Historicizing the 1960s

Anniversaries motivate and invite reflections and interpretations of events after the fact, regardless of how many years, decades, or centuries have passed. The 1960s, and particularly the year 1968, are no exception, as seen once again in Germany in 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of that legendary year. Numerous publications have reflected on the events of the year 1968 in ten-year intervals, with essays demonstrating contested understandings of who possesses the prerogative of interpretation and which legacies are to be appreciated or discarded (Bührer 2019a, b for the case of Germany). Colvin and Karcher (2019, p. 1) call 1968 an annus mirabilis, quoting from Gilcher-Holtey’s view of that year as one that “marked the climax of protests, capturing almost all Western industrialized countries simultaneously” (2014, p. 2, cited in Colvin and Karcher 2019, p. 1). Attempts at historicizing “sixty-eight” started in the late 1980s, relating the events to meta-theoretical concepts of modernization, revolution, and liberation (e.g. Arrighi et al. 1989). On balance, the 1960s in general and 1968 in particular are a codeword for social, cultural and—at least to a certain extent—political change in Western European societies, the USA and some countries of the “Global South,” such as Mali, Mexico, El Salvador, Tanzania, and Bolivia. We might see the period as one of re-configurations as defined by the Re-Configuration Network (see the Introduction to this volume). In historical perspective, the predominant connotation of the said change or re-configurations is positive, associating change with progress, political liberties, liberation from constraining moral norms (e.g. norms regulating sexual orientation and behavior), emancipation from oppressive social structures, an almost glorified revolutionary sheen exemplified by the student movements, and an equally romanticized peace movement (“flower power”) on the other. Crackdowns by government forces on reform movements, such as the response to the Prague Spring, do not perfectly fit the narrative of liberalization, but in retrospect, the upheavals in then-Czechoslovakia are at least signs of a transnational mood in which dissenters were taking to the streets for change and reform. Ideologically and politically, left-wing affiliations figured prominently in the discursive narrative (sometimes overshadowing non-leftist developments that drew less attention, as we will discuss below).

Perhaps the still-dominant view of the 1960s as a decade in which civil society actors organized and pushed for similar goals in numerous countries around the world is what provoked the notion of “the global sixties.” Moreover, the shared belief in the power of international solidarity added to the feeling of belonging to a mass movement that rejected all sorts of imperialism for the sake of national liberation—particularly nations in postcolonial states of the “Third World.” The movement against the US-led war in Vietnam (1965 to 1973) is emblematic of this impression and expression of international solidarity. Photographs taken during that war became iconic;1 music and literature addressed the theme as well. The year 1968 saw student protests against the Vietnam War that culminated in oftentimes-militant clashes with state police and security forces. Besides anti-war sentiment, national issues such as coping with the fascist past in West Germany, building solidarity between students and labor unions in France, struggling for civil rights in the USA, and denouncing the oppressive regime of Iran’s Shah (though only from outside the country) figured high on protest movements’ agendas (Ali 2005).

Historians are thus pondering the valorization of “the global sixties” as a heuristic concept (Klimke and Nolan 2018). While the concept has been framed as “an inevitable by-product of the trend toward global history that has captured the profession [of historians; C.D.] in recent years,” the category of “global” has itself been problematized: “Was it a native category and if so which actors used it and how?” (Klimke and Nolan 2018, p. 3 f.). This question leads us to expand the view beyond the default landscapes of movements of the sixties. How about the 1960s in the Arab world or the wider MENA region? How about the “long 1960s” as a period of events and phenomena that were formative for important developments in later decades—phenomena that drew less attention than the protest movements of the political left? How about transregional connectivities based on movements that originated in MENA countries? The subsequent sections offer some entry points into an empirically driven and conceptually under-analyzed notion of the global sixties and the peak year of 1968. However, a disclaimer is in order. Neither the term “global sixties” nor the term “long 1960s” is meant to denote a precisely delimitable period. The sixties did not begin sharply with the year 1960, nor did they end in 1969. Rather than demarcations by decade, the boundaries of this time interval appear flexible, for some beginning as early as 1954 and ending as late as 1975, while others confine the era more narrowly from the late 1950s to the early 1970s (Klimke and Nolan 2018, p. 5; Hodenberg and Siegfried 2006). Whatever periodization is preferred, we will not arrive at reliable inferences by limiting the sixties to a numb and rigid timeframe.

