Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"The Siege of Mecca" is a mixed bag, but necessary read

I've disappeared for quite a while, because I've been preparing a couple of new things for this blog. First and foremost, I've been reading through The Siege of Mecca: the 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine by Yaroslav Trofimov.

It's an engaging and, in my opinion, essential guide to how Islamism has evolved in recent decades. At it's core, it revolves around the massive importance and implications of a brief hostage situation in the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979 (as the title suggests). This act of terrorism occurs in a context seemingly disconnected to the modern War on Terror - the location seems somewhat unusual, but odder still are the players. The leader of rebels was Juhayman, a Bedouin with only informal Islamic training who held a grudge against the Saudi state because of its betrayal of his parent's generation of Bedouin. Ignited by fanatical claims of the Mahdi's return (a pseudo-messianic aspect of Sunni Islam), he led a band along with a man believed to be the Mahdi into the spiritual center of the Islamic world, to take it hostage in the first shot of what was supposed to be an apocalyptic war against the Saudi state.

Ultimately, the real power of this work lies in how it describes the shifting alliances of political forces in the Islamic world. Until this act of terrorism, however, Islamist ideals clearly wanted to reform states, rather than demolish them. Saudi Arabia and other governments in the Arab world that placated Islamist interests with favors extended to Muslims and even in some cases incorporated aspects of Islamic religious law into conduct laws were previously safe. They were model states, even if none had quite reached the state idealized by Islamist groups - the substitution of virtually all political power for merely a circuit directing and focusing Islamic legal ideas. Raised in an environment of contempt for the Saudi government, Juhayman was already distrustful of the state, but his botched revolution would eventually begin a process of severing Islamism from state intentions, as many of the pseudo-Islamist policies were slowly revealed to be merely staged attempts at gaining legitimacy.

Initially, Juhayman attempted to bring the alleged Mahdi to Saudi-backed ulama (Islamic clerics some of which are given positions of great importance by states such as Saudi Arabia), but ultimately the resistance of the ulama to declare the chosen man to be the Mahdi cemented biases against them among the more extreme Islamist factions. Western fashions had begun prevailing among certain groups and minorities of Shiites continued to live (uncomfortably, but still) on the Arabian Peninsula, about which the Saudi-backed ulama had failed to act, according to the growing extremist forces. The failure to recognize the Mahdi, out of fear of sharing greater power with Juhayman and upsetting the delicate balance the Saudis had attempted to create established a clearer understanding of their motivations for Juhayman and other Islamists in Saudi Arabia.

In short, the Saudi-backed ulama had become part of the government, and with their authority delivered from the state, they sought to maintain its security, even at the cost of perceived Islamic ideals. The gradual shift of government into an increasingly theocratic structure had to an extent backfired, with religious authorities becoming more political, rather than politicians becoming more religious. Essentially, existing state authorities could never be purified, only replaced. Even a state as unbelievably theocratic (in that religion is a clear driving force in its authority and legal system) as Saudi Arabia is not theocratic enough, as it has been tainted by a monarchy with worldly aims, such as maintenance of the house of Saud's political power.

As a result, the history of Islamic movements is cleft in two - between those that pre-existed Juhayman's startling rebellion against mere pseudo-theocracy (such as the current government of Iran, which is quite friendly with the idea of theocracy negotiating with politics) and those that follow (such as the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and other familiar names, which larger oppose all known governments). Likewise, Juhayman's radical breaking from theocracy-light has been largely confined to the Sunni Islamic world, while the Iran-dominated Shiites have not need of his political philosophies, as they had already achieved some degree of Islamist government prior to his conquest of the mosque.

In any case, the illuminating aspects of this book are counterbalanced by its failure to understand the nuances of anti-Americanism. Islamism is largely fueled by a reaction to American dominance and abuse of power, but to leave the issue there is somewhat simplistic. In its political context, Islamism frequently depends on a coalition of related counter-American groups. The Islamic Revolution in Iran succeeded because of a fusion of both liberal and conservative elements directed against the Shah (and it was only after his ousting that the leftist communists and socialists were massacred by the Islamists who then exercised total control of the future government). In many ways, this was an additional change among the Islamists during Juhayman's failed revolution - dissatisfied anti-colonial youth even with leftist leanings became attracted to their positions. In this highly non-nationalistic context, leftist youths' contempt for the American government for both perceived slights and factual pseudo-colonial wrongs goes unbalanced against concern to separate this from contempt for the American people or for modern culture, because the latter are understood as completely distinct from the former (or at the least adequately distinct).

The section of Trofimov's book I found most illuminating in this regard concerned an anecdote about the American embassy in Tripoli, Libya, after it had been raided by Islamists and Islamists-inspired youths:

The following day, just after embassy personel managed to reattach the dislodged front door, a young Libyan man arrived and started pounding at the entrance. One of the rioters who attacked the building the previous day, he surveyed the damage with glee, proud of a job well done. Then he told McCavitt [the American ambassador] he needed a visa to return to a college he was attending in upstate New York. Once McCavitt slammed the door with a curse, the flustered Libyan started screaming in English: "You can't do this to me!"

The implications that Trofimov seems to be trying to draw are that this behavior is laughable, because the young man was simultaneously an active participant in an almost violent protest against perceived and real American militarism and a student embedded in American culture and educational institutions. On closer examination, this reveals at least as much about Trofimov as the student.

The student clearly saw less of a contradiction, as he opposed the American government's actions, but not the American people and his interactions with them in terms of education, if not also financially. This seems to be the part of a classic Muslim left-wing youth's political life, as they are drawn into co-ordination with Islamists in the very limited situations where both hold contempt for the American government. Alternatively, the fact that Trofimov sees this as ridiculous shows that he equates the two - the American people are the American government, a surprisingly nationalistic thought.

More importantly, Trofimov's writing shows that he can not entertain the idea that some Muslims might not make this mental equation of government and entire society, which, as I've explained before, is a key aspect of how Islamists have garnered even remotely enough support to exert the control they have in the Islamic world and the world at large. In short, this misunderstanding of the intentions of Islamists' political allies by Trofimov and his ilk (such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, I suspect) has led to a situation where many American policy-makers simply can not figure out a method of defusing the Islamist bloc. Without any ideas, they turn to what they know best which is usually war, which in the end only gives the Islamists more support.

In short, we need a new generation of leaders who can see the flaws in Trofimov's and others' seemingly rational analysis of the Islamist bloc, if we want a lasting solution to the problem of one of the big three.