Radical Sheik

Ungovernable Islam? A Look at Twentieth-Century Turmoil

Jeff Cunningham
5 min readMay 4, 2024
Houthi boys chanting: “Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews.” source

The Islamic world in the 20th century reads like a streaming revolutionary saga on Apple TV. Repeated coups, countercoups, and endless political upheavals make the region seem totally ungovernable to those of us from the West. Think of a stick of dynamite stuck in a sea of oil, swinging between corrupt monarchies or ruled by iron-fisted autocrats and brutal religious leaders wielding sharia law like a sword. But to get what’s going on, we must understand the backdrop here because, ultimately, culture is destiny, no matter the form of government. And in Islamic countries, the culture loves nothing more than a revolution.

Military Might and Political Games

In many Islamic countries, the military isn’t there to defend at all. Its role is to step into the political spotlight, a tool of a monarch or autocrat or an Imam, acting as the guardian of national religion and ideology. It is about controlling the country. And that, my friends, is apparently what the people want.

Religion at the Heart of Politics

When things are falling apart, political Islam, or Islamism, starts looking like a better choice. Follow the Imam you know rather than the candidate you’ve never heard of. These leaders don’t just offer spiritual guidance — they pay well, provide a political IOU to get your teenage son out of trouble, and create a barter system of protection in return for loyalty.

Outsiders Stirring the Pot

And let’s not forget the outsiders. It is why Afghanistan is called ‘the graveyard of empires.’ International powers have had their fingers in the Middle Eastern pie for a long time. First, it was Britain and France. Now it’s Iran, Russia, and China stirring the pot. Whether it’s through covert operations, sanctions, subsidizing radical Islamic proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, or openly backing one group over another, they make an already volatile situation even worse. Oil wealth is so tempting that no one ignores an opportunity to join the fun.

Democracy — or the Lack Thereof

One of the biggest issues is that real, solid democratic institutions—like a strong judiciary, free press, and reliable voting systems—are in short supply. That is in part because people aren’t able to live long enough under a diet of democracy to see the benefits. Without these, even the best attempts turn into a puppet show, with elections easily rigged and the same old cycle of autocracy and revolution stuck on repeat.

We have to conclude that the history of governance in the Islamic world, from the caliphates to the Ottomans, has always placed emphasis on absolute central authority. Colonial rule wasn’t in a position to change this, only to evolve slowly, and as you can see, democratic ideals imposed gradually have had a tough time finding traction here. America’s attempt to bring voting into the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan backfired so egregiously that it is unlikely the experiment will ever be attempted again.

If you look at the dates below, you can see that long-term popular governance in the Islamic world is impossible without a religious or military force to sustain it.

Islamic Revolutions

  1. Iran
  • Date: August 19, 1953
  • Event: CIA-backed coup, known as Operation Ajax.
  • Details: The coup ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalized the Iranian oil industry previously controlled by the U.K. The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi regained complete control and ruled as an autocrat until the Iranian Revolution 1979.

2. Algeria

  • Date: November 1, 1954, to March 19, 1962
  • Event: Algerian War of Independence.
  • Details: This war was fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and ended with the Evian Accords, which resulted in Algerian independence from France.

3. Iraq

  • Date: July 14, 1958
  • Event: 14 July Revolution or the 1958 Iraqi coup d’état.
  • Details: The revolution resulted in overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy led by King Faisal II by the Free Officers Movement, a military group led by Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qasim. This event shifted Iraq from a Hashemite monarchy to a republic.

4. Lebanon

  • Date: 1958
  • Event: Lebanese Civil War of 1958.
  • Details: A brief civil conflict caused by religious and cultural tensions and dissatisfaction with the pro-Western government. It involved U.S. intervention and resulted in a change of government but not a regime change.

5. North Yemen

  • Date: September 26, 1962
  • Event: North Yemen Civil War begins with a coup d’état.
  • Details: The coup was led by Abdullah as-Sallal, who dethroned the newly crowned Imam Muhammad al-Badr and proclaimed Yemen a republic under his presidency. The conflict turned into an eight-year civil war involving Egyptian military support for the Republicans and Saudi backing for the Royalists.

6. Iraq

  • Date: February 8, 1963
  • Event: Ramadan Revolution or 8 February Coup.
  • Details: A coup by the Ba’ath Party, in collaboration with the military, overthrew the government of General Abdul Karim Qasim. This was the first time the Ba’ath Party came to power in the Arab world, though their rule would be short-lived until another coup later that year.

7. Syria

  • Date: March 8, 1963
  • Event: 1963 Syrian coup d’état.
  • Details: The military committee of the Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party carried out a successful, bloody coup, installing the Ba’ath Party in power, which eventually led to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970.

8. Libya

  • Date: September 1, 1969
  • Event: The Al Fateh Revolution or the 1 September Revolution.
  • Details: Muammar Gaddafi led a group of Libyan military officers in a coup against King Idris I. The coup was mainly unopposed and led to the establishment of the Libyan Arab Republic, with Gaddafi emerging as the de facto leader.

9. Jordan

  • Date: September 1970
  • Event: Black September.
  • Details: King Hussein of Jordan moved to suppress militant organizations, particularly the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to regain control over the kingdom. The conflict resulted in a significant realignment within Jordan and a shift in PLO activities primarily to Lebanon.

10. Iran

  • Date: January — February 1979
  • Event: Iranian Revolution or the Islamic Revolution.
  • Details: Massive public discontent against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi led to his overthrow and the establishment of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. This revolution was notable for its scale, the collapse of a pro-Western autocratic regime, and the establishment of a theocratic state.

11. Iraq

  • Date: July 16, 1979
  • Event: Saddam Hussein’s accession to power.
  • Details: Saddam Hussein formally took power in Iraq after President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr resigned under pressure. Saddam then quickly moved to consolidate power, executing rivals and dissidents.

12. Sudan

  • Date: April 6, 1985
  • Event: Sudanese coup d’état.
  • Details: The military, under the leadership of Defence Minister General Abdul Rahman Swar al-Dahab, overthrew President Jaafar Nimeiry, who had been in power since his coup in 1969. This led to a brief period of democratic governance.

13. Algeria

  • Date: January 11, 1992
  • Event: Cancellation of the second round of the first multi-party elections.
  • Details: The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win, prompting the army to intervene, cancel the elections, and force President Chadli Bendjedid to resign. This began a brutal civil conflict known as the Algerian Civil War.