Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Siege of Mecca

The Siege of Mecca - The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine is a book by WSJ columnist Yaroslav Trofimov. The subtitle of the book explains what the book is about.

The blurb and reviews on the back of the book say it is an action-packed account of the seizure of al-Masjid al-Haram complex in Mecca in 1979. The uprising began on the first day of Muharram in the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar - at the beginning of a new century. The corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar was November 20, 1979. The siege was led by a Saudi guy named Juhayman al-Uteibi. He and his group of about 500 people who participated in the uprising claimed they had the Mahdi among them. With the extensive preparation they had done including the stealthy accumulation of large number of weapons in the Masjid-al-Haram complex, they were able to keep the whole complex under their control for two weeks, resisting the Saudi army and practically the whole Saudi Arabian monarchy. (More about the seizure on wikipedia.)

What I liked most about the book was the whole background and the precipitous conditions in the Middle East at the time, and to a large extent the response which the uprising evoked in the entire Muslim world. Iran had just had a revolution causing the Shah to flee and the religious theocracy taking power. Shah was on good terms with the US and the Iranian revolution had its opposition to America and by implication the western culture as one of its fundamental differences with Shah. Anti-American sentiment was very powerful in Iran and never below the surface it had started to spread to the neighboring countries too. It’s easy to forget but those were the years of cold war and a balance of power between USA and USSR was forever taking place in this highly volatile region. Zia ul-Haq had just came to power in Pakistan after overthrowing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his government and he too had begun to lean toward the fundamentalist elements in Pakistan leading to a large antagonism towards US which culminated in the severe attack on the US embassy in Islamabad shortly after the news of the siege started to reach around the world.

The book also sheds light on what the uprising did to Saudi Arabian monarchy and the effect of the Ulemas in determining the general attitude of the kingdom towards all things external. Moderate interpretations of Islam were relegated to the backseat - a struggle which we are witnessing to this day. The author goes as far ahead as to claim that the widespread fundamentalist attacks today all over the world and especially in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan can be traced to the seminal event in 1979 and Juhayman al-Uteibi's teachings.

Information can be very hard to find in a society like Saudi Arabia's and an extraordinary research and journalistic effort has been spent in fishing out the details for this work. The pictures in the middle of the book including many photographs of the uprising are an additional treat.

I not only immensely enjoyed reading this book but also understood, as a result, a little better why the world is the way it is.

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