Even though it has been three decades since Juhayman al Otaibi and his followers stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca, I still remember how people were preoccupied in the early morning of that day long ago in 1979 with finding out who was responsible for the incident. I remember how people’s imaginations ran away with them and how they cast accusations in many directions before the bitter and painful truth came to light, and nobody could fathom what happened.
Today, thirty years later, the satellite television channel Al Arabiya and the Al Majalla magazine are looking back at this attack and its repercussions. They conducted an interview a few days ago with the researcher Nasser al Hazimi in order to listen to his [first-hand] account of this movement, and his ties to the real mastermind behind the group, Juhayman al Otaibi. Hazimi split from al Otaibi and the group just months before the siege of the [Grand] Mosque because he was unwilling to take up arms in the sacred mosque and holy land, and because he was unconvinced of the ideas that Juhayman was seeking to spread i.e. that his brother-in-law Muhammad Abdullah al Qahtani was the Awaited Mahdi. Nasser al Hazimi raised a number of important points and the following two should be looked at more closely:
– That religious mania dominated the group and caused it to reach erroneous conclusions; most prominently the focus on the idea that Mohammed Abdullah al Qahtani was the Awaited Mahdi and the attempt by Juhayman to fulfil some of the signs of the hour [Day of Judgment] mentioned in the Hadith.
– That Juhayman was an activist, and not someone who had an ideology that would outlast him.
This testimony that comes from within the group itself shows that there is a necessity to refute certain opinions that have sought to give Juhayman and his group an ideological dimension that they in reality did not possess. Even the few books attributed to Juhayman – and there are doubts that he was the real author of these books – do not convey any ideological depth that is worthy of closer examination, or which could influence [anybody] outside of this group. Those in the group had been brainwashed until they had reached a stage of surrendering [to Juhayman’s ideas]; a state [where the group’s members] lacked maturity, clarity, and understanding. The majority of the group were uneducated and so [easily] fell under the spell of the movement’s leadership.
After [the Grand Mosque siege] some people tried to bring society closer towards religious extremism and intolerance, claiming that this would prevent a repeat of what happened. The truth is that the Juhayman movement was never a self-aware movement with ideological dimensions; rather this was a movement that in certain contexts was capable of making invalid religious provocations. Therefore, it should not be considered a protest movement that accepted the dominant patterns of social life at the time. Society [at the time] was living a normal life of tolerance, solidarity, and moderation, and people – by nature – were closer to uprightness and conservatism, and the wheel of development was moving at a steady pace towards maturity for society as a whole.
In conclusion, it is better to recall the Juhayman incident today – thirty years later – in order to re-evaluate what happened in a more objective manner; an evaluation that places this group, which was poor in terms of ideology, awareness and education, in its rightful place, away from any intimidation and exaggeration.