THE year 1979 holds special importance. It was the year that saw two significant happenings in the Muslim world. The events occurred in two states holding contrasting views on Islam but triggered by a common enemy, the US. One was the hostage crisis in the Shiite ruled Iran, which was covered quite extensively by the press, the other being the lesser known and reported uprising at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, the city under the control of Sunni Muslims.
There was a fundamental difference though between the two events. The embassy takeover in Tehran was a student initiative against the US for its meddling in the country’s politics. The siege of Mecca was the rebellion of a Muslim group against the policies of the ruling family in Saudi Arabia which were influenced by the US.
The rebellion in Mecca combined with the events in neighboring Iran forever changed the equation of Muslims with the US, and the west in general.
Act I, Tehran
On November 4, 1979, some 400 Iranian students decided to stage a sit-in at the American embassy in Tehran. It was a demonstration both against the Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s meeting in Algiers with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, to discuss common security issues and the Shah’s admission to America for his cancer treatment.
The protest soon turned into a takeover of the embassy and its staff as more radical elements took over. The captives were paraded blindfolded before the world’s media.
Ayatollah Khomeni at first wanted the students to be taken out by force, but later changed his mind riding on the popular mood and supported their cause. He even denounced the embassy as a ‘nest of spies’. Con Coughlin writes how it influenced the Islamic revolution in Iran, “The American embassy siege proved to be a defining moment both for Khomeini and the Islamic revolution. Whereas previously he had sought to control the wilder excesses of the revolution, such as limiting the number of executions, now he fully embraced the concept of revolutionary action, and gave the student revolutionaries free rein to confront the negative influences of imperialism, liberalism and democracy.”
The move was also initially opposed by two prominent student activists – one of them (surprisingly) was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from Tarbiat Modarres University. Both eventually joined ranks with the majority.
Although the hostage crisis was a student initiative, it found mass support in Iran because of the role US played in the past politics of the country. America helped depose the elected and popular government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Iranians never really forgave the US for it.
The embassy staff of 52 Americans was held hostage for a total of 444 days. It damaged relations between Washington and Tehran permanently.
Act II, Mecca
The Mecca uprising was the revolt of a group of Muslim extremists against their own rulers.
Juhayman ibn Saif al Uteybi, a retired corporal in the Saudi National Guard, was the chief architect of the events that unfolded in Mecca on November 20, 1979.
His role in the uprising was an outcome of the anger that has been building inside him for some time. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that his name itself means ‘Angry Face’ in Arabic.
During the mid 1970s Juhayman lived in Medina trying to model his life on the ways of the Prophet 14 centuries earlier. He was not alone.
Robert Lacey sheds light on such individuals, “Those who opted for back-to-basics called themselves Salafi, because they sought to behave as salaf, literally the pious ancestors of one of those three early generations that were mentioned with such approval by the Prophet. A group calling itself Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasiba, “the Salafi Group That Commands Right and Forbids Wrong,” had been active in Medina for some time, and Juhayman joined it when he came to town, plugging himself into some of the Kingdom’s strongest and most ancient traditions of piety.”
Medina’s Salafi Group was created around 1965.
For Juhayman, wherever he looked he could detect bida’h (any Islamic innovation). By now his rejectionist thinking found a few takers. They started referring to themselves as Al-Ikhwan (the Brothers). The word itself had a dangerous resonance with the Saudi past. It was also Juhayman’s legacy.
A confrontation with Sheikhs though resulted in the security forces running after the Ikhwan for interrogation. Juhayman was on the run.
Unable to meet his followers, Juhayman turned to the written and spoken words. His printed words (“The Letters of Juhayman”) survived and have long influenced Muslim extremists over the years.
His grievance was that al-Saud had exploited Islam to guarantee their worldly interests, and have brought evil and corruption upon the Muslims by paying allegiance to the Americans.
It was in late 1978 that Juhayman started having dreams about the Islamic Messiah – the Mahdi or rightly-guided one – who would come down to earth to correct the problems of mankind. His dreams even revealed the identity of the Mahdi as one of his own followers, Muhammad Abdullah Al-Qahtani. Juhayman soon married his sister.
This was also the time when Juhayman was ready to confront the rulers by violent means. His armed men took control of the Grand Mosque on the First day of Muharram (first Islamic month) in the Islamic year 1400, which translates to November 20, 1979.
The siege finally ended on December 4 as the last of the remaining rebels were captured by the government forces.
The bitter struggle saw 127 government soldiers perish and 450 injured. Some 117 rebels including Muhammad Abdullah were killed. Twenty six worshippers also lost their lives.
