The Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979

The BBC Arabic Service has produced a short documentary giving the full story of the seizure of the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca in 1979, that was a crucial turning point in the modern history of Islam.  Contrary to my previous statements, based on false reporting from Saudi Arabia, the seizure was not carried out by Shia gunmen allied to Iran, but by the very same fundamentalist Muslims from the eastern district of Arabia, the Nejd, from where the Saudi royal family itself originated.

Many people think Saudi Arabia is a very ancient kingdom, but that is not the case. Arabia was conquered in 1932 by the army of the Saudi clan under King Ibn Saud, who defeated and replaced the former rulers of Mecca, the Hashemites, who traced their descent from Mohammed the Prophet.  The Saudis were in coalition with a group of fundamentalist Muslims who followed the teachings of a preacher named Ibn Wahhab, and were called Wahhabis.  Their extreme ascetic form of Islam is known as Salafism, and they were against all forms of modernization and westernization of Islamic culture and Muslim society.  The justification for their campaign was that the Hashemites had become corrupt due to contact with the West and were introducing modern western features into Islamic society.  The only remaining Hashemite monarch in the world today is King Abdullah II of Jordan.

By 1979 the Saudis had themselves become quite westernized and had introduced modernization (such as TV) into their Kingdom.  In the Nejd, the grandsons of former supporters of the Saudis, who themselves were brought up on Salafi Islam, were becoming very disquieted by these trends.  A particular former drug dealer, Juhayman al-Otaybi, a member of an influential family in the Nejd, decided to take action.  He declared his brother-in-law, Mohammed Abdullah al Qahtani, a very religious Salafist, to be the Mahdi.  The Mahdi is the concept of a Messiah or redeemer taken by both Islam and Christianity from Judaism.  Juhayman then started to plot to overthrow the Saudi regime and decided that his first step would be to take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

He organized his plan very efficiently.   He reconnoitered the structure of the Mosque and prepared for the take-over.  The day of the take-over, November 20, 1979, which was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar, his followers carried numerous coffins into the Mosque covered with religious slogans.  The coffins were filled with automatic weapons and no-one challenged them.  As soon as the Imam finished the final prayer, Juhayman’s followers took over the microphone and announced the take-over.  They ordered their followers, some 200 in all, to take their positions, which included on the tops of the 4 minarets and at all the gates.  Juhayman then announced the coming of the Mahdi.  He had taken all the attendees hostage, maybe 50,000 people, but then released most of them

For up to 2 hours nothing happened, then finally the Saudi police sent a  few policemen to see what was going on, they were met with a hail of bullets and most of them were killed.  Then the Saudis sent some Army soldiers and the same thing happened.  Then they sent their special forces unit, and the same thing happened.  With gradually higher levels of attack and with great losses on both sides, the rebels were forced into the huge basement of the Mosque,   But, the Saudis, without any apparent organization, were unable to dislodge them from there.  At this point the Saudis contacted French President Giscard d’Estaing for help.  He sent his top security team to advise the Saudis (as non-Muslims they were not allowed into the Mosque).

They set up a central headquarters and decided that since the rebels were well-armed and there was no way to defeat them fighting in the labyrinthine basement they would use poison gas.  They drilled holes all around the perimeter of the Mosque, then they threw in grenades and pumped in high levels of CS gas.  The rebels were then defeated, and after 17 days they had no more food or water and were overcome by the gas.  Some surrendered and others were captured by Saudi forces with gas masks. Approximately 65 surviving rebels, including Juhayman, were quickly tried and executed.  Some 200 Saudi forces and rebels were dead as well as ca. 50 civilians and some 500 were wounded.

The significance of this attack is that it set the pattern for what was to follow.  The development of Al Qaeda by Osama bin Laden, who  also from a pro-Saudi family. He also, as a fundamentalist Muslim, resented the introduction of modernization and westernization into Arabia (although he and his followers were not against using Western arms and communications).  But, he saw the Americans as the major target. This was followed by ISIS led by the self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi, who saw the establishment of the Islamic State as his major aim.  Both bin Laden and Baghdadi (supposedly) are gone now and the IS is almost defeated.  But, this pattern is established. The Saudis are now thoroughly westernized, and the next fundamentalist Sunni reformer is probably waiting in the wings, to declare the next Mahdi or Caliph to overthrow the corrupt Saudis.

