Analyzing the Causes that Foster Fundamentalism

Throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.” — Barack Obama, 44th President of USA

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.