To Hajj or not Hajj? Muslims need to talk about Saudi Arabia

Some two million Muslims will begin the Hajj in Saudi Arabia next week, but journeying to the kingdom is becoming an ambivalent prospect for some. File picture: Khalil Hamra/AP

Some two million Muslims will begin the Hajj in Saudi Arabia next week, but journeying to the kingdom is becoming an ambivalent prospect for some. File picture: Khalil Hamra/AP

Published Aug 15, 2018


Some two million Muslims will begin the Hajj in Saudi Arabia next week. Over five days, pilgrims from far corners of the globe will complete rituals that were once performed by Prophet Muhammad more than 1400 years ago. For those who make the trip, completing it would mean satisfying one of the key obligations as a Muslim.

But journeying to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj is becoming an ambivalent prospect for some Muslims. Saudi’s crimes in Yemen in particular, where a bombing campaign since 2015 has killed 10 000 people, injured 40 000 others and left the poorest Arab country in tatters has forced some Muslims to debate among themselves if 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 its 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 burns. Not everyone is in agreement. And there are generally two sides to the debate.

The first is led by those who say that for as long as the kingdom continues to behave with impunity - a law upon itself - they would rather go to hell than step into the kingdom. The Hajj is an expensive feat - from air tickets to visas and hotel accommodations, the kingdom benefits from the money Muslims across the world have, in many cases, saved up for their entire lives. Knowing that the hard-earned money buttresses a war-mongering authoritarian state contradicts the values of Islam.

“God’s home has been hijacked,” the argument goes. “Together with Israel and Myanmar, the bastards need to be isolated. How can we continue to go there and perform pilgrimage with blinkers?”

To which the second group argues that it is because the Holy Land has been overrun by godless brutes that we ought to complete our duty. “It’s a test. Going into the devil’s den to pray and conduct the pilgrimage is our personal jihad,” goes the retort.

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 the 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 got to go 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.

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 that the veneration of historical sites are more intoxicating than power, oil and money. The further “Instagramification” of the pilgrimage has lent an exhibitionist zeal.

There is also the racist behaviour exhibited towards those on the lesser rungs of racialised hierarchies in the Muslim world. The 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. Many of us, be it Muslim or not, also feel short-changed by the destruction of Islam’s earliest historical sites in Mecca and the surrounding areas. The annoyances are ultimately preferences; they aren’t a matter of life or death.

All of which changes drastically when it comes to the flattening of lives and property in Yemen.

Yemen is home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three-quarters of the population (22million 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 children were killed.

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.

For me, being Muslim has always meant living in a constant state of rebellion against injustice. To be counted as a voice against tyranny. 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 far corners of the Earth to one place, dressed in the simplest of cloth, without accessories, without an identity other than collective humanity and the will to submit. Mecca fell during the first pilgrimage in Islam.

Why the silence? Why is it business and pilgrimage as usual? Where is the rage, against a machine that is 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 other ways in which the pilgrimage can be used to challenge this wicked regime? The status quo is not tenable. I’ve got some ideas. Let’s talk.

* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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