Correction: In my analysis of the US economy I made a mistake in the current value of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages.  It has now reached 22,000, a huge increase of 4,000 since Pres. Trump was elected 7 months ago.


The Lost City of “Z”

Percy Fawcett was a daring officer in the British Army.  He had worked at the Royal Geographical Society in London learning how to do surveying and map making. In 1905 he was approached by the RGS to go to South America to survey the region between Bolivia and Brazil in order to draw an agreed boundary to prevent a war.  He accepted this daunting task and in 1906 at the age of 39 spent three years with a small expedition trudging through the thick Amazonian jungle. I had read about his exploits and finally someone has made a movie about him, which I have just seen, entitled “The Lost City of Z.”   This is based on a book by David Grann in 2009 named “The Lost City of Z: A tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon.”  Note that the character of Indiana Jones was partly based on him, as well as such books as “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle (better known for his “Sherlock Holmes” stories) and many subsequent imitations.

Fawcett lead several expeditions to the Amazon region, and found that giving gifts to the local Indian chiefs was the best way to avoid conflict.  He claimed that in the jungle he had found remains of an ancient city, but was unable to follow-up this finding.  In 1914 he rejoined the British Army and fought bravely as a reserve officer at the Battle of the Somme, where he was partially blinded in a gas attack.  He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in 1917 and retired from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

He then returned to his obsession to try to find this lost city in the Amazon jungle, that he called “Z.”  In this exploit he was definitely influenced by the success of the findings of Aztec and Maya ruins in the jungles of Central America and of the Inca city of Machu Pichu in Peru discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  In contrast however, Fawcett preferred to travel in a small close-knit group.  In 1925, at the age of 58, accompanied by his son Jack and a few friends, he returned to the region in an attempt to find the so-called “lost city of Z.”  In doing so he was influenced by a ms he found in the National Library in Rio de Janiero written in 1753 by a Portuguese bandeirante named Joao da Silva Guimaraes (many of these so-called “bandits” were former Crypto-Jews escaping the Inquisition) that described such a city.   He was also influenced by the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, who was a Russian occultist and a founder of the Theosophical Society, who believed in the existence of superior human civilizations.

In 1925 he and his companions disappeared in the region of the Matto Grosso.  The site of his last camp are known, but their fate is unknown.  He wrote a will requesting that if he did not return no-one should search for him in case they suffered the same fate.  But, in fact his disappearance became an international cause celebre and many did in fact try to discover his fate.  It is said that ca. 100 people have died in numerous expeditions in the region to find either his remains or the lost city of “Z.”   Until now no-one has been successful.

The movie is a Hollywoodized version of the story, quite accurate, yet full of minor distortions.  For example, although Fawcett claimed to have found some ruins near the source of a river that he had mapped, he apparently had no physical evidence for his claim and he never actually returned to that location.  His expeditions were relatively amateurish affairs with insufficient supplies and planning. It is probable that in his last expedition they lost most of their belongings in a river accident, they were all ill and did not have any gifts with which to placate the hostile Indians.  At the end of the movie a compass is given to the Chairman of the RGS as an indication that Fawcett was still alive. However this item was actually found many years later in the custody of an Indian Chief. Finally, there is a statement at the end that tries to exonerate Fawcett by claiming that a network of an advanced civilization has been found in the Amazon jungle, but this claim is unsubstantiated.



Populism and its Dangers

Dr. Norman Bailey, currently professor at Haifa University and former National Security adviser to both Presidents Reagan and Bush, spoke on the subject “Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and the Others, ” with the sub-title “contemporary populism and how it differs from its predecessors.”   He gave a professional and informative lecture and this is my attempt at a brief summary.

