The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country. It is home to the fundamentalist sect called the Wahhabis. The Wahhabis follow a very strict interpretation of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Non-Muslims are considered infidels and have no standing or rights in the Kingdom where everyone is subject to Islamic law. But not all Saudis are fundamentalists and the ruling family allows some deviation from traditional Islam. This has caused severe civil unrest in the Kingdom.
To placate the fundamentalists, Islamic law is allowed to be enforced by religious police. In a very westernized neighborhood in Riyadh, religious police patrol the aisles of supermarkets such as A&P and Safeway looking for unmarried couples shopping together. When found they are threatened with three days in jail and 80 lashes. Men are targeted if they wear shorts or too much jewelry and women always have to have their heads, arms and legs covered. Women can’t drive and have limited access to education and work.
This was the situation in the Kingdom on August 2, 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. With Kuwait falling in just hours, the House of Saud feared that Iraq’s million man army would keep marching south over the border and take control of the Kingdom’s oil fields.
Our Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia and met with the King to offer military support from the United States. There was a heated debate amongst the Princes and the Ministers in the Kingdom about allowing so many American soldiers on holy soil. Why couldn’t the Saudi military defend the country?
Unknown to Cheney and his team, Osama Bin Laden had met with the senior princes only a few days earlier. He had offered his mujahideen army, fresh from a decade of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, to be stationed along the Kuwait-Saudi border to protect the kingdom from the Iraqis. Bin Laden’s argument was that no Muslim army would attack the holy warriors of Afghanistan. In view of what had just happened in Kuwait, the King did not agree and accepted the offer of the United States. This did not please the fundamentalists at all.
To Osama Bin Laden the Koran prohibited the entrance of an infidel force such as the Americans on holy ground. It was also very humiliating in light of the tens of billions of dollars that had been spent by the ruling family on building up the Saudi military that was not even given a chance to do what they had been trained for.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers and support personnel arrived in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. military imposed strict rules to ease some of the tension. They required all female personnel to wear black head-to- foot abayas when leaving the base and they always had to be accompanied by a man. But their presence was easily noticed. Thousands of troops were able to roam major Saudi cities while on leave in mixed sex groups. A western radio station was set up that could be heard all over the Kingdom. To the fundamentalist this looked like an occupation and the most serious threat the Wahhabis have ever faced.
To some degree they were right. In 1991 after liberating Kuwait the U.S. troops didn’t leave. To the fundamentalists their worst fears had come true. An army of Infidels had taken up permanent residence in the Holy Kingdom. These troops would stay in Saudi Arabia for 13 years until Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Bin Laden’s response to the perceived occupation was to attack the alleged invaders. We paid a heavy price for the rift between the ruling family and the fundamentalists. We grossly underestimated the impact of our presence in their Kingdom. Their reaction actually was not much different than that of the Church during the crusades. The presence of infidels in the holy land has frequently been used as an excuse to go to war.
So why do Islamic fundamentalists hate us? To a large degree it is because our military presence on their soil violates their beliefs.
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at: email@example.com