This morning I clicked on the Derb's article about the Westminster Bridge attack. The following passage is about the 1960s:
"Islam was even less of an issue. Muslim countries themselves were either keen to modernize or sunk in medieval apathy. For those trying to modernize, Islam was a dusty relic of the past that was only holding them back. That’s why you had these secular dictatorships like Nasser’s Egypt or Ba’ath Syria."
It's very true. So when and why did Islam become cool again in these countries? The first thing that pops into my mind in answer to that is the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But why would a Shia development affect Sunnis? And what was the cause of the Iranian upheaval?
The conventional answer to the latter question is that the shah was too secular and spent too much money on himself. But secularism was the path to success, not exile, in mid-20th century Middle East. And Oriental potentates have always lived lavishly. I'm now reading the second volume of The New Cambridge History of Islam, and it talks about a ruler of Morocco who fathered more than 500 sons. Middle Easterners don't cut down tall poppies, they (well, to some extent "we") heap ornate, mellifluous praise on them. While sometimes plotting against them in secret, true, but that's not because of any distaste for inequality per se.
So what changed?
One theory is that when the West became self-critical, other cultures stopped looking up to it. If it doesn't respect itself, why would anyone else respect it?
From roughly 1500 till the middle of the 20th century, when the West dominated the world militarily, politically and technologically, it was natural for other cultures to imitate it. And secularism was one of the things that they imitated towards the end of that period. But then the West's elites became culturally relativistic and started arguing that the West's success was 1) a lie ("Chinese gunpowder, Islamic science!") 2) a series of atrocities (as if Arab, Mongol, Turkish or Chinese successes weren't that). Western culture's self-confidence was broken, and soon after that its neighbors' respect for it was lost.
I'm guessing that's the main reason for Islam's comeback. Neoconnery must have been a contributing factor. The neocons fought for regime change in Middle Eastern countries in order to create havoc in the enemy's camp. It just so happened that when they started doing that, most Middle Eastern rulers were secular and Islamism was a rising undercurrent. So by overthrowing the current rulers the neocons ended up accelerating the Islamist trend.
What could end this trend, besides radical technological change? China's rise. Perhaps in 20 years everyone will be looking up to the Middle Kingdom.