remain cooperative just like they were in 1979. True, there are signs that some of these relationships may be beginning to change. But for today at least, 1979 remains a guide worth remembering.
This attack took place just as a public debate over whether or not it was appropriate to satirize religion was taking place in Britain, as only ten days earlier the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian had first been released. The movie was banned in the Republic of Ireland until 1987.
Another prominent figure assassinated in 1979 was Park Chung-hee, who had been the president of South Korea since 1963, first coming to power in a military coup in 1961. He was shot by his close friend, the head of Korea’s CIA. Park’s daughter was recently president from 2013-2017, but was then impeached.
Two weeks before the Pope’s visit, Ireland passed the Health Act, which legalized the selling of contraception for the purposes of family planning. China then said I’ll raise you one better, launching, in effect, mandatory contraception: 1979 was the year the one-child policy was born.
Actually, Agca himself later claimed the KGB was involved. But he has a track record of making untrue, self-aggrandizing statements, so this does not prove anything.
Most of whom were released at the beginning of the siege. There were an estimated 50,000 pilgrims in the Mosque to begin with, but only a relatively small percentage of them were kept hostage during the siege’s two-week duration.
Like Syria and Egypt had done from 1958 to 1961.
Another arena of political conflict, Cold War rivalry, and religious activity was Central America, where wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were taking place around this time. A key event in El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) was the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which took place during Mass in March of 1980, a day after he had publicly asked Salvadoran soldiers not to carry out orders to kill civilians.
Though not in Orthodox countries like Russia, where Christmas is on January 7.
He was not the only Amin to be ousted from power in 1979. Uganda’s Idi Amin (no relation) was removed too, by an invading Tanzanian army.
At the 1979 Academy Awards, The Deer Hunter won Best Picture while Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Best Actor and Best Actress for Coming Home. Both were films about Vietnam.
In 1979, Donald Trump started building Trump Tower. Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas at the age of 31. An 18-year-old Barack Obama moved to the US mainland to attend a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. Xi Jinping finished his degree in chemical engineering, as a “Worker-Peasant-Soldier student” in Beijing. Angela Merkel too was becoming a chemist in a Communist state, having finished her physics degree at the end of 1978 in Berlin. Shinzo Abe finished his degree at the University of Southern California. Narendra Modi graduated from the University of Delhi in 1978 and began working for the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, the RSS, in 1979. Theresa May graduated from Oxford in 1977; Jeremy Corbyn entered politics as local councillor in 1979. Bibi Netanyahu and Mitt Romney were coworkers and friends at the Boston Consulting Group.