Who is politicising the Hajj?

Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan reflects on the most politicised Hajj in living memory.

It has always been considered inappropriate to “politicize” the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, which every Muslim of whatever persuasion or denomination is meant to perform once in their lifetime if they can afford it. Neither the host-state Saudi Arabia nor the countries that send their pilgrims to it – in accordance with a quota system operated by the Saudis – are supposed to allow political considerations to influence their behavior at the centuries-old ritual.

But this year’s Hajj, which culminated on Monday, has been the most politicized in decades.

Iran decided to boycott it in protest at the way the Saudis handled last year’s event when over 450 Iranian pilgrims were trampled to death in a crowd-crush at one of the pilgrimage sites. The Iranians accused Saudi authorities of incompetence, negligence and lack of transparency about the incident and much else – including deliberate neglect of wounded victims. Obviously, Iran’s disputes with Saudi Arabia over a whole host of issues and regional conflicts influenced this decision.

Last year's disastrous Hajj stampede
Last year’s disastrous Hajj stampede

Many Syrians, meanwhile, were excluded from this year’s Hajj because – in a break with previous practice – the Saudi authorities do not recognize the ruling regime in Syria. They therefore allocated to the Syrian opposition – or rather the segment of the opposition sponsored by them – the task of filling the Syrian pilgrim quota.

In Yemen, which has been targeted by a Saudi-led campaign of aerial bombardment for the past year and a half, the Ansarallah movement, known as the Houthis, accused the Saudi authorities of barring access to thousands of Yemeni would-be pilgrims, and of abusing, insulting, detaining, humiliating and threatening others who were bused to authorized border-crossings.

In Lebanon, the Hezbollah movement instructed its members and supporters not to perform hajj this year. This was in keeping with the Iranian position – to which Hezbollah is ideologically committed – but also out of concern that actual or suspected followers could be harassed or worse by Saudi security forces given the kingdom’s virulent hostility to the movement.

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The region-wide conflict between Saudi-led and Iranian-led camps is clearly having an impact on the current hajj, and will probably continue doing so in years to come.

Saudi Arabia’s adversaries

Commentators in the Saudi-controlled Arab media, who function as unofficial spokespersons, have been accusing the kingdom’s adversaries of politicizing this year’s hajj. At the same time, they have expressed relief at the absence of pilgrims from countries that are politically at odds with Saudi Arabia – Iranians, Yemenis, Syrians, Iraqis and others – arguing that they would have included trouble-makers who would have disrupted the serenity of the ritual.

They are mistaken on both counts.

The “politicization” of this year’s Hajj is, above all, a by-product of Saudi Arabia’s direct or by-proxy military interventions in other countries in the region – from Iraq and Libya to Syria and Yemen – and its restrictions on access to pilgrims from these countries and to political figures who disagree with its policies.

The exclusion or self-exclusion of pilgrims from Iran, Yemen, Syria and Iraq (countries whose governments are politically at odds with Saudi Arabia’s) makes the kingdom vulnerable to accusations that it is politically biased in its administration of the Hajj. This only reinforces Iranian claims that it is not qualified to be the custodian of holy sites that are supposed to be accessible to all Muslims on an equal footing, and that it should cede supervision of them to some pan-Islamic body.

True, Iranians living outside Iran have been granted pilgrimage visas, as have Yemeni supporters of the Saudi-backed president-in-exile. But that only reinforces the impression of politicization.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds
Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds

Most seriously, the majority of this year’s absent pilgrims belong to denominations of the Shia branch of Islam, turning the hajj into a predominantly Sunni affair. It would be calamitous for the Islamic faith if the impression were to be created of sectarian discrimination or division in the running of the hajj. It is most unfortunate that the chief mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdelaziz Al ash-Sheikh, chose this moment in particular to decree that Iranians and Shia in general are non-believers – even if his ruling was later dismissed as some kind of slip-of-the-tongue.

It is understandable that the Saudi security forces apply stringent measures during the Hajj to control the massive crowds and maintain order. The task of managing such a huge influx of people is by no means easy. But this cannot be an excuse for jeopardizing their safety. Over the years, official negligence or mismanagement has resulted in the deaths of thousands of pilgrims.

The Saudi authorities would doubtless fight to the death rather than cede their sovereign control over the holy places. Any other country in their position would do the same. But the world’s Muslims are entitled to demand more effective and competent management of the ritual in order to ensure that pilgrims are well-treated and safe. After all, they pay their own way.

The Saudi treasury earns billions of dollars annually from the pilgrimage and out-of-season Umra visits to the holy sites. This should surely be something to be welcomed at a time when the kingdom is supposed to be trying to diversify its sources of national income away from oil – “religious tourism” having been identified as one of the most promising earners.

Above all, Muslims need to know that, so long as they abide by the rules, they are entitled to have access to the holy places regardless of what sect they belong to or what country they come from.

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