Amanda Leong and Afshin Miyandaar review the 1979 Mecca Seizure 40 years on, and ask: What does it say about hopes for reform in the Middle East today?
The History of Reforms
When the Iranian Government implemented the 200 percent increase in oil prices, the first snow of late fall landed in the capital, Pre-internet shutdown satellite TV showed footage of the brutal treatment Iranians in Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz experienced simply for protesting against the Iranian government and demanding freedom to live a normal life through social and economic reforms.
Middle Eastern history is marked by the narratives of reform. Almost 40 years ago Iran and Saudi Arabia both separately experienced episodes of reform in a similar storyline: to overturn the process of modernization in this rapidly-changing world and to return to the glory of an Islamic past. This return to glory would heavily rely on complete submission to Islamic fundamental rules. However, right now, a majority of Iranians are protesting for an end to this stale episode of Islamic reform. They want to see themselves enter a new episode of reform — this time, into democracy and freedom.
The words reform and Iran hang heavy not just on Iranian lips but also those of Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. In October 2017, when talking about his vision for Saudi Arabia after implementing his ideal reforms, MbS expressed how he aims for Saudi Arabia to start "returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”
He views the conservative Saudi state as being “not normal” for the last 30 years and blames rigid doctrines that governed society from then until now, seeing them as a reaction to what happened during the Iranian Revolution in which successive Saudi leaders “didn't know how to deal with it.” MbS also tells the country’s clerics that the deal the royal family struck with them after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca was going to be renegotiated.
What sort of deal is he referring to?
Less than nine months after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, when Iran transitioned from a monarchy into the first Islamic Republic the world has ever known, it set off a series of unprecedented events. Sixteen days after the historic Iran Hostage Crisis began on November 4, 1979, when the light of morning welcomed the first day of the new Islamic century (Muharram 1 1400 AH, November 20, 1979), a group of armed civilians and religious extremists, under the leadership of Juhayman al-Otaybi, took over Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. His takeover would soon alter the course of Middle Eastern history.
Juhayman belonged to the prestigious Ikhwan Bedouin Tribe whose family had fought for and served King Abdulaziz since the founding of Saudi Arabia. Juhayman, continuing in his ancestors’ footsteps, not only became a member of the Saudi National Guard, where he underwent military training, but also became a preacher. However, he was disappointed with the current ruling members of the House of Saud. He saw them as destroying Saudi culture with their aggressive policy of Westernization.
To his followers, he called for the end of the current world by challenging the ruling House of Saud in order for the creation of a Saudi theocracy that would govern based on the “original ways of Islam” found in Mahdism. Drawing links between his family’s name and that of the Prophet Mohammed, he proclaimed his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, who was also part of the siege, as the prophesied Mahdi. Mahdi is seen as the redeemer who arrives on earth several days before Judgment Day to guide his believers on the road to salvation. Through Mahdism, Juhayman was able to criticize the Sunni clerks who he saw had betrayed their faith by legitimizing the pro-Western royal family governing Saudi Arabia. However, his plan was vicious.
An Act of Anarchy
The Masjid al-Haram is one of the holiest places in Islam and hosts the annual Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj. For the local residents of Mecca, it was also a place where they would take their dead for the last tawaf (a walk around the Kaaba). However, that morning, the coffins carried by Juhayman’s followers were full of loaded guns. Considering that Islam forbids the carrying of weapons and any sort of violence in the Masjid, Juhayman’s followers took over the Masjid al-Haram easily by breaking these Islamic rules. After killing the unsuspecting unarmed guards and taking hostage almost 100,000 worshippers, they blocked the main gates to the mosque and placed snipers on top of its minarets while broadcasting to the public from the Masjid’s loudspeakers proclamations of Mahdi’s descent on Earth, as well as their anti-Westernization demands in exchange for the release of the hostages.
The Seizure generated widespread panic. People stopped going to work or school and stayed at home. They thought the world was really going to end and that whatever they were witnessing on TV regarding the Seizure resembled the sound of Israfil’s trumpet calling for Armageddon.
Juhayman and his followers’ act of anarchy threw the House of Saud into confusion. The Saudi Army was worried about getting into the Masjid without Islamic approval that could only be given by the conservative Wahhabi religious leaders. These leaders were not any different from Juhayman and his followers in terms of viewing the Westernization process carried out by the House of Saud as being anti-fundamentalist. Most importantly, the House of Saud was deeply concerned about losing its ruling power in Saudi Arabia.
Faced with the choice between anti-monarchy fundamentalists versus a pro-monarchy Wahhabi conservatism, the House of Saud chose to make a deal with the Wahhabi leaders that indirectly met the demands of Juhayman and his followers. This deal the House of Saud struck with the religious leaders changed the social and cultural landscape of the country and shaped Saudi Arabia as we know it today. After the incident, Saudi society was vastly affected in the way conservative Islam removed “Western”-affiliated spaces such as coffee shops and cinemas, enforced gender segregation and dominated all aspects of everyday life.
With Islamic approval, alongside the help of Pakistani and even newly-converted French anti-terrorist forces, the Saudi army was finally able to force Juhayman and his followers to surrender. The death toll was high. Muhammad al-Qahtani was killed in the shootout, while Juhayman was arrested and later executed. Most of the other followers who were released after imprisonment went on to join Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.