The outcome surprised even Juhayman. Yaroslav Trofimov in his definitive account of the events says, “As Juhayman was led away, one of the officers asked him again why he had desecrated the holiest shrine. The reality of utter defeat began to sink in. “If I had known it would turn out this way, I wouldn’t have done it,” Juhayman muttered in response.”
It would take several months to undo the physical damage to the Grand Mosque.
The Brothers in Islam
The founder of modern Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud was ably supported by warriors from the Bedouin tribes who called themselves Al-Ikhwan. For them to support the Saudi cause was to engage in Jihad and that made them ferocious warriors.
As the empire got established the Ikhwan were told to settle down peacefully. But being the Bedouin warriors, they continued their raids suspecting their former leader to have made peace with the British.
Abdul Aziz spent more than a year in vain to strike a deal with the Ikhwan. The showdown finally came in March 1929 in the open plain of Sibillah, north of Riyadh. The Ikhwan were given one last chance to surrender but they ignored and attacked. In response Aziz’s men opened fire. Hundreds of men and their camels perished that day.
Among those who survived the onslaught was Muhammad ibn Saif al-Uteybi, father to Juhayman.
Birth of Political Islam
The siege of Mecca was the first major challenge to the ruling group in Saudi Arabia since the Ikhwan rebellion. It brought into open the rising tension between the state and its own religion.
Madawi Al-Rasheed explains, “It was vital to devise a formula for reconciling the state’s immense wealth with the austerity of Wahhabi* Islam. The incompatibility between religious dogma and royal pomp and the vulnerability of the royal family to attacks from within the ranks of the most loyal supporters (the religious establishment) shocked inside and outside observers who considered Saudi Arabia one of the most stable states in the Middle East. The constant search of the Saudi state for ways to accommodate the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ crumbled with the siege of the mosque.”
It also forced the rulers to grant more powers to the ulama (Islamic scholars) and Islamic activities more political space in the early 1980s. The ulama seized the opportunity to reinforce the strict Wahhabi rules on ritual observance and moral behaviour.
It was also the beginning of a new era where the banner of Islam was unfurled for political means. Thomas Hegghammer talks about its ramifications, “However, the ‘Wahhabism’ and the ‘pan-Islamisation’ of 1980 Saudi Arabia represented two distinct processes with different causes and results. While the first was a purely domestic process promoted by the Najdi Wahhabi ulama and resulting in social conservatism, the latter had international ramifications, was promoted by the Hijaz-based organisations such as the Muslim World League (MWL) and produced political radicalism. Nevertheless, both processes left more political space for Islamist activism of all kinds. The political opportunity structure for Islamist activists – especially those seeking to mobilise people for the jihad in Afghanistan – thus became highly beneficial.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 prompted several Islamic organisations to issue calls for jihad against the occupiers. This gave the conflict a whole new religious dimension.
Saudi involvement in Afghanistan was unprecedented and it exceeded even the assistance for the Palestinians. It also saw the Kingdom graduate from a passive and financial to an active and military approach to pan-Islamism. This was made possible by US approval, the access to Pakistani territory, and the willingness of the Afghans.
Iran, sharing its border with Afghanistan, saw this as an opportunity to increase its influence in the area. It backed the Afghan Northern Alliance, which included the Shiite Hizb-l Vahdat representing the Hazaras (a local minority Shia tribe).
The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein forces gave another opportunity to the fundamentalists. Fearing a possible Iraqi attack on its own soil, Saudi Arabia welcomed foreign forces in 1990 to help defend the country. This was also the time when some sahwa** members began to speak out against the monarchy. Under pressure the government looked out for ways to compensate the lost credibility.
The opportunity came in the form of the Bosnian war of 1992.
Saudi was not alone in making the most of it. Iran and Sudan, too, tried to exploit the Bosnian crisis to gain regional control.
In fact Iran made good use of its long-standing links with Bosnian political leaders to provide substantial material support for the war ravaged country.
The roots of Political Islam were firmly established by now.
The Role of Wahhabism
The rigid views of Wahhabism and the patronising it received from the Saudi rulers in the past, fostered Muslim fundamentalism. The doctrine considers Muslim sects like the Shiites and the Sufis as heretics. It even inspired people like Juhayman to take up arms against the royal family.
Although Juhayman was beheaded soon after the uprising, his ideals and vision survived long after. The baton was passed on to another misguided flag-bearer of Islam, Osama Bin Laden. Like Juhayman, Osama too, had issues with Saudi ties to the US.
It came as no surprise to many that 15 of the 19 al-Qaida jihadists involved in the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia. The sad news was followed by a discovery of a huge arms cache in Riyadh and subsequent attacks on residential compounds in 2003. The terror continued in the country so much that by the December of 2004, some 176 policemen and civilians (mostly foreigners) had lost their lives.
