By Hasan Suroor
An event meant to foster a spirit of unity and brotherhood among Muslims has descended into an embarrassing spectacle, feeding on the divisions within the Islamic world
“Is nothing sacred anymore?” was the title of a 1980s famous rock album lamenting a love gone sour. But, today, many are asking the same question as last week’s Hajj stampede, in which more than 1,000 pilgrims died while performing one of the most sacred Islamic rituals, is being dragged into a bitter political row between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with both accusing each other of “politicising” a grave tragedy.
The increasingly shrill war of words, with bizarre conspiracy theories floating around on both sides, is not just embarrassing but an insult to the memory of the dead and their grieving relatives, including those of the 45 Indian victims.
Iran, which lost 155 of its citizens, has blamed the incident on Saudi “mismanagement and negligence”, with an angry Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally leading calls for an apology. He wants Muslim countries to hold Riyadh accountable for the deaths.
“Instead of blaming this and that, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologise to the Muslims and the victims’ families,” he said in a statement posted on his official website.
“The Islamic world has a lot of questions. The death of more than 1,000 people is not a small issue. Muslim countries should focus on this,” he said, warning that “this issue will not be forgotten and the nations will pursue it seriously.”
Saudis have retaliated by accusing Iranian pilgrims of “misbehaviour”, and the government in Tehran of “arrogance”. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir charged that Iran was exploiting the tragedy, and “playing politics”.
“This is not a situation with which to play politics. I would hope that the Iranian leaders would be more sensible and more thoughtful with regards to those who perished in this tragedy and wait until we see the results of the investigation,” he said.
The media in the two countries have loyally thrown their weight behind their respective governments. A cartoon in Iran’s Tasnim news agency showed King Salman of Saudi Arabia as a camel trampling pilgrims. Reports in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat meanwhile have accused Iranian pilgrims of triggering the stampede, claiming that a group of 300 Iranians set off to perform a ritual ahead of their assigned schedule, leading to a collision with other pilgrims.
In a conspiratorial mood reminiscent of post-9/11 attacks (“Americans did it themselves”) Sunni and Shia grapevines are buzzing with dark hints, suggesting that the incident was staged by the “other” side to defame its rivals. Saudi officials have reportedly claimed that Iranian pilgrims raised “Shia slogans” to incite sectarian hatred. They have also alleged an “Iranian conspiracy” to vilify the kingdom.
A friend, speaking from Toronto, told me that he heard an Imam of a local Sunni mosque, saying in an address after Eid prayers, that Tehran did it to malign Saudi Arabia with which it is locked in a battle for supremacy in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The row looks set to get uglier as Iranians demand a “de-Saudisation” of the holy sites and the Hajj.
“There is a strong case for a more representative mechanism to manage the Hajj to give a sense of participation to Muslims around the world.”
It is distressing to see a human tragedy of such proportions, which should have united the global umma (community of the faithful), being mined for scoring political points by rival Shia and Sunni powers in their quest for regional dominance. This includes controlling — Mecca and Medina, and conducting the Hajj. There are no limits, it would appear, to the toxic sectarian divide which is already tearing the Muslim world apart, and has turned the region into a vast killing field.
Iran has historically resented the House of Saud’s unilateral “annexation” of the holy sites by designating itself as “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, and treating them as its personal fiefdom. And the Hajj has frequently been a source of tension. The divide has deepened since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, with Tehran stepping up its campaign for greater influence in the region. In 1987, some 300 Iranians pilgrims were among the more than 400 people killed in a stampede, triggered by clashes between Iranians and Saudi security personnel.
Iran is actively campaigning for an international Islamic body to oversee the management of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina during the Hajj. It has said it would pursue the issue in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Notwithstanding Iran’s motives, there is a strong case for a more representative mechanism to give a sense of participation to Muslims from around the world, irrespective of the sect to which they belong. Islam takes pride in being just more than a religion; but a global brotherhood bound by a unique sense of belonging to a common faith.
Ending the monopoly
What can then be more appropriate than making sure that the management of Islam’s most important event is not monopolised by any one sect even if it has numbers on its side? Lest questions are raised about my own sectional affinity, I must declare at this point that I’m a Sunni, but I don’t subscribe to the idea of Sunnis appointing themselves as custodians of Islam because they are in majority.
There is, however, another important issue: the Saudis, for all the money spent on organising the biggest show on earth, have not been great managers. Ask anyone who has been on a Hajj — Sunni or Shia — and they will have stories about poor crowd management, inadequate facilities, and police “high-handedness”. The Saudi government says it has spent more than $100 billion to improve facilities but its logistics management on the ground remains inadequate — and frequently fails to rise to the challenge of dealing with the rising number of pilgrims, which this year exceeded two million.
Also, as Rashmee Lall, a commentator, pointed out on her blog, the “relatively confined pilgrimage sites are pretty much the same as they always were’’ while the number of pilgrims has grown phenomenally. The valley at Mina, where the stoning of the devil takes place, she wrote, was “just 1.9 miles by 1.9 miles’’ making it a potential trap in the event of a stampede. Saudis have blamed “undisciplined” pilgrims, with one senior official pointing the finger at people of “African nationalities”, prompting accusations of racism.
What a pity that an event meant to foster spirit of unity and brotherhood among Muslims has descended into an embarrassing spectacle feeding on the deep divisions within the Islamic world, and further exacerbating the existential crisis facing Islam. And, all thanks, to its own self-styled gatekeepers.
Hasan Suroor is a London-based commentator and writer.