The Seizure was not the only major shocking event in Middle Eastern history that led to an increase in Islamic fundamentalism. Other events, like the recognition of Israel by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the modern reformist president of Egypt and the pro-Western modernization process carried out by Mohammad Reza Shah of Iran were used by Islamic extremists as excuses to carry out their agendas. These Islamic extremists announced that only by having an Ummah (supra-national community) of Islam governed by Islamic Sharia law can people live prosperous lives.
Right after the Seizure, some people were suspicious that the new Shia Iranian regime was behind this. US intelligence believed that Ayatollah Khomeini was exporting ideologies related to the Islamic Revolution to stir up similar revolutions in other countries in the Middle East. They assumed that Shia groups in Iran were behind this Seizure, based on the fact that Mahdi was a major figure in Shia Islam and since the Seizure happened in Muharram, a holy month in the Shia calendar.
To retaliate, Khomeini accused the US and Israel of masterminding the Seizure. Enraged, millions of Muslims in other Islamic countries reacted to Khomeini’s words by protesting against the US. In Pakistan, protesters attacked the US embassy and killed two US citizens as well as two Pakistanis who were working for the US embassy. Experts later stated that, whereas there was no direct relation between Iran and Juhayman, Iran’s Islamic Revolution served as a source of inspiration for Juhayman and his followers.
On December 25, 1979, a couple of weeks after the Seizure, the US soon closed the investigation into the main cause behind the Seizure because they needed Saudi radical Islamists to fight against the invasion of Afghanistan by the Communist USSR Red Army. By supporting Jihadi forces, the US believed they were able to make Afghanistan a Vietnam, in which the Soviets would be defeated. One of the jihadist leaders in Afghanistan at that time was Osama bin Laden.
Juhayman might be dead, but his ideology survived in like-minded individuals such as Osama bin Laden, who expanded Juhayman’s legacy. Fighting against the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan made bin Laden and many other fighters view communism as one of the many Satanic manifestations of the modern world. Afghanistan became a training ground for radical Jihadists like Osama bin Laden to meet, recruit, and draw up plans to attack the main branch of “evil” found in American liberalism. The results of their plans were put into action on September 11, 2001.
While bin Laden was busy recruiting and planning for the destruction of American liberalism, the House of Saud was also pouring billions of dollars into the spread of radical Islamic ideas around the world. This was to the previous deal the House of Saud struck with the conservative Wahhabi leaders, as promised. These ideas supported the spread of hate and violence against the modern world and were far from the Islamic ideals of teaching tolerance and viewing others respectfully as equal.
One thousand, two hundred and fourteen miles away from Mecca, Iranian revolutionists, empowered by the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis, were also busy spreading their revolutionary ideas to the world. Regardless of how these extremist ideas in Saudi Arabia and Iran came from different fathers of Islamic thought, they found themselves unlikely brothers in the way they were both working similarly to spread Westernophobia and backwardness across the Middle East.
Hopeful for the Future
Four decades after these social and political roll-backs in Iran and Saudi Arabia, conservative Islam’s role in society and politics has slowly but steadily been questioned by various political figures. MbS and some Iranian opposition leaders have been asking whether another reform should take place in their countries — a reform in which Iran and Saudi Arabia could be free from radical ideas of Islamic fundamentalists and return to a moderate version of Islam where their people could embrace and be embraced by the world in terms of tolerance, freedom, welfare, and acceptance.
As seen from the cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran, for the last 40 years, conservative Islam was able to take root in the Middle East mainly due to the selfishness of rulers. In order to maintain personal power, these rulers were ready to do whatever it took. They created a lack in social and political development by brokering deals with fundamentalist religious leaders, manipulating democratic voting systems, causing tyranny and political obstruction, as well as supporting radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Their acts of selfishness devastated Middle Eastern societies economically, socially, politically and culturally to the point that their people were unable to live normal lives. Today, with the recent rise of fundamentalism in Iraq and the creation of ISIS in Syria, Middle Easterners, including Iranians and Saudis, are very much aware of how a union between religion and state is more of an unholy alliance that should be condemned and can only be broken through reform.
Despite the undemocratic monarchy system of Saudi Arabia, new upcoming leaders like MbS have learned that fear-mongering tactics are not the key to creating a prosperous yet stable community in Saudi Arabia. MbS is aware that prosperity and stability lie in cultural, economic and even political openness for Saudi people. The Islamic Republic of Iran, proud of being the forefather of the first Islamic Revolution in contemporary history, is slow to the uptake. Heavily relying on the rhetoric of binary opposition (Iran vs West), Iran is still using methods of discrimination, violence, terror, and warfare to control Iranians and neighboring countries like Iraq.
Looking at how reforms are being demanded, it seems that the people of the Middle East are moving toward a mutual belief that the road to salvation can be found through equality, justice, awareness, and freedom in order to gain prosperity and wealth. This chance of a collective bright future for all may lie in the creation of a Middle Eastern Union as it has already been practiced in the European Union.
Amanda Leong is a Ph.D. student in Iranian Studies at the University of California, Merced
Afshin Miyandaar is a Ph.D. student at Dartmouth College