Pilgrims to a Deadly Hajj

7 12 2008

I lived in Jeddah during the violent 1979 Hajj. I’m reminded of it because the 2008 Hajj began on Friday and ends Wednesday. Muslims are fulfilling their command to do a pilgrimage to the holiest Islamic city of Mecca at least once during a lifetime. Jeddah is about 40-50 miles from Mecca and is the gateway to Mecca. Busloads of  Muslims with meager belongings wrapped in a blanket are transported out of Jeddah to Mecca to participate in the pilgrimage. The traffic at that time of year is just unbelievable with the influx of 3 million people, and there is an increased risk of disease.

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One can imagine that 3 million people descending into Mecca this year on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai is a concern. Saudi Arabia has 100,000 security people in place during the Hajj to keep it peaceful.

The 1979 Hajj was far from peaceful. On November 20, 1979 the Grand Mosque was seized. The Grand Mosque surrounds the Kaaba, the place that Muslims turn toward as they do their 5-times-a-day prayer, and Muslims consider it the holiest place on Earth. Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times as part of the ritual of the Hajj.

Wikipedia says that the Grand Mosque seizure:

…was an attack and takeover by armed Islamic fundamentalist dissidents of the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest place in Islam. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, had arrived in the form of one of the insurgents’ leaders, Abdullah Hamid Mohammed Al-Qahtani and called on Muslims to obey him.

The story of what happened would make a good thriller movie. Just as prayers were to start, about 500 insurgents took out guns from under their robes, chained the gates shut, took the 50,000 worshippers hostage, and killed several policemen. They released most of the hostages, but put snipers in the towers and held off attempts by security and the army to retake the Mosque. A special fatwa was issued so that the Ministry of Defense could use deadly force because the Qur’an forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque. The city of Mecca was evacuated.

The insurgents, who were anti-Western, broadcast messages constantly during the siege over the loud speakers and demanded that oil exports to the U.S. be cut off and that all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian peninsula be expelled.

Many attempts were made to storm the insurgents and finally, after two weeks, grenades were launched and the surviving insurgents surrendered.

Wikipedia gives these casualty numbers:

The battle officially left “255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics” killed “another 560 injured … although diplomats suggested the toll was higher.” Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.

A half-brother of Osama bin Laden may have been involved in the siege and may have actually transported the guns in before the siege through trucks being used in the ongoing Mosque renovation.

It was a very tense time. Armed soldiers with machine guns stood guard about every 15 feet on every street in Jeddah. I was the music director for “The Princess and the Pea” and we were in rehearsals at that time. We were stopped while traveling the streets at nights, asked where we were going, and told to get off the streets.

The immediate aftermath of the siege continued to be violent, as described in Wikipedia:

Muslim anti-American demonstrations followed in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, India, eastern Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emigrates and Pakistan. Anger fueled by these rumors peaked within hours in Islamabad, Pakistan, and on November 21, 1979, the day following the takeover, the U.S. embassy in that city was overrun by a mob, who then burned the embassy to the ground. A week later, this anger swept to the streets of Tripoli, Libya, where a mob attacked and burned the U.S. embassy there on December 2, 1979.

Perhaps the most disturbing development to come out of the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque was the eventual revelation of prime organizer al-Utaibi’s connection to the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

The rebels’ leader, Juhayman, was captured, and he and 67 of his fellow rebels—”all the surviving males”—were tried secretly, convicted and publicly beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities.

Wikipedia goes on to say that after this attack happened,  Saudi Arabia implemented stricter enforcement of Islamic code. Crackdowns were made on shopkeepers who didn’t close at prayer time, pictures of women in magazines, etc. I got caught in the back of a shop during prayer time when the store closed down. The owner didn’t know I was there and was very upset when he found me. He told me to get, with my children, down on the floor so he wouldn’t be found out. I also remember that if magazines showed a woman with a bare belly, the belly was blacked out with a marker. I could quote many more strict examples.

The Hajj of 1979 was very violent, perhaps the 9/11 for Muslims and Saudi Arabia. We hope for a peaceful pilgrimage this year.

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