The events showed a scary trend. The home-grown fundamentalists were turning into terrorists. The rulers of the state had to take swift and strict measures.
Dr. Sherifa Zuhur gets the point across, “Saudi Arabian officials decried al-Qa’ida’s actions in the United States, and have captured and killed operatives, arrested more than 600 suspects, forced key clerical figures to recant their radical views on television, recalled more than 1400 imams who were counselled on their divergent opinions, and took a variety of measures to diminish the financial support of terrorist organisations. The government also announced modest political reforms that began with voter registration from 2004-05, and municipal elections in 2005 which will enhance political participation.” 
The tentacles of the Osama factory are now reaching Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Indonesia, among others. It misses no opportunity to unleash terror on countries and people in the name of God.
The Israeli Angle
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the stumbling block in the stability of Middle-East and a cause for Arabs to take up arms. For years now it has been the driving force behind Muslim fundamentalism across the globe.
The difficulty in resolving the issue has only frustrated the parties involved.
The sad part is those who were once the land owners are now refugees in their own land. More than 300,000 Jews immigrated to the then British Mandated Palestine between 1923 and 1938. Now compare this with the 3.5 million Palestinians displaced because of the 1948 and 1967 upheavals (500,000 alone during the Six-Day War in 1967).
Millions of Palestinians refugees are today dispersed throughout the Middle-East, many in camps in neighboring countries. They are still searching for a way to coexist with the nation that is responsible for the mess.
According to Amnesty International 2011 Report, in 2010, Israeli authorities demolished 431 structures in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, a 59 per cent increase over 2009. At least 594 Palestinians – half of them children – were displaced, while more than 14,000 Palestinians were affected by demolitions of water cisterns, wells and structures relating to their livelihoods.
The Israeli military killed 1,510 Palestinians in 2006-09. Of these, 617, including 104 children aged under 18, were not taking part in any hostilities when they were killed.
The Arab and Muslim worlds remain split between rejectionist forces and those willing to recognise Israel in the name of peace.
As for Israel it continues to enjoy strong support from both the Democrats and Republicans in the US. No US president ever questions the country’s so-called security needs.
Both Clinton and Bush failed to strongly take up the case of settlement expansion and certain occupation practices, which have nothing to do with security, with Israel.
Barack Obama generated so much hope in the Muslim world with his landmark speeches, but, he too couldn’t do much to help resolve the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
Flawed US policies in the past gave ample opportunities to other state actors with their own agendas. Both Syria and Saudi Arabia attempted to broker a Palestinian unity government without Washington’s help. Iran responded by strengthening its ties to Syria and Hamas, thereby increasing its influence in the region.
The Gaza blockade and the Israeli West Bank barrier have only added to the woes of Palestine. Indirectly it has fuelled the strong sentiments of the Arabs and Muslims elsewhere against the state of Israel.
Engaging the Extremists
The West over the years has followed a flawed policy of “engaging the moderates and shunning the extremists.” You ignore a person and you ignore his cause. By ignoring such individuals we harden their stand. It makes them look out for alternate ways to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, violence is one such means which makes maximum impact.
We need to condemn violence in any form. No second thoughts there! We also have to understand that killing one Osama Bin Laden would not help. Osama has become more of a symbol of resistance to the so called jihadists. You kill Osama and there are hundreds ready to take his place and promote the cause.
Occupying lands in the name of security threats will offer only temporary solutions and would strengthen the resolve of the jihadists. Incidentally it is also this angle which extremists, like Osama, relish.
In an interview given to CNN in 1997 Osama said, “If there is a message that I may send through you, then it is a message I address to the mothers of the American troops who came here with their military uniform walking proudly up and down our land while the scholars of our country are thrown in prisons. I say that this represents a blatant provocation to 1250 million Muslims. To these mothers I say if they are concerned for their sons, then let them object to the American government’s policy and to the American president. Do not let themselves be cheated by his standing before the bodies of the killed soldiers describing the freedom fighters in Saudi Arabia as terrorists. It is he who is a terrorist who pushed their sons into this for the sake of the Israeli interest.”
The best way to approach them is to find their ideological mentors and engage them. A dialogue on any given day is a much better start.
This in itself is no mean task and a definite policy shift has to be exercised in the name of peace by the West.
The Muslims today are angry more than ever. But we need to separate anger from madness (of a few). Wherever the anger is justified it needs corrective measures.
1979 is history, but it could very well repeat itself. And with the power of the electronic media today the situation could be worse.
The West for its part needs to engage the Muslims more than ever before. Most importantly dialogues should be insulated from any act of violence. As we have seen in the past, the rise of Islamophobia only helps the extremists!