Deciphering the “Long 1960s” and 1968

Let us start out by asking whether “sixty-eight” would resonate in the MENA region, and if so, how? Certainly, there was an active “Arab Left” on the region’s political stage. Intra-regional and, increasingly, international solidarity movements mobilized for the liberation of Palestine. Pro-Palestinian activist groups (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP]; Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PDFLP], and others) enjoyed solidarity from other countries overseas, including Germany. Currents of the New Left in Europe aligned themselves with the Palestinian struggle, with some spin-off activist groups opting for militant training in the Middle East in order to prepare for an envisaged (imagined) revolutionary battle. Regionally, the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, 1967 −19 90) symbolized the widespread affection for Marxist ideas on the government level. Nonetheless, the PDRY was and remained the only Marxist state in the Arab world. Civil society struggles for both the liberation of Palestine and the Dhofar revolution in Oman coincided with the peak period of the Arab Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Egypt (1962–1967) and the guerilla warfare in Southern Yemen (Matthiesen 2018, p. 96 f.). In Bahrain, a major uprising “centered on the national oil company was cracked down upon heavily, leading to several casualties” in 1965 (Matthiesen 2018, p. 97). In the course of the battle for breaking Israel’s power over occupied Arab territory, Egypt (together with Syria and Jordan) was defeated in the Six-Day War of June 1967—a blow that also heralded the end of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and Nasser’s republic. The Naksa, or the defeat of Arab forces in the war against Israel in 1967, signified frustration if not disillusionment on the Arab side. Ever since, 1967, not 1968, has been the year that captured many Arabs’ collective memory. In view of what Toby Matthiesen calls the Red Arabia (2018, p. 94), the years 1965 and 1967 resonate comparatively strongly in the regional collective memory. There is thus not much to put forward in terms of a “revolutionary sixty-eight” in the MENA region, since the critical junctures date back to preceding years.2

If this were all that merits reflection in regard to the long 1960s in the Middle East and North Africa, we could end here and thank you for your kind attention. However, there is more to the story, and a critical conceptual assessment should dig deeper and take a closer look. Two vantage points come to mind when we shed light on specific dimensions of the 1960s on a regional level. One is informed by the Cold War constellation that affected the non-Western parts of the world as so-called proxies for the two polarized Eastern and Western powers. In this regard, I want to refer less to the MENA region but more to Southeast Asia as a case in point—notably not primarily because of the war in Vietnam, but because of a massacre (some call it genocide) in neighboring Indonesia, which caused up to a million deaths and has the sad reputation as the most brutal massacre since the Second World War (Cribb 2001; Farid 2005; McGregor 2009). The other is inspired by currents of Islamic and Islamist movements that unfolded considerable mobilizing strength in the “Muslim world” (please pardon the pragmatic use of this label here). The two vantage points speak to each other in that the Islamist Movements reached out to Southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular after the said massacre of 1965. If the subsequent “Islamization” of Indonesia’s public life, academic institutions, politics, the economy, and other spheres of human interaction were to be traced back to its ideational sources, the international branches of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had a vast influence on this development (cf. Fealy and Platzdasch 2005; Hefner 1987; Fuller Collins 2007; van Bruinessen 2002; Platzdasch 2009; Machmudi 2008; Derichs 2017). The Brotherhood exerted a clear political appeal as a repressed movement struggling against an authoritarian regime. Indonesia’s post-1965 system incorporated all the ingredients of an autocracy, making it similarly difficult for opposition forces to organize there. Although the Brotherhood’s direct influence gained momentum in the late 1970s and early’80s rather than during the decade of 1960, its appeal forms a concrete transregional link between Muslim activists. Similarities in forms of organization, repertoires of actions, and the study of guiding scripts were the result of enhanced transregional mobility (e.g., Indonesian students studying in the Middle East), the consolidation of a widespread international network of Brotherhood branches, and an increasing number of occasions that allowed for meetings of individuals from various regions (e.g., international Qurʾān recitation contests and events sponsored by the Muslim World League and the like). A faith-based identity was fostered in Indonesia by two Muslim mass organizations, Muhammadiyah (approx. 40 million members) and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU; approx. over 60 million members). The latter had played a significant role in the crackdown on communists in 1965 (McGregor 2009; Feillard and Madinier 2011, p. 26).

