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1979 Makkah - Grand Mosque [aka Holy Mosque] Makkah

Some foreign observers thought in 1979 that traditionalism was no longer a strong force in Saudi Arabia. On 20 November 1979 the Grand Mosque [aka Holy Mosque] in Makkah, the holiest shrine in all of Islam, was occupied by a group of armed Muslim extremists led by Juhayman al-Otaibi. To mark a new century on the Islamic calendar, a group of millennialist zealots, who claimed to have with them the new redeemer — the mahdi — seized Islams holiest site.

They called on the people to revoke the current Saudi Monarchy and obey their leader, Abdullah Hamid Al-Qahtani. The attackers had planned to seize the Mosque by filling coffins with weapons and smuggled them into the Mosque. On the morning of the day of seizure, they chained the gates of the Mosque, killed the two guards on-duty at the time, and held present worshippers hostages. Approximately 200-500 Sunni Muslims assaulted the Kaaba in Mecca during the Hajj, or holy pilgrimage, nearly 6,000 hostages were taken [other reports claim the siege trapped 100,000 people] and held the site for a almost a week, despite efforts of the Saudi government to retake it.

Crown Prince Fahd led the response, which moved slowly — its troops initially had no detailed maps of the mosque. Saudi intelligence services apparently had no accurate blueprints of the Grand Mosque, and knew nothing of the underground labyrinth where many of the militants took shelter; they eventually received plans to the site from Osama bin Laden's older brother.

In Pakistan, news of the Siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the declaration by Khomeini that “…it would not be far-fetched to assume that this act has been perpetrated by the criminal American imperialism so that it can infiltrate the solid ranks of Muslims by such intrigues” motivated protestors to storm the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

After a week, the Saudis brought in French commandos, who underwent a token conversion to Islam to access the mosque. They used tear gas to flush out al-Oteibi’s men. After more than two weeks of cross-fire with the Saudi Army, and with the help of Pakistani and French forces, the siege of the Mosque was ended, with the mahdi shot dead in the battle. At least 250 people were killed and 600 injured, including worshippers, troops and insurgents. While the official death toll was 127 soldiers, 117 militants, and an unknown number of civilians, independent observers reported a toll of 'well over 1,000 lives.' At least two-thirds of those killed in the siege were Iranians. The surviving insurgents were captured by Saudi authorities and all of the surviving male radicals were beheaded.

The fact that the rebel leader, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al-Utaibi, was from a prominent Nejdi family and was an estranged student of Imam Abd-al-Aziz bin Baz, who would later become the Grand Mufti of Mecca, brought consternation. The leader of the dissidents, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba, a Sunni, was from one of the foremost families of Najd. His grandfather had ridden with Abd al Aziz in the early decades of the century, and other family members were among the foremost of the Ikhwan.

Juhaiman said that his justification was that the Al Saud had lost its legitimacy through corruption, ostentation, and mindless imitation of the West -- virtually an echo of his grandfather's charge in 1921 against Abd al Aziz. This also resembled the revolt of the Ikhwan against Ibn Saud 50 years before. Juhaiman's accusations against the Saudi monarchy closely resembled Ayatollah Ruhollah Musaui, Khomeini's diatribes against the shah. Juhaiman’s doctrinal positions included a direct attack upon the al-Saud family and their rule, and impure outside influences. In addition, his doctrines rejected kingship and proclaimed the arrival of the Mahdi from the lineage of Hussein ibn Ali, the Shi’a martyr of Karbala and son of the Caliphate Ali. The Mahdi is the ‘redeemer’ who arrives to purify the world in preparation for the Day of Judgment.

Juhaiman's party included women as well as men, other peninsular Arabs, and a few Egyptians. A score of the dissidents were unemployed graduates of the kingdom's seminary in Medina. They had provisions for the siege they expected as well as extensive supplies of arms.

The Saudi leadership was stunned and initially paralyzed by the takeover. It is forbidden to shed blood there or to deface or to pollute them in any way. Despite careful planning on Juhaiman's part, a guard was shot dead by one of the nervous dissidents. Such a desecration is a major violation under Islamic law and merits crucifixion for the convicted offender.

The government's initial attempts to rout the dissidents were stymied. Before any military move could be authorized, the ulama had to issue a dispensation to allow the bearing of arms in a holy place. When the religious problems were solved by announcement of the ulama's ruling, logistical problems bogged down the efforts of the military and the national guard for several days.

This crisis terrified the kingdom’s leaders and caused them to seek solutions to rid themselves of this indigenous and volatile menace. This event exposed the weakness of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, Al-Saud, and quickly put Saudi Arabia on the defensive, a position in which the kingdom found itself decades later. In Saudi Arabia, the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, had been years of explosive development, liberal experimentation, and openness to the West. A reversal of this trend came about abruptly in 1979.

The Saudis, starting in 1979 — after the Grand Mosque seizure — began styling themselves as the Guardians of the Holy Places, and claiming legitimacy on the basis that they would defend the faith, using among other things their immense oil riches. Far from discounting the dissidents, King Khalid made some effort to address their grievances. But the government restricted Saudi Shi’a scholars and pilgrims from going to Shi’a learning centers in Iran.

The Saudi government renewed its alliance with the Wahhabi religious establishment. The government over time conceded greater responsibility to the Wahhabi clerics in areas important to them, including the judiciary, education, religious guidance, and the spread of Islam globally. Global propagation efforts were increased at this time in order to appease the Wahhabi religious establishment’s concern about increased modernization in Saudi Arabia and closer relations with the West, particularly the United States, thus deflecting domestic criticism of the ruling family.

The siege was led by a Muslim extremist who was a former theology student . He was attempting to officially put an end to what he called “Western influence” in the country. In 1978, a year before the siege, newspapers and magazines were publishing articles written by both men and women discussing women’s rights to participate in public life. Issues such as women’s right to drive, where women could and should work, and the types of education appropriate for women were all hot topics. However, discussions around increasing women’s freedom and mobility through education and work were perceived from the very beginning by the religious groups as dangerous “Western ideas”.

Many political analysts opined that the Mecca siege was fuelled by the government stance on women’s rights and role in the development of the Saudi nation. In 1979, “Western influences,” as some conservative religious scholars argued were more obvious since women not only went to school but also started to enter universities. However, some historians argued that Mecca siege was not all about women’s freedom; it had a great deal to do with asserting the extremists’ views on all aspects of life.

Sparked by Oteibis complaints, Saudi religious leaders now ban movie theatres, and public concerts of all but traditional music are unknown. Women cannot drive or attend soccer matches, and the religious police try to enforce a stringent dress code for them all-black shroud-like abayas, with all but the eyes covered.

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Page last modified: 04-01-2016 20:01:11 ZULU