The US needs to rethink its policy of dictating other countries’ affairs in the name of national security. Afghanistan and Iraq are in a mess but the terror threat continues, not to mention the millions who lost their lives and the million others rendered homeless.
Sheikh Salman al-Oadah echoes the sentiments of fellow Muslims in the region, “And if the West considers September 11 as an affront to civil security in the West, then we can share with it that feeling and even the stance of rejecting attacks against civil security throughout the world. But it is important for the West to realize that civil security in the Islamic World has not seen stability for decades and a lot of the impediments to civil security have come about under the umbrella of Western policy and quite possibly due the direct actions of the West.” 
The once mighty British Empire also collapsed under the pressure of putting foot at too many places. You can’t win people over by occupying their lands!
The Palestine-Israel conflict is one issue that will influence any peace initiative between the Muslims and the West. For long it has been a stumbling block in the stability of the Middle East. You resolve that and half the work is done.
The US handling of this crisis also is faulty and needs serious rework. Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky stress this point, “The United States also has tried mistakenly to cherry-pick Palestinian negotiating partners, sometimes seeking to bypass more senior figures whom Washington perceives as intransigent. This approach tends to backfire; when we try to pick our winners, our diplomacy often loses.”
Israel has also to be pressured into an inspection of its nuclear arsenal.
The two main players in the Middle-East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, influence most of the Muslim world today. The tension between them is a direct outcome of the desire to control the region and their different religious beliefs. This is also a sad reflection of the divide between the Muslims in general.
Saudi Arabia needs to promote more tolerance in its society. An outright rejection of beliefs not conforming to the majority is the first step in promoting hatred. Qur’an itself speaks against it. In verse 118, chapter 11, the books says, “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one People: but they will not cease to dispute.”
There is also no denying the fact that the Saudi society is gradually changing and the new rulers must be credited for it.
The difficulty the rulers face is in striking a healthy balance between admonishing the violent opposition and co-opting those with similar views. Religious sensibilities have to be taken into due consideration before making any policy shift.
This is not an easy task as Madawi Al-Rasheed explains, “Saudi Arabia’s specific Islamic tradition, namely Wahhabi teachings, did not encourage an easy immersion in modernity in the twentieth century. From the very beginning, the ruling group stumbled across several obstacles when they introduced the most simple of technologies (for example cars, the telegraph and television among other innovations). Objections from conservative religious circles were overcome as a result of a combination of force and negotiations. Social and political change proved more problematic and could not be easily implemented without generating debates that threatened the internal stability of the country and alienated important and influential sections of society.”
How successful would they be in the long run only time will tell!
The Saudis need the US support to guard themselves against a powerful neighbour in the form of Iran, something that has not gone down well with many in the Kingdom.
Iran needs to engage in dialogues rather than raising tempers with the now familiar diatribe of Ahmadinejad.
There are unsubstantiated claims by certain countries in the Middle East of Iran’s role in their internal affairs. The country needs to put more confidence building measures in the wake of its nuclear program.
Iran is also facing some problems internally. Post election, as the events at home show, there is a growing dissatisfaction of the young population with the power the clergy enjoys. The Shah’s toppling was not possible without the student uprising. Those in charge should never forget this simple fact.
The US needs to respect the regime in Iran (whosoever) and sit with it. Surely the lessons of the past have not been learned. Stephen Kinzer endorses the view, “Today, as anti-Iran rhetoric in Washington becomes steadily more strident, it is urgent that Americans understand how disastrous the last US attack on Iran turned out to be. They might also ponder the question of what moral responsibility the United States has to Iran in the wake of this painful history.”
The answer to that has the potential to change US-Iranian relations.
Barack Obama talked about a new beginning in his landmark speech given at the Cairo University in 2009, “We have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek — a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.”
The average Muslim, too, is sick and tired of seeing his faith questioned every time some extremist blow himself to pieces in the name of Allah. They also seek a new start where they are free in their lands and are judged by their own actions.
The world has seen enough violence in the name of religion and security. Let’s give peace a chance!
(Revised and updated: Oct 29, 2011)
*Members of the Wahhabi movement prefer to call themselves Muslims, or muwahhidun (those who insist on the unification of the worship of Allah) or Ahl (community of) At-Tawhid (Monotheism). The teachings of the reformer Abd Al-Wahhab are more often referred to by adherents as Salafi (“following the forefathers of Islam.”)
**Sahwa movement emerged in Saudi Arabia during the late 1960s. It was a well organised political movement that pride itself on religious orthodoxy.
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2. Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Terrorists, Modernists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 18.
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