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Is Saudi Arabia politicizing the hajj?

  • Published at 12:08 pm September 17th, 2018
The hajj is for all Muslims
The hajj is for all Muslims REUTERS

There should be no discrimination when it comes to the holy pilgrimage 


Baba Lokenath, the towering Hindu-Bengali saint, believed in the “universality of all great religions.” It is said that having attained enlightenment at the age of 90, he began travelling the world on foot, and made more than one pilgrimage to Makkah. 

The world has changed a lot since then -- now you need a passport and visa to pass through borders. And you must be a Muslim to enter the holy city of Makkah. There are also hajj quotas to every country allocated by the government of Saudi Arabia.  

Every year, the number of hajj pilgrims continues to increase. In 2018, over two million devotees gathered in Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage, comparing to over 56,000 in 1922. As the guardian of two holy places for Muslims -- Makkah and Medina, Saudi Arabia holds the sole authority to organize this pilgrimage -- the largest religious congregation in the world. 

On September 24, 2015, the deadliest disaster in the history of hajj occurred in Mina, about 3.2km from Makkah. It was a Thursday, after 9am, and the pilgrims were on their way to the place where they would throw pebbles at pillars called Jamarat -- the ritual which is known as the symbolic stoning of Satan. 

What followed was catastrophic: Two large groups of pilgrims collided at an intersection of two narrow streets. Under the searing Saudi sun, the temperature in the Mina Valley was 48 degrees Celsius. Within minutes, waves of immense pressure from the surging crowd of both sides left hundreds of people dead on the spot. 

While the Saudi’s official death toll of 769 still remains unchanged since the incident, the Associated Press agency reported at least 2,411 dead. Pilgrims from as many as 36 countries fell victims to this “crush and stampede,” and it emerged that 461 of the dead were from Iran alone.

The Lebanese daily al-Diyar first ran reports, saying that the disaster was caused as police closed roads to allow the crown prince and his convoy of 350 personnel to get through the area during his visit to King Salman’s palace. The Arabic language daily further reported that the Saudi officials ordered a news blackout on Salman’s presence in the area. The allegation, however, was strongly rejected by Saudi authority.  

In a PressTV video, one survivor said that the pilgrims were supposed to use three pathways -- only one was open. He added that people were dying, and the police were just staring, stoic and unresponsive. Another survivor said that he could see some Iranians who had lost their lives, and he heard the Saudi officers telling each other: “If they are Iranians, let them die.”  

Sunni Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran, is predominantly a Shia country, and had lost the most number of lives on that calamitous day. Thus, it was no surprise that Iran’s leaders strongly condemned the kingdom for mismanagement of the holy sites, and called on the Muslim polity to form an independent global body to oversee the hajj.

Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal dismissed the idea, saying Riyadh considered it “a matter of sovereignty and privilege.”

A few months after the hajj stampede incident, in January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric of its country who had denounced the royal family. This hugely deteriorated the Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations. In the following days, angry Iranian protestors set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and later, Iran accused the Saudis of bombing its embassy in Yemen.

As a result, Saudi Arabia made it impossible for Iranians to make the pilgrimage to Makkah, and in 2016 the Iranian authority stopped its citizens from making the annual hajj journey. This was not the first time -- from 1988 to 1990, Iran had banned its citizens from making the hajj to protest the death of Iranian pilgrims killed by Saudi riot police in 1987.

However, for a couple of years now, the small oil-rich nation of Qatar has been at odds with its neighbour Saudi Arabia. The kingdom desperately wants Al Jazeera -- the Doha-based and state-funded news broadcaster, shut down. 

Last year, the relationship soured so much between the two countries that Saudi Arabia and its allies United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, and imposed sanctions on Doha in June, including the closure of their airspace to Qatari airlines. The four Arab states accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorists, and of keeping a close connection with Shia-dominated Iran.

In 2018, Qataris were barred from performing the rituals of hajj. Though in August, Saudi Arabia announced to offer on-arrival hajj visas for Qatari nationals, not much initiative was taken from both sides to come to an amiable agreement.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim, at least once in their lifetime, is required to make the annual trip to Islam’s holy sites. In recent years, Muslims from different countries are raising their voice against Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian power in the management of hajj. 

The 2015 disaster in Mina, and the kingdom’s subsequent toxic behaviour shocked the international Muslim community. Should the supervision of the annual pilgrimage be internationalized? Is Saudi Arabia politicizing the hajj? Questions are being raised across the Islamic world. 

Rahad Abir is a writer.


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