He pointed out that “populism,” the development of popular political movements, is not a new thing by any means.  It was known among the ancient Greeks, and indeed “democracy” as it was then known was described by Aristotle as akin to “mob-rule.”  He preferred rule by a few benign wise men.  However, that does not tend to happen.  The populist movements of the twentieth century have generally been disastrous, namely Fascism, Nazism, Socialism and Communism.  In each case these were motivated not only by envy, greed and power, but by ideology.  There was ideology of the left and of the right.

In the current political situation one can define Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland as populists of the right.  They have largely been propelled into prominence by the nationalistic reaction against the EU and the immigration issue. Populists of the left include Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Note that Sanders was not actually a member of the Democratic Party, he was elected Senator as an independent, yet he almost achieved the Democratic Party nomination because of a populist movement, except for the nefarious (and documented) cheating by Hillary Clinton’s Party machine.  In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn would have remained a nonentity if it were not for the disastrous decision by PM Theresa May to call a pre-Brexit election, that propelled Corbyn into an unassailable leadership role in the Labour Party due to a populist movement.

But, one difference between these current and past leaders of ideological movements and the current situation is that now we have non-ideological populism of the center.   For example, Donald Trump, who is not a conservative and was not a leading Republican, yet managed to defeat all the other authentic Republicans. Why? Because he identified himself as not coming from Washington DC, as not having been part of the ruling oligarchy, as not being part of the Party hierarchy and espousing causes that appeal to the majority of working and middle class Americans.  It is an astounding fact that ca. 1% of the richest Americans own ca. 48% of the total US wealth. The tendency of this accumulation of wealth and power has been accelerating with time, and the other 99% of Americans feel this.  They are looking for a champion, someone who will right this wrong, someone who will represent them, and this makes a populist movement, without any clear ideology.

Similarly in France, President Macron was virtually unknown one year ago.  He left government, formed his own party and is now President with a majority in the National Assembly.   Macron and Trump just met in Paris on Bastille Day, and no wonder they get along and were slapping each other on the back and declaring eternal friendship since they are both leaders of non-ideological populist movements.

I pointed out that there is a kind of contradiction in the secular West, the idea of democracy is almost a sacred belief.  Yet, when countries in Europe first achieved emancipation they lapsed into extreme populist movements that resulted in Nazism and Communism.  As Bertrand Russell said “beware of the ideologues.”   Yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill “democracy is not a perfect system, but its the best one we have.”




My friend Barry Shaw, who has made a name for himself as an anti-BDS campaigner and author, has written a book entitled simply “1917: From Palestine to the Land of Israel.” He launched this book at the AACI Netanya, and described the story of that crucial year in the Holy Land, focussing on the characters that played a pivotal role in the historic events exactly 100 years ago.  Modestly I contributed to the realization of this book by helping him with the computer formatting and I designed the cover of the book.   

The people involved in what he describes as “the extraordinary early struggles of Jewish and Christian heroes to establish the State of Israel” represent a great cast of characters: Aaron Aaronsohn, a world-renowned agronomist, who established a research station on the coast at Givat Olga and also headed a spy ring known as the Nili that gave valuable information about the Turks to the British; Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby, C-in-C of British Forces in the Middle East, who apparently  followed Aaronsohn’s advice to attack Beersheba instead of Gaza again; Richard Meinertzhagen, a British intelligence Officer and a spy, who apparently managed to trick the Turks into thinking the next attack would come at Gaza instead of Beersheba;  Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor, the Zionist leaders who persuaded the British to form the first Jewish armed force in 3,000 years; Then there are of course, Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionists and Arthur Balfour the British FM who formulated the famous eponymous Declaration.  And the heroine, Sarah Aaronsohn, Aaron’s sister, who ran the spy ring in his absence and when captured by the Turks and tortured, managed to commit suicide with a hidden gun.  What a great and true story!

