Sunday, May 24, 2009

Read this book: The Siege of Mecca

I thought that I was going to dislike this book. The author is rather a conservative reporter for the Wall Street Journal. But this should teach you that you should never judge a book by external factors: only by the contents. This is a superb book. It really reads like a thriller and you won't be able to put it down once you start. The author, Yaroslav Trofimov (the full title of the book is The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine), did an outstanding job in assembling and collecting every bit of evidence and information from Arabic, French, and English sources and on the basis of interviews with witnesses and key players. I am most enthusiastic about this book: I can even recommend this book for lay readers because it is a riveting tale. It is suspenseful and gripping and has lessons about Middle East and international politics. The story is about the 1979 rebellion at the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealot, Juhayman Al-`Utaybi, has not been told before: except in some dissident Saudi literature. But this is a story that is worth telling becaus it gives a context to the rise of fanatical Salafi terrorism that spawned out of the kingdom and with the blessing of Ibn Baz and some elements of House of Saud. I am most impressed with the efforts of Trofimov: how he traveled the world to collect the various bits of the story, and then masterfully assemble all its elements. The author did not need to have a small section to introduce Islam and the Middle East to the reader but I think that he did that for the general reader. The author should certainly not have used one footnote from the lousy and trashy book, the Saudis, by Sondra Mackey. But these are small pionts that don't detract from the value of the book (thanks to R. who urged me to read this book). The author is flat wrong (on page 248) when he assumes that the Egyptian academic who assembled, edited, and published Juhayman's epistles is "admiring" of Juhayman. The man in question is a leftist secularist who published the letters to embarrass the House of Saud. The book provides the reader with an unusual window into decision making at the top echeleons of the House of Saud, and it also relates the events at the mosque with the context of the times in 1979. This is a book that can be recommended in undergraduate courses in Middle East studies becuase it tells a story with wide consequences and links. But Trofimov is too hasty in drawing conclusions about Bin Laden's views about Al-`Utaybi: we still don't know the full view of Bin Laden on the matter, his one passing reference to the matter notwithstanding. (Oh, you should also read Terry Pinkard's book on Hegel but it is in more than 750 pages long).