Considering the tremendous international wave of solidarity that was triggered by the Vietnam War, during which many leftists favored the northern Viet Cong over the South Vietnamese forces, it is puzzling why the brutal elimination of communists in Indonesia, in 1965, hardly moved the world’s left. Was it because of Indonesian president Sukarno’s tainted image among overseas leftist activists (Ali 2005, p. 125 ff.)? Or was it because of a smart cover-up of Western (especially US) support for the systematic purge of communists?3 In the logic of the Cold War, human-rights violations apparently did not matter much when the noble cause of impeding the “domino effect” was at stake.4 A few hundred thousand deaths seem to have been regarded as collateral damage rather than a worrisome fact. Until today, it is open to speculation why the political genocide (Cribb 2001; Marching 2017) in Indonesia caused so much lesser outrage in the rest of the world than the fight against pro-communist forces in Vietnam.

Equally puzzling, we might say, is the considerable neglect of the flipside of international solidarity with the struggle in Vietnam and Palestine, which was shaped by the almost parallel movement activities of Muslim activists around the globe. Again, the transregional relations between Muslim Indonesia and MENA are cases in point.

Trans-MENA in Southeast Asia—The “other 1960s”?

“The main ideological weapon used against the leftists, political Islam, had proven successful as an anti-Communist ideology not just in the Middle East but also in Africa and Central, South, and Southeast Asia,” Matthiesen notes (2018, p. 102). I fully agree with this assessment, including the author’s assertion that it was mainly the administrations of the United States and the United Kingdom pulling the strings in exploiting political Islamic movements for anti-communist goals. Yet the reference to Western powers is a limited view, and perhaps one informed predominantly by classical international relations (IR) theories. Attending to Muslim civil society organizations and social movements in various countries of the MENA region and Southeast Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it appears that focusing too strongly on inter-governmental relations glosses over the importance of non-state actors in the course of the “long sixties.” By way of example, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Indonesia’s Masyumi party merit closer attention. In the pivotal year of 1965, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser executed an unprecedented arrest of high numbers of Brotherhood members in Egypt, legitimating this act with the “discovery of conspiracy” of the Brotherhood against him (Kepel 1995, p. 75). While the mass arrest reduced the strength of the Brotherhood considerably, its ideational appeal among common people only grew stronger. Two years later, after the defeat of the Six-Day War, Nasser’s regime gave in to the mounting pressure of “the street,” realizing that the nation’s patience had reached a limit and reforms were overdue. On university campuses, students supporting the Brotherhood had organized clandestinely and were able to quickly mobilize fellow students, forming a remarkable political force (Kepel 1995, p. 141; Rosefsky Wickham 2013, p. 27 ff.). The subsequent vicissitudes of the Brotherhood’s appearance on the political stage under different national presidents’ rules and regimes are well documented and do not require further attention.5 What is more interesting for my argument here is the similarity of events in Egypt and in Indonesia (and in Malaysia, albeit less so because of the Malaysian government’s much more liberal stance towards political Islam).6