I happened recently to see again the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” on TV.  Also a great story.  And Lawrence and Meinertzhagen played roles in the story of Israel’s birth since Lawrence was the representative of the Arabs and Meinertzhagen of the Zionists at the Versailles Conference after WWI.  But, frankly the battle of Beersheba was a much more important and pivotal battle than that at Aqaba, yet it is hardly known about.  It is known to the Australians and New Zealanders whose Light Horse Infantry crossed the desert (using Aaronsohn’s maps) to attack and capture Beersheba from the Turks (this last mounted charge is reenacted every October by a cadre of Australians).  Being outflanked, the Turks withdrew up the coast and that allowed Allenby to capture Jerusalem in 1917, the first British victory of WWI. 

Although the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” is justifiably famous, there is a movie about the Battle of Beersheba entitled “The Lighthorsemen,” a 1987 Australian production that is essentially unknown.  When one compares the story of Lawrence to that of the Aaronsohns and Meinertzhagen, one wonders why one story was made famous and the other not.  Wouldn’t it be great if a truly talented director like Steven Spielberg took this story and made an epic movie out of it.  The characters, the spying, the struggles, the battles, it’s a great story waiting for an equally great script writer and director.  If anyone reading this knows Steven Spielberg, please tell him!

Assad kills his own people

It is customary to write incredulously about Assad that “he kills his own people,” meaning Syrians. That is surprising to westerners, but to someone familiar with the Middle East it is expected. Why, because they are not “his people,” they are Sunnis, while Assad is an Alawite.  The Alawite are an ethnic-religious minority (about 12%) in Syria, who are considered heretics by the mainstream Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority of Syrians. The Alawites are considered akin to the Shia as far as the Sunni are concerned. Their center is the north-west of Syria around Latakia.  In the Middle East adherence to clan and tribe takes precedence over national affiliation.  
When Syria was founded the Sunni were of course in control and the Alawites were excluded from most roles, except the armed forces.  Big mistake, they grew powerful within the Army and then the Head of the Air Force Gen. Hafez Assad staged a coup and took over from the Sunni.  From outside it may have seemed like the take-over by a progressive Ba’ath Party which was both secular and nationalist, but from within it was seen to be the take-over of Syria by the Alawites.  Since then they have fought the Sunni at every turn to retain their dictatorial control.  In a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982, Hafez Assad bombarded the town of Hama and killed ca. 30,000 Syrians.  No matter, they were Sunnis.  The Alawites know that if the Sunni ever take over power from them there will be a blood-bath and it will be Alawite blood that flows.  So in order to prevent that they are prepared to kill “their own people,” all Syrians who are Sunnis, even with chemical weapons, and this includes both IS and the democratic opposition. As far as the Alawites are concerned they are all “terrorists.”
This phenomenon exists throughout the Middle East.  The nation states that exist are really the invention of the western powers, Britain and France, after WWI.  Iraq should really be three states, Shia, in the south, Sunni in the center and west and Kurdish in the north.  Likewise Syria is a quilt of Alawite, Sunni, Kurd and other minorities.  Maybe the whole Middle East would be better served by redefining states according to their ethnic/religious make-up than pretending that such states as Syria and Iraq can actually cohere and become similar to the western tradition.  After all most European States are based on linguistic/ethnic tribes, such as Germany, Hungary, Czechs, etc.  It took one hundred years for the Balkans and Russia to rearrange themselves into a patchwork of ethnic states.  The evolution of the Middle East is still very much in flux.


The movie “Denial” (released in 2016 and directed by Mike Jackson) is a dramatization of the book by Deborah E. Lipstadt, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” about the trial in 1996 when the American Jewish Holocaust scholar was sued by David Irving.  Both Irving and Lipstadt had written books about WWII, but while Irving was a prominent British Holocausr denier, Lipstadt had written a book entitled “Denying the Holocaust” in 1993 that specifically mentioned Irving.  As shown in the movie, Irving deliberately confronted Lipstadt, but she refused to debate him.  Subsequently, he brought a case for libel against Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books in England, where the laws are such that the defendant has the obligation to prove that the statements that are supposedly libellous are indeed true.

