Cast your mind back to 1969 if you can; most people cannot, as they were not born then. If you can remember so long ago you may remember the hijacking of TWA flight 840 that summer. The plane was on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv when it was seized by a team of Palestinians, of whom the leader was one Leila Khaled. TWA is a long disappeared American airline. It was a different world then (over fifty years ago), and all sorts of things were done differently. Khaled was pictured wearing a headscarf as one would expect of a Middle Eastern woman, but this was a cultural thing, nothing religious about it; Leila Khaled (born 1944) was an atheist. We never hear of her today; her profile simply does not fit the modern picture of the world. Her pioneering role as a fighter for dispossessed Arabs would make her a hero to all Muslim, were it not for her ,atheism, which would even condemns her to death in the eyes of many of them.

It is extraordinary to think that any Arab freedom fighter could openly espouse atheism today, yet this didn’t seem anything other than normal fifty years ago. Religion had no place in politics anymore, or so we thought. As an example of how we used to view religion I considered it might be useful in trying to understand the history of the Middle East to read some of the Koran, but there was no copy in our history faculty library. We had a notebook in which we could write down our suggestions for additions to the library, and there was a column for the librarian to reply. I wrote down my request for a copy of the Koran; not only was it not forthcoming, but my request didn’t even merit a comment. Whatever place could a religious text have in an intellectual setting in 1970? I am sure copies of the Koran are freely available across all universities today.

Things were also carried out with more humanity then. We thought we had left wholesale slaughter behind in the 1940s. The Palestinian hijackers were careful that no one was killed , and passengers and crew were released at Damascus airport. An explosive charge did damage the plane, but that was all. A subsequent attempt to seize another aircraft was foiled by members of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service. In this case the aircraft was diverted to Heathrow and Leila Khaled (her again) was held in custody. During her detention she met several British officials, who treated her with punctilious courtesy, and even a friendship developed between her and a couple of British policewomen. She was released as part of global power politics, but she apparently retained an affection for the UK. I can fairly say that most Britons were shocked by the very idea of hijacking aircraft. The most common destination for hijacked aircraft was Cuba, and had nothing to do with the Middle East.

The leaders of the Muslim world – Gammal Abdul Nasser, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein – all had largely secular agendas, and Turkey had been an openly secular state since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Everyone assumed this process would continue. The harsh and despotic regimes of the Middle East were totalitarian but they ensured a mainly peaceful life for their inhabitants. The area was not a attractive one to Western eyes, but it was not the powder keg of Islamism and competing ideologies it is today.




One response

  1. I remember a cartoon at the time when the plane was blown up, I forget the picture, but the punch line was ” Penny plane, tuppence Khaled “


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: