The battle at Islam's heart

In November 1979, armed militants took over Mecca's Sacred Mosque. Their actions still reverberate t

On the eve of Islam's 15th century, the Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) in Mecca was overflowing with worshippers from all over the world. The atmosphere was joyous, and there was much talk in the Holy City and site of pilgrimage of resurgence and a new dawn. Many of Mecca's inhabitants, who normally avoid going to the Sacred Mosque during festivals, so as to avoid overcrowding, also joined the congregation on this special occasion. Most stayed up all night to read the Quran and then joined the early-morning prayers. As soon as the prayers finished, gunshots rang out. A group of heavily armed men took over the mosque. They announced that "the Mahdi" (redeemer) had arrived to purify Islam and bolted all 39 doors to the mosque, trapping more than 100,000 worshippers inside.

Thus began, on the morning of 20 November 1979, the siege of the Sacred Mosque. What happened during the next two weeks has had a profound impact on most of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is a police state and bad news in the kingdom is buried quickly and permanently. So, little was actually known about the insurgency itself and how it was suppressed. Now, however, through painstaking research of recently unclassified documents and interviews with those involved in the uprising, with security and army officers and the Saudi royal family, Yaroslav Trofimov has pieced together a thorough account of the events. The Siege of Mecca provides a gripping and revealing account of this brutal uprising.

The insurgents were led by a Bedouin preacher, Juhayman bin Seif al-Uteybi, and his brother- in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, the alleged Mahdi. The rebels included Egyptians, Pakistanis and American converts, but most were Saudis from the Oteiba tribe, which had actually helped King Abdul Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, to seize control of the Arabian Peninsula in 1902. They believed that the royal family had become corrupt, that the state was promoting heresy, that religious scholars were collaborating with the royal family in spreading immoral practices and that Saudi Arabia had become obsessed with money and consumerism. I knew their kind rather well.

Juhayman and his band were followers of the blind scholar Sheikh Bin Baz. Bin Baz, a major architect of the contemporary Saudi Wahhabi brand of Islam, later became Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. He had been a dean at Medina University, where he indoctrinated thousands of students with his firebrand puritanism. More devout followers were invited to desert retreats for special attention - Juhayman being one of them.

As a researcher at the Hajj Research Centre in Jeddah, I often used to meet Bin Baz's students. They were, without exception, irrational zealots. Largely tribal people, they had replaced fierce tribal loyalty with loyalty to their brand of Islam. And Islam, as far as they were concerned, was how they defined it - with more emphasis on rather dubious and historically questionable traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than on the teachings of the Quran. They saw themselves as the only authentic appointed guardians and defenders of Islam. Everyone else was, by definition, an unbeliever and hostile to Islam. That included the Shias, the Sufis and liberal folk like me. The students would often tell me that my association with unbelievers was nothing but apostasy.

My colleagues and I took it as granted that the Medina students would eventually do something drastic. I was at the Sacred Mosque on the night of 19 November, as were most of my colleagues. We were measuring the flow of worshippers going around the Kaaba, and had spotted the large presence of Medina students holding meetings in the compound. This was not uncommon, so I paid little attention to it.

I left the mosque immediately after the night prayer and heard the news of the siege on the grapevine in Jeddah the following day. The insurgents used coffins to smuggle a huge cache of arms and ammunition into the mosque. They allowed most of the foreign worshippers to leave, but kept the local people as hostages.

The Saudi authorities were slow to realise what had happened. It was only when the first batch of police and security officials were gunned down that the state grudgingly moved into action. The insurgents had occupied prime sites on the nine minarets of the mosque and were able to pick off anyone who approached the site. A number of assaults, involving police, the National Guard and the army, which Trofimov describes in some detail, ended in bloodbaths.

The authorities faced a number of problems. They were totally incompetent. The three security forces had different commands, did not trust each other, and were unable to communicate with each other as they had different radio systems. And, most astonishingly, they had no architectural plans of the mosque.

Indeed, there were only two institutions in the whole of the kingdom that had detailed plans of the Sacred Mosque - the Bin Laden Construction Company, which had built various extensions to the mosque but which was unwilling or unable to pass the maps on to the authorities, and my own research centre. For the previous five years, we had measured, calibrated and photographed almost every inch of the mosque. At considerable risk to himself, our director, the dissident architect Sami Angawi, delivered the plans to the front-line troops.

One of the mosque's gates was identified as the entry point for a new offensive. It was blown up with a huge charge. Paratroopers backed by armoured personnel carriers (APCs) stormed in, only to walk into an ambush. Another bloodbath ensued. It seemed that the insurgents had an answer to whatever the army threw at them. Even blowing up the minarets of the mosque did not help much. Eventually, using heavy artillery and scores of APCs, the army and the National Guard fought their way, step by bloody step, to the centre of the compound, where the Kaaba is located. Qahtani, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, who fought with exceptional daring, was killed.

Yet this was only a partial victory. The rebels retreated from the mosque's surface to its underground section. Known as the Qaboo, this is a labyrinth of rooms and alleyways, a mini-city where the insurgents had stashed the bulk of their weapons. Once again, the army's attempt to enter the Qaboo proved futile and deadly.

After a week of horrendously savage combat, it was clear that the Saudis needed help. They turned to their foremost allies: the United States and the CIA. A horde of CIA operatives was quickly converted to Islam so that they could enter the Holy City to assess the battlefield for themselves. They recommended chemical warfare. Potent tear gas was pumped into the Qaboo through its various entrances, but the exercise turned into a fiasco.

Hardened rebel fighters were able to shield themselves with mattresses, cardboard and cloth and prevented the gas from spreading into narrow underground corridors. Their water-soaked headdresses protected their breathing. The gas had a natural tendency to rise, so it came up to the compound of the mosque - where the Saudi soldiers were ill-prepared to use gas masks. Their generous facial hair prevented the masks from sealing on the skin: the gas seeped through their beards and knocked out a large contingent. Then it made its way to the surrounding area, and most of Mecca had to be evacuated.

My own account of what happened next differs from Trofimov's. The grapevine in Jeddah, I remember, suggested that the Qaboo had been flooded on the recommendation of the CIA. The rebels who escaped drowning were forced to the surface and captured. But Trofimov provides us with another story. The Saudis, he suggests, called in the French Foreign Legion. Paris despatched Lieutenant Paul Barril, a mercenary commando with expertise in such situations, on a "provost mission" to the kingdom.

Barril recommended another dose of gas - indeed, a whole tonne of CS gas, enough to poison a small city. However, the entire French stock of CS gas came to only 300kg so the operation was limited to this amount. This time, the gas was to be used with a particular cunning. Countless holes were bored from the surface of the compound down into the Qaboo, and the gas was pumped in through these holes. At the same time, battalions of the army entered the Qaboo from two points, in a pincer movement. They succeeded in overpowering the insurgents and capturing Juhayman.

The Siege of Mecca is a marvel of investigative journalism. Trofimov is not particularly good at filling in the background history of Islam or Saudi Arabia. And his attempts to paint a picture of what is happening simultaneously in Washington and Paris, Tripoli and Islamabad, leave much to be desired. Some of his suggestions, such as that most Saudis, including my friend Sami Angawi, were stupid enough to believe that the Mahdi had really arrived, are disingenuous. His nods toward the thriller genre and Hollywood can be pretentious. However, the book really takes off once we are into the siege, and Trofimov's viciously gory account unfolds with a sharp eye for detail and accuracy.

Trofimov suggests that the siege of the Sacred Mosque laid the foundation for the emergence of al-Qaeda. The young Osama Bin Laden sympathised with and supported the rebels. But it is more interesting to note that most of the Saudi religious establishment also agreed with the insurgents. When the rebels' accusations were read out in full to Sheikh Bin Baz, who provided religious sanction for the Saudi military assault on the mosque, he endorsed most of them. The insurgents were correct, he said, in pointing out that a true Wahhabi state should not associate with unbelievers, that heresies and deviation from pure Islam should be eliminated, that images of all kind were forbidden, and that consumerism and worship of money had become the norm in Saudi Arabia. But they were wrong on two counts: in challenging the royal family and in announcing the arrival of the Mahdi. Sheikh Bin Baz's judgment was duly carried out: Juhayman was publicly beheaded.

Mecca is a microcosm of the Muslim world. What happens in the Holy City not only reverberates throughout Muslim societies, it actually defines the state of the Muslim world. The siege of the Sacred Mosque, the reverberations from which are still clearly audible, suggests that there is something seriously wrong in the body politic of modern Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar's "Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim" is published by Granta Books (£8.99)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.