Blaming the dead or reclaiming the hajj

Published 10.10.2015 00:00
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

Instead of rejecting its failure of building a system to ensure the safety of pilgrims during the hajj season, Riyadh must urgently remove the suspicions about its reliability with concrete examples

The latest tragedy during the hajj, which ended in the death of at least 769 pilgrims and the subsequent manner in which Saudi authorities have handled the situation raises questions about their suitability as custodians of the Islamic holy cities. There is no doubt that Riyadh gains much from presenting itself as the leader of all Muslims based on its control of Mecca and Medina, and the management of the largest annual gathering on the planet. One would imagine that a government that makes much play of its piety and its insistence on what it considers to be correct rituals would feel the sense of responsibility for administering the hajj. The capital and prestige that Riyadh accrues from hosting the hajj is paid for by the blood of pilgrims.

It is the case that the number of people going on the hajj has grown substantially. In the 1940s, 25,000 faithful went on the hajj, but according to Riyadh's own figures, the number passed 3 million in 2012. The figure has gone down since to an estimated 2 million. There is no doubt that even this figure is an immense logistical challenge when taking into account that it is made of pilgrims from 188 countries, old, young and disabled, speaking many languages and some traveling for the first time. Given the range of humanity that undertake the hajj you would imagine that the authorities who take so much pride in being its custodians would do as much as they could to ensure it is a safe experience. It is true that Riyadh has used billions of dollars on a showcase of projects around Mecca and Medina. But this systematic program of construction has been mainly directed at vanity projects to glorify the government and control the mass of pilgrims rather than to ensure their safety.

Riyadh's determination to write the name of the Saudi dynasty or their designs and color schemes on every piece of architecture in Mecca has been such that it is willing to bulldoze the houses of the Prophet Muhammad's relatives and companions in Mecca's oldest quarters. Where the home of the prophet's wife, Khadijah, once stood, you can now find a block of public lavatories, and other houses have been destroyed to create space for more and more hotels, and plans for an underground parking lot threaten the small library that stands to mark the site where the prophet was born. In addition, the expansion of the Great Mosque - with an investment of about $13 billion - has also involved the demolition of columns and vaults built 500 years ago. This flattening of history to be replaced with skyscrapers, seven-star luxury hotels and shopping malls goes beyond cultural vandalism. However, the destruction of historic sites in Mecca and Medina has not provoked the kind of outrage and global condemnation it deserves. Riyadh has been willing to erase hundreds of years of Islamic history in a vain effort to turn the holy cities into a vast and crass consumerist theme park. However, unlike many successful theme parks, the authorities are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the welfare and safety of its visitors.

The problem is not a lack of money, it runs deeper than that. Following the latest tragedy, the Saudi minister of the interior, instead of offering his resignation, blamed the pilgrims themselves, God and anybody but himself or the government he serves. This is not an isolated attitude. Again and again, one official after another dismissed the deaths of hundreds of people as "God's will." It is odd that God's will was not invoked when the Saudis went to the Americans to help them repel Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, nor was God's will invoked in when they invited French commandos to storm the Haram Sharif in 1979 after they lost control of the holy site. It appears that God's will is used to excuse the incompetence of the Riyadh regime as well as the deaths of people for whom that government shows nothing less than contempt.

The feeble crowd management and the policing of millions of people on the hajj, the lack of care or adequate health facilities, the inability of the over-zealous officials to communicate in any other language than Arabic, or in any other tone except that of authoritarianism, shows contempt not only for individual Muslims, but also for the very institution of the hajj.

The hajj is too important, too large and too diverse to be managed by a narrowly based government with no habit of accountability, transparency or even competence. It is necessary that Muslims all over the world claim the hajj as their own. What is needed is an international consortium of Muslim organizations, including Muslims with representative and responsive governments, to be established in order to manage and protect all Muslims performing the annual pilgrimage. Muslims deserve the running of the hajj to reflect the best of the "ummah," not the worst. An international consortium of Muslim organizations with multi-lingual skills and recognition of the diverse needs of pilgrims could uphold the commitment that the spiritual nature of this journey needs to be respected by officials and that pilgrims have to be honored rather than despised or treated like unruly cattle.

Riyadh has often outsourced many key functions to others. There is no reason that an international consortium of Muslim organizations, reflecting the rich tapestry of Islamic global civil society, could not be invited to run the hajj. Surely, the time is right for Muslims to demand that the hajj should not be hijacked and held hostage by the rulers in Riyadh. Rather than join the apparatchiks of Riyadh in blaming the dead, we Muslims need to reclaim the hajj.

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