This is an excellent movie, that has both feeling and intellectual rigor and was voted by BAFTA the best British movie of 2016.  The acting by Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall is superb.  Two important points are brought out by the movie: 1. David Irving was a self-taught pro-German writer who sought to be recognized as a legitimate historian.  He chose to sue Lipstadt because she was a Jewish woman, and therefore supposedly an easy target, and because he wanted to simultaneously portray himself as the victim of libel fighting against the rich Jewish establishment, that he claimed uses the Holocaust for political and financial gain. 2. The British legal defense team chose not to put the Holocaust itself on trial, but rather confront Irving in court with a litany of racist and anti-Semitic remarks and deliberate historical distortions that he was peddling as authentic history.  In doing so they put Irving on the defensive and ultimately proved their point by winning the case in  court.

One of the themes of the movie is the question of whether or not Holocaust survivors, who experienced and witnessed the crimes of the Holocaust, should be called as witnesses. Although Lipstadt wanted to do this, the defense team ruled it out.  They argued that for all their personal experiences, after so many years and with such an emotional trauma, these witnesses could be readily undermined by Irving, who was representing himself. Their approach was rather to put the onus on Irving himself to prove that his specific statements about the Holocaust were correct.  As Lipstadt comes to admit, their strategy was correct and it gave Irving little ability to “grandstand” and to drag the whole issue of the Holocaust into dispute.

Do we still question whether or not the earth is flat or round?  Do we discuss if WWII actually happened?  Do we argue that Elvis is still alive?  Those who deny the Holocaust are not merely passive anti-establishment figures, but have an agenda, that is both anti-Semitic and political.  They seek to denigrate the Jews and to support far right-wing causes In opposing them this movie documents a highlight in the fight for truth.

Philosophy 101

When I moved to Israel in 1996 I went to work at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer as the Chief Scientist.  One day I received a call from Personnel telling me that they could not officially register me or pay me because my degrees had not been approved by the Ministry of Education.  They told me that I had to go to the nearest office in Ramat Gan  with the originals of my degree certificates for them to check.  So I did this, I took my degree certificates in and they notarised copies of them and told me they would contact me.

Several weeks later, I received a call from the Ministry of Education in Jerusalem and I was told that they could not register me as a chemist because my PhD degree certificate from Cambridge University did not say Chemistry on it, it only said that I was a Doctor of Philosophy.  So I explained that all PhD’s received the same certificate in all subjects.  So she said, without the transcripts of my courses they could not register me as a chemist, but they could register me as a philosopher.  So I quickly asked her to hold on, while I called the Personnel dept at Sheba on another line and asked them if they cared what subject I was registered for as long as it was accepted by the Ministry, and they said “no.”  So I told the Ministry to go ahead.  So I am registered to teach Philosophy in Israel.

On the basis of this I have decided for the first time to take advantage my status to dabble in philosophy.  There is a well-known adage “if you are not a socialist when you are young, you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative when you are old, you have no brain.” Most young people are idealists, maybe because they have little experience of the real world. It is a fact of life, borne out by many examples, that violent revolutions that do away with the “establishment” only produce a less tolerant, more repressive society, with the former revolutionaries forming an even more conservative and brutal elite.  Examples are the German Nazi Revolution, the Russian Communist revolution, the French Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, and so on.

I remember reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s description of the repression under Czar Nicholas and then that of Stalin.  Whereas one innocent man was imprisoned in a cell in the Lubyanka prison under the Czar, 100 were imprisoned in the same cell and murdered by Stalin.  The same kind of repression happened after the French revolution (remember the guillotine, a modern efficient means of removing enemies of the revolution) that ended with the dictatorship of Napoleon.  In Iran, the repression of the Shah was replaced by the far more brutal and extensive repression under Khomeini. In Cuba, the repression of dictator Batista was replaced by the far more repressive regime of Fidel Castro.  So the lesson is that to improve society there must be slow and stepwise evolution to avoid unnecessary civilian bloodshed and greater repression.

But, we should distinguish between internal social revolutions and anti-imperial uprisings against foreign domination that leads to local freedom, such as the American War of Independence, the Irish “troubles,” the fights for Indian and Israeli independence, all against Imperial Britain, as well as the Algerian war against France, and so on. Confusing these two types of conflict lead many to draw incorrect conclusions.