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  • The Siege of Mecca
  • Reem A. Meshal (bio)
Documentary, 2018¸ 74 Minutes, Directed by Dirk Van Den Berg, Produced by Dirk Van Den Berg and Pascal Verroust

On November 20, 1979, the world watched as the largest hostage crisis in history unfolded on the hallowed grounds of the Haram sanctuary in Mecca. With an estimated 100,000 pilgrims trapped inside the complex, the armed siege of Mecca, launched by Juhayman al-Otaybi and his followers, was also one of the more serious threats to the reign of the Saudi ruling dynasty and to the global economic order. To date, it remains one of the least understood episodes in Saudi Arabian and modern history of Islam. For this reason, The Siege of Mecca sheds welcome light on the subject, providing expert interviews and eye-witness accounts of the incident, including those of al-Otaybi's former followers and those sympathetic to his movement.

The documentary does an adequate job of painting the political scene, exposing viewers to the facts surrounding the movement's ascent and its sudden, unanticipated armed occupation of Islam's holiest shrine, the Haram al-Sharif of Mecca. It attempts to provide a spectrum of views that seek to explain, contextualize and flesh out the long-term implications of this violent episode, particularly for the House of Saud, and more generally for the world at large, as events threatened to "push the global balance of power to collapse." Towards this end, the film visits the village of Mondassa—appropriately translated as "hidden"—a remote cluster of homes approximately 25 km outside of Mecca, from where, we are told, the attack was organized and launched. Further coloring the landscape, the film attempts to provide a [End Page 105] profile of the recruits, their motivations, and end-goals for joining. It also seeks to provide the viewer a wider, geo-political perspective on the impact of the events as seen through the eyes of various experts and eyewitnesses.

Despite all of these positives, the documentary does not go beyond the official narrative. For example, the majority of the interviewees (eight out of ten) represent military and political establishment figures. Only two academics are featured: Madawi Rasheed, a historian of the Middle East and herself a descendant of one of the largest traditional rivals of the House of Saud, the al-Rasheed tribe, stands with Pascal Menoret, an archaeologist and historian. Together they provide a semblance of scholarly perspective on the movement's origins, the political context in which it operated and its aftermath. The rest of the interviewees, with the exception of the very short appearance of Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi—the main spiritual father of the radical ideology known as Salafi-jihadism, to which terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) subscribe—are largely representative of the military, intelligence, and diplomatic core of the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. And it is this group that provides the overwhelming commentary.

Not surprisingly therefore, we are treated to an official Saudi historiography of events and a slew of Western concerns on geo-political stability and the American or French interests at stake. Both Saudi and U.S. officials speak with a blithe disregard—which the camera brilliantly did not conceal—for the obvious links between Saudi Arabia's own revivalist interpretation of Islam and al-Otaybi's movement. Wahhabism, the official creed of Saudi Arabia and the religious ideology on which it was founded, is at the center of Islamist revivalist movements in the modern age. Its disregard for Islamic intellectual history, and its takfiri ideology (declaring those deemed "bad" Muslims as non-believers) seeking to cleanse Muslim societies of sinful innovations, is eerily reminiscent of the stated goals of al-Otaybi's own radical brand of faith.

The topic of Islamic resurgence movements is complex, and a film on the subject requires a modicum of knowledge regarding such movements, their role in the making of the Saudi state and in shaping the modern Islamic discourse. Such knowledge appears to evade the filmmakers, and perhaps the reason why their research team relied extensively on Yaroslav Trofimov's book The Siege of...


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pp. 105-109
Launched on MUSE
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