Most non-Muslims have difficulty understanding why they are not allowed to enter Mecca. Israeli journalist Gil Tamary certainly appears to have lacked understanding when he secretly entered the city after covering U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, causing a scandal with potentially important ramifications for Israel-Saudi relations.
The legal prohibition on non-Muslims visiting Mecca is based on a Koranic injunction (Surah 9, verse 28). Since Muslims believe that the Koran is the word of God, no human authority, whether religious or political, can change this ruling. Non-Muslims who enter Mecca are therefore defiling Islam’s most important holy place, as Tamary did.
To complicate matters, Islam has no pope-like central figure. So, even if the Saudis decided to table the issue for the time being, others—such as a “lone wolf” terrorist—perhaps opposed to the Saudi regime, could take up the charge to defend the honor of Islam. Indeed, throughout the history of Islam, individual Muslims and sects have interpreted the Koran as they chose, resulting in insurrections and assassinations that have often threatened Muslim regimes. This means that extremists might try to take revenge against Tamary personally.
Further complicating this picture, most of the Muslim world has a strong sense of honor and shame. Tamary, as well as the Saudi Muslim taxi driver who brought him to Mecca, shamed the Saudi government, which is responsible for protecting the sanctity of Mecca and Medina from such desecrations. Any Muslim who besmirches the honor of another person or group of people can often provoke blood feuds between two people, their families, their clans, their tribes and their religious sects that can last for generations. Muslims often brood for centuries until these slights have been avenged.
How does this manifest itself? One example can be found in Osama bin Laden’s post-9/11 speech. In that speech, he alluded to an event that had happened 80 years earlier. Since Americans tend not to have a sense of history, senior American government officials scrambled to find out what bin Laden meant. To those familiar with Muslim history, however, it was obvious what he was talking about. It was a reference to early 20th century Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk’s then newly-established secular Republic of Turkey, which abolished the Caliphate—that is, the leadership of the entire Sunni Muslim world.
The title “Caliph” was one of the many titles held by the Ottoman Sultan, and from a Sunni point of view, his most important one. Thus, Muslim extremists still revile Ataturk and his comrades, whom they claim were installed as Turkey’s leaders by the infidel West in order to destroy Islam. The 9/11 attack on important Western symbols of power—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as the unsuccessful targeting of the U.S. Capitol—were an act of revenge against the center of non-Muslim power, the United States, thus avenging the abolition of the Caliphate.
Furthermore, bin Laden’s choice of Sept. 11 to carry out the attack was of symbolic importance. On that date 318 years before, a Christian army at Vienna defeated the Ottoman Muslims, who were on a march to conquer all of Europe for Islam. From then on, Islam was in retreat. Over the ensuing centuries, non-Muslims recaptured almost all of southeastern Europe. The humiliation of this defeat had to be avenged, and the attacks on American symbols of power were that vengeance.
Again, this might sound absurd to us, but Muslim cultures understand the value of patience and know how to wait until they believe the appropriate opportunity has arrived to take revenge. We often dismiss and belittle this way of thinking as primitive, but it is how Muslim cultures understand the world. We ignore it at our peril.
Analyzing how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) handled Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia shows that the opportunity for revenge can often come more quickly. Back in October 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Thereafter, then-candidate Biden blamed MBS for the murder, even though no “smoking gun” was found that proved MBS responsible. The Saudi government denied his involvement, but MBS remained silent. However, as a product of his culture, he must have hoped the opportunity to avenge this insult would present itself, and he knew how to wait for it. It was wrong to interpret his silence as acquiescence.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia provided MBS with the perfect opportunity. Accordingly, the Saudis humiliated Biden in every possible way. Right from the beginning, the way Biden was greeted at Jeddah airport was a snub. The Saudis sent the provincial governor to meet him, instead of Biden’s protocol counterpart—King Salman. But since the king is infirm, MBS should have been the one to greet the president. To the Muslim world, that he didn’t could not have sent a clearer signal that he was getting back at Biden for having blamed MBS personally for Khashoggi’s murder.
Moreover, Biden’s primary goal was to convince the Saudis to increase oil production. The answer was a polite but emphatic no.
Finally, Biden wanted to take credit for the Saudi decision to open its airspace to Israeli planes. But the Saudis announced their decision before Biden reached Saudi Arabia, denying the president the opportunity to do so.
In the case of Gil Tamary’s visit to Mecca, we can see this same phenomenon at work. The Saudis have found and arrested the taxi driver who took Tamary to the holy city, even though the journalist did his best to blur the driver’s image in a video he filmed. Only God knows what will be the driver’s fate. Not only will he pay for his transgression, but he has brought enormous shame on his family. Moreover, if Tamary’s visit was such an unimportant incident, the Saudis would not have invested so many resources in order to find the driver. Thus far, the Saudis and MBS have been almost totally silent on this matter. But again, we should not misinterpret this as acquiescence.
What about Tamary himself? As mentioned above, Muslims often brood over humiliation and wait for a time when the object of their anger either is or looks weak. Then they strike.
As a result, Tamary and others who defame the honor of Islam should be worried. Those who offend Islam are vulnerable to revenge attacks that could occur at any time. Tamary now has a target on his back. Whenever a Muslim seeking to avenge the honor of Islam believes he has the opportunity to do so, violence could ensue.
Tamary is probably safe in Israel. But should he travel to Europe, he might not be so lucky. As it says in the Talmud, a moment of pleasure can ruin an entire life. Tamary clearly enjoyed himself in Mecca, but he might pay for that pleasure by having to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life.
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as an adviser on Islamic culture for 28 years in the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
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