The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov

1979 was a big year in the history of relations between the US and parts of the Islamic world. In early November Iranian radicals supporting the Iranian revolution took over the US embassy in Tehran and held 53 Americans hostage. On November 20th Salafist radicals in Saudi Arabia seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it for two weeks, and a few days later a mob in Pakistan attacked the US embassy in Islamabad.

In 1979 I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to US foreign policy, as I was more interested in drawing band logos on my blue, 3-ring binder and dreading dissecting a frog. I do remember the hostage crisis because it made a lot of headlines. If I knew about the other two incidents, they probably blurred into one.

This book explains the siege of the grand mosque, who did it, why, what the Saudis did about it, etc., with a peek into what happened in Iran and Pakistan. It’s very nice to have this puzzle piece.

Long story short, a Saudi cleric thought Saudi Arabia was too westernized and lax. Women appeared on television with their faces showing, if you can imagine. He was also upset about Shi’ites, Americans, and cigarettes. This cleric wasn’t getting the satisfaction he wanted from the other leading clerics in the kingdom, so took matters into his own hands and published tracts and assembled a gang of followers. Then he realized that a young friend of his had some traits in common with the mahdi, and convinced himself that he was him.

Anyhow, the book is well-written and readable, and I found it very helpful in driving home the importance of some characters whose names I’ve read and heard plenty of times without really absorbing their significance. It’s also kind of fun to remember how things were in 1979, when the US and the Soviet Union were locked in a death grip of paranoia and blind to any other interpretation of events.

When the Americans heard about the seizure of the Grand Mosque, they took for granted that it was the work of Shi’ites either working for or colluding with Iran. Whereas when the Iranians heard about the seizure, they assumed it was the work of the Americans, probably in concert with Israel. And this is where Trofimov made me angry. In his writing, it’s only natural that the Americans assume Shi’ites seized the mosque, whereas when Iran assumes it’s Americans, that’s the result of a history of “self-pitying propaganda” and “outlandish conspiracy theories.”

“Embassy is continuing to receive information–some of it conflicting–concerning occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It is still not known for certain who is occupying the mosque, although it appears they are very well armed,” [Ambassador] West wrote, citing testimony by the American chopper pilot. “We have received reports indicating occupiers could be Iranian or Yemeni, although some reports from Saudi sources state occupiers are Saudi tribesmen supporting some as yet unidentified group of Islamic fundamentalists.”

The attack on the holiest place in Islam, the Pentagon’s spy service explained categorically, had been perpetrated by a group “believed to be Iranian.”

A separate telegram by Ralph Lindstrom, the American consul-general in Dhahran, in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, appeared to back up this suggestion of Khomeni’s involvement, citing the Aramco oil company. The news from Mecca, Lindstrom cabled, “may be related to information we have just obtained from reliable company sources re recent Iranian attempts to agitate Saudi Shiites.”

With the lives of American hostages in Tehran on the line and Khomeini looming large as Washington’s public enemy number one, it was only natural that the mayhem in Mecca that day was seen by participants at the White House meeting as yet another Iranian provocation. In line with the DIA explanation, the working assumption became that the zealots in the Grand Mosque were Iranians or Iranian-inspired Shiites.

See, perfectly natural for right-thinking white people. Not like those wrong-thinking other people who are just looking for reasons to blame the spotlessly innocent US for something bad happening in the Muslim world.

Iranian revolutionaries and, before them, the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have long inundated the Islamic world with self-pitying propaganda that held Westerners–and, in particular, Jews–responsible for all the evils that have befallen the Muslims. In this paranoid worldview, the Americans and the Jews were eternally plotting to undermind Muslim interests and to sully the shrines of Islam. The statement by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior that had aired on Pakistani radio Wednesday morning gave no clue about the identity of the mysterious “deviators” occupying the Kaaba. So, as Pakistanis learned that the House of God had been desecrated by gun-toting invaders, many instinctively blamed the usual suspects.

Even well-educated, seemingly reasonable Muslim intellectuals quickly succumbed to outlandish conspiracy theories…

tsk tsk How embarrassing for those Muslim “intellectuals” to jump to the wrong conclusion because they’re foolish, not like those American policy-makers who jumped to the wrong conclusion because for all the right reasons. *rolleyes*

To justify using military hardware in the confines of the mosque, the Saudi royal family needed the country’s prominent clerics to sign off on it. A deal was struck. And this is why Saudi Arabia today is a less fun place than it was prior to November 1979. This also led to the exportation of harsh, Salafist Islam by the Saudis around the world. Bummer.

the Grand Mosque in Mecca

the Grand Mosque in Mecca

You can buy the book at my Amazon a-store here.

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Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, books, church and state, domestic terrorism, Islamic relations

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