A frail old man, wearing a black turban and ankle-length robes, stepped out of an Air France 747 into a chill February morning. His back hunched, he clutched the arm of a steward as he took faltering steps down a portable ramp to touch Iranian soil. After 15 years in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini had come home, the 78-year-old spiritual leader of a popular revolution that had toppled the shah of Iran and humbled SAVAK, his American-backed secret police force. Several million people from all across the country thronged into the capital to welcome the ayatollah, lining the 20-mile route out to Behesht-Zahra cemetery, where many of the martyrs of the revolution were buried. "The holy one has come!" they shouted triumphantly. "He is the light of our lives!" At the cemetery Khomeini prayed and delivered a 30-minute funeral oration for the dead. Then a boys' chorus sang, "May every drop of their blood turn to tulips and grow forever. Arise! Arise! Arise!"
In the decade between Khomeini's return to Tehran and the imposition of his fatwa on Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses -- and it was almost 10 years to the day that the one followed the other -- Islamism mutated from being a minor irritant to nationalist regimes in Muslim countries into a major threat to the West. The Rushdie affair, and the fatwa in particular, seemed like a warning that the seeds of the Iranian revolution were being successfully scattered across the globe, not least into the heart of the secular West.
And yet the fatwa was an expression as much of the failure of radical Islam as of its success. In 1989, the radicals in Tehran were on the defensive. Iran had been forced, the previous year, to abandon a bitter and bloody eight-year war against Iraq that cost the lives of up to a million Iranians. Khomeini was facing increased domestic opposition from reformers such as the speaker of the parliament, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had condemned the "shortsightedness" of Iranian foreign policy for "making enemies without reason" and was pushing for improved relations with the West.
The fatwa was an attempt by the radicals to regain the initiative. And it set a template for what was to happen over the next two decades: the political failure of radical Islam matched by an increasing turn toward violence and terrorism -- and matched, too, by exaggerated fears in the West about the threat it was facing.
Through the 1990s, Islamist parties grew in influence in Turkey, Palestine, and elsewhere, shaking the very foundations of secular government. In Algeria a vicious and bloody civil war broke out in 1991 between the Groupe Islamique Armé and the secular military government, a war that spilled over into acts of terror in France. The Taliban imposed its medieval rule on Afghanistan. The creation of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon posed a mortal threat not just to Israel but also to secular organizations such as the PLO. Radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir gained a foothold within Muslim communities in Western Europe. And terror worked itself into the political landscape, from suicide bombings in Palestine and Lebanon, to bombings on the Paris Métro, the attack on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and eventually the horror of 9/11.
While all this was happening, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and with it the vision of global socialism. Many young Muslims who had previously been attached to left-wing radical movements were now left politically homeless and searching for new ideological shelter. The collapse of the Soviet Union had also opened the way for the umma physically to extend its reach beyond the old Iron Curtain to embrace the new Muslim states of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans.
Many analysts expected Islamists to sweep to power across the world. The former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Christopher Ross, who in the wake of 9/11 would become a "special coordinator for public diplomacy and public affairs," declared in 1993 that the Middle and Near East were "fated to witness a wave of Islamist revolutions, successful or failed, over the next decade." A decade later, a CIA report predicted that Islamists would "come to power in states that are beginning to become pluralist and in which entrenched secular elites have lost their appeal."
It never happened. There was no second Iranian revolution. In places like Egypt, Jordan, and Malaysia, where the Islamists once held high hopes of repeating Khomeini's success, their influence has been curtailed, admittedly often through brutal repression. Outside of the rare cases where social convulsions shaped the political landscape for a short period, such as in Algeria in 1991, when elections took place on the eve of civil war, and with the single exception of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 (and the disputed Iranian elections of 2009), no Islamist party has ever won more than 20 percent of the popular vote. Parties that have broken through the 20 percent barrier (in Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, for instance) have done so largely by shedding their Islamist trappings, renouncing their dreams of a caliphate, and becoming ordinary political parties with Muslim leanings -- and in the process often becoming better democrats than the secularists they toppled.