By Dr Mohammad Taqi
October 15, 2015
The controversy over the largest death toll in the modern history of hajj is not over yet. The Saudi Arabian government has drawn unprecedented criticism for its management of the hajj with calls for not just overhauling how the pilgrimage is managed but also who should do it. The calls have ranged from asking the Saudis to oversee the Hajj in a more consultative manner to outright demands for creating a protectorate consisting of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, independent of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The former head of Saudi intelligence and once the Kingdom’s ambassador to the US, Prince Turki al-Faisal, finally weighed in saying in an interview with the Associated Press (AP) last week, “Oversight of these holy places and the hajj is a matter of sovereignty and privilege and service.” The influential Saudi prince has a point.
Calling for a “Vatican-like” protectorate is as fashionable as it is impractical and does not factor in how jealously the Saudis guard their sovereignty. Indeed, why would an established regime give up its control over the cities that bring it tremendous prestige, legitimacy and revenue? And in the unimaginable instance that the Saudis do give up their control over Mecca, who is to say that the next demand will not be the resort town of Taif next door? The Islamic Republic of Iran, hundreds of whose citizens perished in the stampede, has been most vocal about the Saudi control of hajj. One doubts, however, that Iran would give up control over the shrines under its sovereignty if the shoe were on the other foot. While the criticism of the Saudi handling of hajj is justified, using it as a pretext to call for regime change opens not just another can of worms but takes away from the legitimate focus on the cultural, religious and organisational mess that the Saudis have made out of the pilgrimage and related activities. For example, the same AP that carried Prince Turki al-Faisal’s interview also reported shortly before it that “the new tally in the Saudi hajj disaster shows at least 1,399 killed”. The politics over pilgrimage seem to be burying the perils of pilgrimage instead of actually highlighting and mitigating them.
Unlike most mega-crowded events elsewhere in the world, the hajj is unique in that it is a series of elaborate time and space-sensitive rituals in which hundreds of thousands have to converge at a handful of spots in rapid succession, making crowd control a nightmarish scenario. It is quite an experience to see the completely deserted Mina off-season and then observe a sea of humanity pushing, shoving and literally stepping over each other during hajj to get to the Jamarat (the site to symbolically stone Satan). People are camped out not just in makeshift accommodations but also on streets, in parked vehicles or even under them. It really is a temporary migration of millions and not enough facilities to support them. Whatever its spiritual aspects, Hajj is certainly a physically arduous journey with people dead tired from days of travel, lack of sleep and proper hydration in many cases and the scorching sun taking its toll too. The bottlenecks around the Jamarat, despite the massive remodelling done since 2006, are well-known. My own experience is that the Saudi officials often stop large crowds for hours on end when approaching the Jamarat. Whatever the reason for the stoppage, it really is suffocating to stand so tightly packed that one can hardly move an arm, in the sweltering heat, especially if one runs out of water. People getting desperate, losing their temper and ready to run others over is not merely a possibility, it actually does happen. Other areas where disaster is waiting to strike, God forbid, are the Sa’ee area inside the Kaaba Grand Mosque, the Jamarat escalators and the Arafat-Muzdalifa-Mina monorail with its perilous pedestrian ramps, double shutdown entrances and the sheer numbers getting packed in the railcars like sardines. The Kaaba mosque complex itself has no well-marked, functional fire or emergency exits. If there are any disaster protocols, ordinary pilgrims neither know about them nor follow them simply due to the staggering numbers. Unless both safety measures are cranked up and the number of pilgrims drastically reduced, current Saudi infrastructure does put thousands of lives in mortal danger.
The Saudis do not, however, appear keen on curtailing the number of pilgrims as it simply means boatloads of foreign exchange, especially at a time when the oil prices are at their lowest in a decade. In fact, the Kaaba grand mosque complex expansion underway is supposed to accommodate two million people at a time. That would mean a hazardously higher number of people through the aforementioned chokepoints, making future disasters a matter of statistical probability. And then, of course, all this expansion comes at the cost of Mecca’s rich cultural and religious heritage, which has been displaced by a five-star hotel/shopping mall/clock tower standing over the Ottoman-era Ajyad Fort, a four-star hotel over the house of the first caliph of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA), and, appallingly, a set of toilets over the house of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) first wife, Hazrat Khadija (RA). Ziauddin Sardar’s 2014 monumental work Mecca: The Sacred City, which merits a formal review, chronicles these travesties and some but one really has to see it to believe it. That the Saudis had captured Mecca and Medina in bloody campaigns is as lawful or unlawful as any other conquest in the world but the cultural purge they have carried out since is simply appalling. The irony could not have been greater when Prince Turki al-Faisal said in the same interview, “The people of Mecca are the ones who know best the territory of Mecca and you cannot take that away from the people of Mecca”. The prince’s Nejadi clan has decimated the Hejazi people and heritage of Mecca over the past century and while one certainly hopes that he will follow through on his word the Saudis clearly are digging in.
In the face of mounting criticism, the Saudi clergy calling the Mina carnage an act of God, their Hajj officials blaming it on “some pilgrims fof African nationalities” and putting the number of dead at only 769, indicates that they are not about to change the safety culture in and around the holy places, which are supposed to be a sanctuary for one and all. The Kingdom is not exactly known for transparency and, sensing both real and trumped-up turmoil, has gone into an external and internal denial mode, which is exponentially more dangerous. It would still perhaps be more helpful to engage the Saudis over the perils of pilgrimage rather than getting bogged down in politics over it.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki