Muslim pilgrims pray on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, outside Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Muslim pilgrims pray on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, outside Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Muslims circle the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Pictures: REUTERS/African News Agency (ANA)
Muslims circle the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Pictures: REUTERS/African News Agency (ANA)
OPINION - At the beginning of next week, around 2 million Muslims will begin the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Over five days, pilgrims from the far corners of the globe will complete a set of rituals that were once performed by Prophet Mohammed himself more than 1400 years ago.

For those who make the trip, from Iran and the Ivory Coast, to China and Turkey, completing it would mean satisfying one of the key obligations as a Muslim.

But journeying to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj is slowly becoming an ambivalent prospect for some Muslims. Saudi’s crimes in Yemen in particular, where a bombing campaign since 2015 has killed 10000 people, injured 40000 and left the poorest Arab country in tatters, has forced some Muslims to debate among themselves whether it’s time to boycott the kingdom, and the Hajj.

While the kingdom’s reputation as a misogynistic, racist, obnoxious, sectarian, and archaic state has never been in doubt, it has arguably never been this ugly.

Under the recent leadership of Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince (known as MBS), the kingdom’s desperation to keep the Middle East as a cesspool of authoritarianism and larger ambition to reign supreme over the so-called Muslim world, has also never been so vivid.

For those Muslims who insist on keeping politics and religion separate, the Hajj goes on without needing much validation.

For others, who acknowledge the Hajj or their duty as Muslims as being more than a project of self-enrichment, the idea that the Holy Land is under Saudi stewardship simply burns.

But not everyone is in agreement on how to respond. And there are generally two sides to this debate.

The first is led by those who say that until the Saudi kingdom continues to behave with impunity - a law unto itself - they would rather go to hell than step into the kingdom.

The Hajj, to be sure, is an expensive outing.

From air tickets to visas to accommodation, among a whole host of other expenses, the Saudi kingdom benefits from the money that Muslims around the world have, in many cases, saved for their entire lives. Knowing this hard-earned money buttresses a war-mongering authoritarian state is a contradiction of the values of Islam.

“God’s home has been hijacked,” the argument goes.

“Together with Israel and Myanmar, the b******s need to be isolated completely. How can we continue to go there and perform pilgrimage with blinkers?”

To which the second group argues that it is precisely because the Holy Land has been overrun by Godless brutes that we ought to go and complete our duty.

“It’s a test. Going into the devil’s den to pray and conduct the pilgrimage is our personal jihad,” they say.

For some time, I was a firm proponent of a boycott. But as I continue to bear witness to the sheer pleasure and efforts made by so many to make this journey, I’ve come to accept that asking people to turn away from a life goal, and a religious duty, is unfair.

Who am I to tell someone not to go? I went as an 11-year-old, and though I was too young for it to be considered a serious pilgrimage, I did get the opportunity to see Mecca; something that remains a dream for hundreds of millions of Muslims.

As has been documented, MBS’s Saudi Arabia is only the latest incarnation of a regime that has done everything in its power to destroy the spirit of the Holy Land.

First, there is the crass commodification of Mecca, that has replaced pilgrims with consumers.

Then, there is the heinous destruction of historical sites by the Salafist extremists who seem certain the veneration of historical sites is more intoxicating than power, oil and money.

The further Instagram-ification of the pilgrimage has only lent an exhibitionist zeal.

There is also the racist behaviour exhibited towards those on the lesser rungs of racialised hierarchies in the Muslim world. This behaviour goes beyond the Hajj; just take a look at the experience of workers in the region.

I, like many others, am ruffled by the move to turn so much of the Holy Land into a shopping mall where earthly desires must compete with heavenly dreams.

So many of us, be it Muslim or not, also feel short-changed by the destruction of Islam’s earliest historical sites in Mecca and surrounding areas.

These annoyances are ultimately preferences; they aren’t a matter of life or death.

All of which changes drastically when it comes to the ongoing flattening of lives and property in Yemen. It is now home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three-quarters of the population (22 million people) in dire need of aid and protection.

Last week, the Saudi-led alliance blew up a bus carrying schoolchildren in Yemen. The children were found under charred rubble; body parts were spread across the bomb site. At least 40 were killed.

It so happened that on the same day, close family members flew to Saudi Arabia to embark on the Hajj - on a trip of a lifetime.

How to be excited for their personal journey in the face of such evil? How to accept personal reflection and growth as anything other than luxurious pastimes in the lap of injustice?

I am not sure, except to say that it has placed my rage in a quandary.

To me, being Muslim has always meant living in a constant state of rebellion against injustice. To be counted as a voice against tyranny. To me, it’s unimaginable to accept The Hajj in its modern ruse as an apolitical ritual of personal enrichment.

By definition, the Hajj is a political act; men and women travelling from the far corners of the Earth to one place; dressed in the simplest of cloth, without accessories, without jewellery, without an identity other than collective humanity and the will to submit. Mecca literally fell during the first pilgrimage in Islam.

So why the silence? Why is it business pilgrimage as usual? Where is the rage against a machine that is so obviously manipulative, and wrong?

We know that Saudi’s deep pockets keep Western reason at bay. What is our excuse?

If we are to accept that boycotting the Hajj is not tenable, surely we need to imagine alternatives - other ways in which the pilgrimage itself can be used to challenge this wicked regime.

The status quo is certainly not tenable. I’ve certainly got some ideas. Let’s talk.

The Mercury