Accommodating the Infidel
“Feed the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Allah, saying: We feed you, for the sake of Allah only, for we wish for no reward nor thanks from you.”—Qur’an, 76:8
Clashes with infidels has long been part of Arab history since the 6th century. Relations were not improved by El Cid, several brutal crusades and the fall of Constantinople to Seljuk Turks in 1454. But only in the latter part of the 20th century had substantial numbers of muslims made their homes in the West—Turks moving to Germany; Algerians to France, Pakistanis to Britain, and so on. Here, opposing cultures were seldom separated as in Arabia. Most integrated peacefully, but a minority resented domination by infidel. Saudi Arabia, true to its origins, supported Wahabi missions outside Arabia. They were religious centres, not terrorist cells. But they were catalysts in bringing younger, more radical muslims together.
While the Saudis stood aloof from efforts towards pan-Arab unions (such as Nasser’s UAR with Syria in the 1950’s), young Saudis, not needing to focus on making a living, looked for places to express their passion for their religion in a world they saw as increasingly dominated by infidels.
This came to a head when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and were soon embroiled in dealing with a fierce and unconventional resistance to the puppet republic they had set up. The Mujahideen proved to be doughty and creative guerrillas, adept at using terrain to raid and harass conventional forces, whom modern weaponry proved ineffectual.
The Pentagon crowed how the Russians had “found their Vietnam” but clearly took no lessons from it, as they made the same mistakes themselves twenty years later. Among those doughty Mujahadeen were a number of volunteers from other muslim countries, like neighbouring Pakistan. But the largest contingent came from Saudi Arabia, one of whose leaders came from the Saudi royal family: Osama Bin Laden.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians withdrew in 1989, they left thousands of fighters experienced in unconventional warfare with their tails up. Almost immediately, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and looked like he was poised to take the Saudi oilfields next. Bin Laden offered King Fahd the services of his trained, tough fighters, but was rejected in favour of George Bush’s intervention of Operation Desert Shield. For over six months, a massive build-up of US and allied forces flooded Saudi Arabia with Western soldiers and technicians, may of them female and none sensitive to how they were treading on the cultural toes of orthodox muslims.
While this temporary inundation was bad enough, 1991’s successful execution of the subsequent Desert Storm only cleared Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Substantial US forces remained as security during the 1990s. This was with Saudi approval but sat badly with Wahabi clerics, the young men who followed them and the tough guerrillas who had cut their teeth in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Several bloody attacks on training camps and US military facilities resulted. These were largely swept under the carpet by both the US and Saudis as isolated incidents.
“The Taliban are good fighters and great negotiators.”—President Donald J. Trump, April 2020
(to be continued)