After the 1965 massacre, the “forces of political Islam entered the New Order (the government of President Suharto, 1966–1998) with similar hopes: to be recognized for their role in the elimination of the communist threat” (Feillard and Madinier 2011, p. 24). Their hopes were swiftly dashed; the leaders of the Masyumi movement remained in prison.7 Sukarno had banned the Muslim Masyumi party in 1960, trying to contain political influence by faith-based forces. The considerable “help” of NU members in the hunting and killing of communists in 1965 had raised expectations among the Muslim population to be acknowledged as credible supporters of the new regime. Hence, the jailed Masyumi activists also hoped for their release. However, Indonesia’s new regime was far from favoring any inclinations of political Islamic activism and curbed attempts at organizing such immediately. It appreciated “cultural Islam” instead, introducing compulsory Islamic education in schools as early as 1966 (Feillard and Madinier 2011, p. 27 ff.). As in other post-conflict contexts, religious identity was appropriated for regime-stabilizing purposes. Typically for an authoritarian system and akin to the situation in Egypt under Nasser, the post-1965 military government in Indonesia sought to prevent any challenges by political Islamic and Islamist forces. “To this end,” Feillard and Madinier recall, “the party system had to be changed and Islam depoliticized without, however, reining in its growth as a religion” (2011, p. 27). Not surprisingly in this situation, a new generation of Muslim intellectuals emerged and encouraged a revival of Masyumi ideas in a format besides party politics. They founded the Indonesian Islamic Propaganda Council in 1967 and promoted efforts that would inspire vast numbers of students in the years to come: “With Islamization via politics henceforth impossible, the leaders of Masyumi thus decided to engage in politics via Islamization” (Feillard and Madinier 2011, p. 32). With propaganda activities—legal and illegal—on the agenda, this was the period within the 1960s when transregional linkages between Muslim youth in general and Islamist youth in particular flourished across national and regime boundaries, a trend that would only grow in later decades.

Propaganda or dakhwah activities (from the Arabic daʿwa) in Indonesia spread during the New Order period. Elizabeth Fuller Collins has traced some of these activities, and shows that dakhwah leaders gradually built a network of Islamic study circles, known initially as usroh (nuclear family or cell), and later as ḥalaqa (Arabic for a circle of students and their teacher) or tarbiya (the Arabic word for education under a teacher who provides moral guidance). She recalls what Hermawan Dipoyono, an early activist of Salman Mosque, told her: “I myself started the first usroh in Salman Mosque, maybe the first usroh in Indonesia. I was sent to Malaysia by Imaduddin, where I found books by the Muslim Brothers. I brought them back and started translating them into Indonesian. This was in 1976–1977. It was a dangerous time to do dakhwah. I would translate a few pages, and they would be copied and passed around. We studied these in our usroh” (quote from Fuller Collins 2007, p. 156).

The transregional outreach of Brotherhood ideas is patently obvious in the activist’s quote. It underscores the remarkable international mobilizing capacities of the Muslim Brothers in the 1960s and beyond. Southeast Asian students became familiar with the works of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan Al-Banna, Mustafa Mashhur, and Sa’id Hawwa (Fuller Collins 2007, p. 156).8 Study-abroad programs for Southeast Asian students in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, provided the language skills to read and translate this literature into their respective native languages. Writing often made its way to Indonesia via Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, where politically inclined Muslim organizations enjoyed a comparatively liberal and tolerant climate (as long as certain “red lines” were not crossed). The early secret dakhwah activities of the 1970s expanded in the 1980s, when the tarbiya movement gained mobilizing power on secular campuses. The transmission of Muslim Brotherhood influence into Indonesia occurred in two stages. According to Yon Machmudi, the first stage took place in the 1970s with the translation of Brotherhood literature into Indonesian language. The second evolved in the 1980s, when increasing numbers of students returned to Indonesia and combined their dakhwah ideas with Brotherhood training and organizational hardware (Machmudi 2008, p. 180).

