When hundreds of international Sunni jihadists infiltrated and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on 20 November 1979, they attracted little interest. The eyes of the world were fixed on Iran where, on 4 November 1979, Shi’ite fundamentalists had seized the American Embassy, taking 66 American citizens hostage. Whilst the Iranian Revolution and the siege in Mecca were totally unrelated, both had the same goal: the removal of a brutally repressive and corrupt, US-allied regime.
In Iran, the revolutionaries were successful primarily because their demands were political — liberty, human rights, improved living standards etc — and because the US administration of President Carter chose to support them. It took 12 months of protests and strikes (from January 1978 to January 1979) to force the Shah into exile. The Islamists merely rode the wave and then filled the vacuum. It soon became clear to many Iranians that their revolution would not bring them their hoped for liberty, prosperity and dignity.
In Saudi Arabia, the revolutionaries failed because, instead of seizing the Royal Palace, they seized the Grand Mosque, opening the way for the Saudi regime to denounce them on religious grounds. Furthermore, because their overtly religious demands included the demand to end alliances with ‘infidels’, Saudi Arabia’s Western backers rushed to the aid of the House of al Saud, rightly perceiving their oil supply was endangered. The Saudi regime only survived by a hair’s breadth, and only through the involvement of French special forces.
Whilst the siege in Mecca was reported as a ‘domestic incident’, it most certainly was not. Not only were the jihadists an international force, the incident sent shockwaves through the Sunni Muslim world. A massive, violent, Islamic and anti-US uprising erupted in Pakistan and two Americans were killed as the US Embassy was besieged and torched. This in turn inspired protests against US Embassies and consuls in Turkey, Bangladesh, India, Kuwait, Philippines and Libya. Though the rioters were Sunnis, they praised the Iranian Shi’ite revolutionaries for defeating ‘American imperialism’ which they said supported tyranny.
The House of al Saud subsequently brokered a deal with the kingdom’s Islamic clerics. The regime would support the religious establishment as it advanced Islamic fundamentalist ideology and global jihad (holy war). In return the religious establishment would support the House of al Saud. Fortunately for the House of al Saud, the Soviets — perceiving US weakness — invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, giving the Saudi regime a jihad it could support far from home, and subsequently, jihads in Bosnia, Kashmir, Kosovo, North Caucasus and Somalia. So while the Sunni revolutionaries failed to achieve their goals, Sunni fundamentalism reaped huge rewards. Meanwhile, the emerging Arab middle class grew increasingly angry and disillusioned because secularism was being maintained by tyranny rather than by reason.
Sunni Islamists have doubtless learned from this history that there is an art to revolution. In Egypt today the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is lying low and attending to the protesters’ needs for food, water and medical assistance, just as Hezballah has done in Lebanon and Hamas has done in the Palestinian Territories. The Islamists know they need an acceptable facade and in a strategic master-stroke, the MB is lining up behind Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. ElBaradei doesn’t mind, for he does not regard the MB (the mother of Hamas) as in any way extremist.
Today a smug Iran and a nervous Saudi Arabia both note that the present Middle East unrest is targeting America’s allies. Hezballah has displaced Saad Harari in Lebanon and Abbas is virtually besieged in Ramallah. In Tunisia the regime of Ben Ali has collapsed. Riots persist against the secular, US-allied regimes in Egypt, Yemen and in Jordan. In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, is now in dialogue with the regime of King Abdullah II. Western hopes that ‘transition’ will lead to something better (as was once predicted for Iran) or that an Islamic leadership will be moderate (as was also predicted for Iran) are likely to be dashed, for the ‘Arab Street’ has been thoroughly Islamised and radicalised. While the US faces losing all its geo-strategic gains in the Middle East, Israel may once again face existential threat as Egypt would need only to reverse its policy on Gaza and open the Rafah Crossing — for humanitarian reasons of course!
Lost amidst the noise and chaos are the region’s Christian minorities. Already viewed as ‘infidels’ and allies of the enemy (i.e. America and Israel), the Church is now more vulnerable than ever. As US influence diminishes in the Middle East, so too does the protection of the Christian minorities. Furthermore, militant Muslims may well decide to exploit the chaos to do some under-the-radar removal of Christians. For instance, on Sunday 30 January eleven Coptic Christians were massacred inside their homes in Sharona, Al Minya Province. Christians cannot hope in the US and the UN — our hope must rest in the one who is eternally supreme and always sufficient: Yahweh Sabaoth (lit. the Lord of Hosts; the commander of heaven’s forces).
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR GOD TO:
* draw the region’s Christians into dependent prayer and then answer their prayers, protecting them, providing all their needs, and making his presence known.
[God] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:5b-6 ESV)
* awaken Arabs across the Middle East to the fact that Islam — because it is repressive rather than liberating, and legalistic rather than transformative — can never be the solution for those yearning for freedom and dignity. Pray for an Arab Awakening! (Ephesians 3:20,21)