by Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Today societies in Islamic countries plagued by terrorism are almost completely incapable of raising a united front against the extremists
ln 1979, an alarming incident occurred in the Islamic world, which most history books across the Muslim realm have almost completely expunged from its pages.
However, today the details of this violent incident are slowly making their way out thanks to various Muslim and Western historians who believe that within this incident lies the chance to study the roots of modern-day Islamic extremism.
On November 20, 1979, a group of armed Saudi fanatics entered the premises of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The group was being led by a man called Juheyman bin Muhammad. With him as his second-in-command was one Muhammad Abdullah.
The group was made up of about a hundred men, most of them Saudis, but also comprising Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Libyans and at least two African-American converts.
All of them were followers of Abdul Azizi bin Baaz who was Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti.
Bazz had been highly critical of late King Faisal’s moderate reforms that had seen the setting up of the Kingdom’s first television station. Faisal had also given conditional permission to the Kingdom’s women to work in offices.
Bazz was also incensed by the presence of Western workers in Saudi Arabia who had been hired by the government to manage the large amounts of oil wealth the Kingdom had accumulated.
In his fiery Friday sermons, Bazz attacked the monarchy for moving away from the path set by the monarchy’s predecessors, especially King Al-Saud (d 1953) — even though it was under Saud that the discovery of the vast amounts of oil in Saudi Arabia was made with the help of British and American firms.
But Saud knew that to retain power he had to remain on the right side of the powerful official clerics. That’s why, though flushed with oil money, he was painfully slow to initiate reform. Instead he kept the Kingdom running on the ultraconservative principles of puritanical Islam. No wonder, to Juheyman and his men they were doing exactly what they were taught at Saudi schools and universities: Purge ‘false Muslims’ and ‘infidels’ from Islam.
To counter the rise of secular Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism in the 1960s initiated by regimes in Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Syria (and later), Libya, King Saud’s successor, King Faisal, started implementing some soft social reforms.
The Kingdom’s clerics accused Faisal of turning Saudi Arabia into a ‘liberal’ country, though almost all of these clerics were on the payroll and perks of the monarchy and pragmatically tolerated.
The policy of toleration of the clerics continued even after Faisal was assassinated by a member of his own family (in 1975) who too was a Baaz admirer.
Baaz’s blazing sermons eventually gave birth to a group of young fundamentalists quoting an ambiguous hadith, claiming that Muhammad Abdullah was the Mehdi. The hadith also mentioned that the clash be- tween Mehdi’s followers and ‘infidels’ will take place in the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
The mosque was taken while pilgrims were present. Some were allowed to leave, while a number of others were tak- en hostage.
Mayhem ensued. For days the militants fought bloody gun battles with Saudi forces.
Misled by rumours that attributed the Mosque take-over to an ‘American- Zionist conspiracy’, mobs in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Libya attacked and burned down American embassies in their respective countries.
The first days of the battle saw the militants gaining an upper hand. Scores of Saudi soldiers were slaughtered. Watching the situation spiralling out of control, Saudi regime contemplated using outside help.
Since no non-Muslim is allowed to enter the Grand Mosque, the Saudi regime pondered using Pakistani and Jordanian commandos.
But the Saudis eventually called in French commandos and asked them to supply training (just outside Mecca) and weapons to the bloodied Saudi forces. It took another three days for the Saudi forces to defeat the militants and clear the mosque. The battle cost over 900 lives.
Logically the Saudi regime was expected to launch a crackdown on fundamentalists after the tragedy, but it did what most Muslim regimes usually do in the face of a movement or insurgency by fundamentalists: It rolled back whatever little social reforms it had initiated and became even more subservient to the puritanical clergy.
And here is where most Muslim regimes and societies have faltered. Faced with pressure and violence from Islamists, many regimes in the Islamic world have historically tried to work out their survival by giving into a number of regressive and myopic demands of the Islamists.
The social fall-out of this trend has been devastating. Today societies in Islamic countries plagued by terrorism are almost completely incapable of raising a united front against the extremists.
The pathological politics of compromise indulged in with the Islamists by previous and present governments have pushed these societies either in a state of stunted fear, or worse, have left them reeling outside the spheres of reason and logic. This trend has eventually hurled them into the intellectual black hole where twisted religious exegeses and xenophobic exhibition of ‘patriotism’ and faith abound, shoving these societies further down the cyclic spiral of violence and denial and creating havens for faithbased ogres in crucial corners of culture and politics.