The example of transregional connectivities between the Middle East and Southeast Asia may showcase the argument that Islamic movements in the MENA region and elsewhere established contacts that were similar in strength to those of their leftist counterparts. Legal as well as semi-legal or illegal organizations managed to communicate across huge geographical distances and instill a sense of belonging in a particular faith-based community. The “Sufi links” (Machmudi 2008, p. 169) allowed for the use of a particular vocabulary (e.g. usroh/usrah for the activists’ cells) and identification with a particular exegetic tradition. Mona Abaza (1994) believes that the increased student mobility of the 1960s and 1970s exposes an indirect result of the Islamization of Indonesian society, whereas others would view the Islamization of Indonesian society as a result of more mobile students.9 Regardless of one’s preferred chronology, it is quite apparent that Islamic political activism produced numerous cross-national and cross-regional offshoots of well-organized movement organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which became “local expressions that follow the socio-political and religious dynamics of their respective countries” (Machmudi 2008, p. 170). Can we apply this observation as we reflect on re-configurations of the legacy of the “long 1960s”?


Browsing through pieces of scholarly literature that offer a “non-Western view” on the decades since the 1960s, it appears that the dominant codeword of “sixty-eight” must be put into perspective—maybe even “provincialized” (to borrow Dipesh Chakrabarty’s prominent term). In non-Western contexts, it is stunning how often the year 1965 brought about a critical juncture in politics and society.10 However, there is little heuristic value in exchanging one year for another in the pursuit of broadening signal words such as the long or global sixties. The re-configuration I am seeking refers to the calibration of the movement landscape of the sixties (and seventies). The movements of the period are conventionally studied against the backdrop of a left–right, religious-secular, and progressive-conservative matrix. Such dichotomies and binaries are to my mind not always helpful for comprehending similarities, differences, distinction, and connectivity. When we conceptualize the Islamic political movements and networks of the mid-sixties as actors rising up against authoritarian national regimes on faith-based ideological platforms, their commonality should not be reduced to “Islamic/Islamist,” but rather should be seen as shared political motivation, one they oftentimes share with movements designated as politically left/leftist. The left–right and the religious-secular lenses lose their bite. Equally worth attending to are the incidents and occurrences that preceded and triggered the emergence of organized Islamic political protest, or, as Ayesha Jalal has dubbed it, “Islam’s second globalization” (Jalal 2010, p. 326). What were the windows of political opportunity? What kind of resources for mobilization could be drawn on? What characterized the repertoires of action, organizational structures, symbolic integration, and so on? In sum: Applying the analytical toolbox of social movement research, irrespective of the above matrices and binaries, would probably reveal much more than the codewords of the long/global sixties and “sixty-eight” connote at first glance. The mid-sixties formed critical junctures for many soscieties, even if they were sometimes overshadowed in international attention, and these trends had context-specific trajectories that converged into something we now view, quite one-dimensionally, as an “Islamic resurgence” or “Islamic revival” in the years to follow.


  1. 1.

    The picture “napalm girl” from the Vietnam War is one of the most famous photographs of this time.

  2. 2.

    We might mention here the successful struggle for independence in Algeria (1962), the founding of OPEC (1960), or the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM 1961) as earlier events exposing something like a “victory of south against north”. The genesis of the NAM can indeed be traced back to the Bandung Conference of 1955, which was hosted by President Sukarno in Indonesia.

  3. 3.

    Documents in US American archives revealing the cooperation of Western powers in the 1965 purge are only gradually declassified. It takes further patience before solid analyses may continue.

  4. 4.

    The “domino effect”.

  5. 5.

    See Kepel 1995 or Rosefsky Wickham 2013 for detailed accounts in German/English.

  6. 6.

    For a comprehensive account of political Islam in the nation-states of Southeast Asia see Means 2009.

  7. 7.

    Masyumi was Indonesia’s main political party and movement on an Islamic platform until Suharto assumed power. Sukarno (1945–1966) banned Masyumi in 1960, claiming that the party’s ideology went against state interests.

  8. 8.

    They also read more “left-leaning” authors such as Ali Shari’ati, i.e. literature consumption was not confined to Brotherhood or Sufi texts.

  9. 9.

    See Platzdasch 2009; van Bruinessen 2002; Hefner 1987 for detailed studies of Islamization in Indonesia.

  10. 10.

    Aside from the examples of Indonesia and Bahrain, the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 is another one. Cf. Jalal 2010.