Safety risks, sexual harassment and armed conflict: Is it time to say no to Saudi-owned Hajj?

Each year, millions of Muslims from across the globe come to perform Hajj (the Islamic holy pilgrimage) at the holy site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In Islam, each and every Muslim who’s physically, emotionally and financially capable is expected to make the holy pilgrimage during the holy period (the month of Dhul Hijjah) as this is a fundamental pillar of their Muslim faith. In addition, throughout the rest of the year, many more visitors come to perform umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) and explore the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

With around 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, that’s a lot of people. In 2018, over two million Muslims were estimated to have undertaken Hajj, whilst research undertaken by the Pew Centre found that on average 9% of the Muslim population (surveying 39 countries worldwide) have gone on Hajj. Figures from 2018 would bring that figure to around 13% of the global Muslim population. Whilst figures vary year on year, Saudi Arabia continues to welcome large numbers of pilgrims who are looking to fulfil their religious and spiritual duties.

Of course, not everyone is able to perform Hajj or make the journey to these two cities for a host of reasons, including ill-health or financial restrictions (Muslims who are in debt for example should clear their debt first). Whilst Hajj is designed to be a spiritual journey of cleansing and reflection, however undertaking Hajj has now become not just incredibly costly but also unsafe and what’s more: in the eyes of some Muslims morally dubious.

Muslims here in the UK spent on average £5 – 6,000 for a Hajj package in 2018. Whilst packages vary according the time taken to visit sites and quality of accommodation, an “economy package” still comes in at over £4,000 with costs rising by around a quarter in the last few years. With varying incomes and journeys, real-time costs are obviously not the same for Muslims across the continents. A Muslim in Malaysia for example would have to spend the equivalent of around half a year’s salary to afford to go on Hajj whilst for someone in Bangladesh, the figure would amount to over three years income.

In addition to the rising costs of undertaking Hajj, in the last few years in particular, there have been increasing concerns regarding the Saudi Arabian authorities and their management of Hajj. Overcrowding, over-development, the sexual harassment of women and the role of “the custodians” of these two sites in the conflict in Yemen are the first concerns which spring to mind. That’s of course without mentioning the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October and the issue of Saudi-supplied weapons being used by the Islamist group Daesh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.

It goes without saying that managing such an important and crowded space with incredibly large numbers of men, women and children from all over the world is an extremely tough task. Acting as the “custodians” of the holiest sites of Islam comes with great moral, spiritual, social and political duties. So, is Saudi Arabia really fit for the job? Well, let’s look at the facts to see.

Yemen: A nation on the brink of famine

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Image credit: European Union (2018) (photo by: Peter Biro) (CC by NC-ND 2.0)

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abysmal to say the least. Now of course, it’s not the only country to violate the rights of its nationals (and on a daily basis). For many non-Saudi citizens, the civil and political rights of the population may seem irrelevant to their daily lives and their religious obligations. But here’s the thing: whether you’re following the lives of activists on the ground or not: it’s hard to miss the Saudi-backed ongoing conflict in Yemen and the devastating impact it’s having on the lives of Yemeni men, women and children.

Prior to the outbreak of war, Yemen was already the poorest nation in the Middle East. Now after three years of prolonged conflict, Yemen has become hell on earth. Whilst Saudi Arabia is not the only (external) force involved in the conflict (which is of course violent and bloody on both sides), it is however leading a multinational coalition and has intervened in Yemen with strong force.  Saudi-led airstrikes and blockades by air and sea have traumatised the country and the lives of innocent civilians have been left devastated.

After bombing markets, hospitals, schools and residential areas, Saudi Arabia has been accused of targeting civilians (which it denies) and so far around 6,660 civilians having lost their lives. Now dubbed the world’s largest man-made humanitarian crisis by the UN, with a shortage of food and difficulty importing and accessing aid and resources, for those still struggling to survive things have now become so awful that the country is on the brink of famine. To date a shocking 20 million Yemeni people (two thirds of the population) are without a regular supply of food and are left wondering where their next meal will come from. In fact, reports now estimate that around 85,000 Yemeni children have starved to death and things aren’t showing any signs of improving any time soon.

It therefore clearly doesn’t bode well that the “custodians” of God’s Holy Sites – where pilgrims seek forgiveness from Allah and spiritual renewal – are leading real-time conflict in another country at the expense of its (Muslim) citizens. With the conflict devastating the lives of men, women and children, it seems somewhat hypocritical to be both “custodians” of these holy sites (purely as a result of geographical “fortune”) whilst also being involved in the massacre of so many innocent Muslims.

On pilgrimage: Not all safe and sacred

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Even prior to the outbreak of conflict in Yemen in March 2015, Saudi-guarded Mecca had already raised a long list of concerns and more than a few raised eyebrows. Safety for example has been an ongoing concern and repeated incidents have continued to result in the death of innocent pilgrims with overcrowding, security controls and a host of other issues proving fatal.

Back in 2015, there were two major accidents that led to the deaths of innocent pilgrims. The infamous incident with a crane on 11th September killed over 100 pilgrims and just two weeks later, tragedy struck again when an estimated 2,400 pedestrians were “trampled to death” – all within the space of about ten minutes in the nearby Mina valley. The cause of the latter incident is officially unknown but there have been allegations that a blockage was caused after special access was granted to a Saudi Prince or similar “VIP”. The sad irony of this is that on pilgrimage every Muslim – rich or poor – is deemed to be equal (as should be in daily life), demonstrating how indeed in the eyes of Allah, we are all born as equals and can only be judged (by Him) through our good or bad deeds – in simple terms by the way we behave and treat others.

If we think about the ill-treatment and lack of legal protection/fair rights for non-national workers from overseas for example, we can immediately understand the role of privilege in the Royal Kingdom. Of course, with high-profile individuals there are obvious security requirements to be taken in account in such context, however it cannot be denied that the site and its management is anything but egalitarian. It’s quite simply abhorrent if such elitism did indeed result in the innocent loss of lives on the most sacred journey of a Muslim’s life.

Sisters on site: Where the sacred knows no boundaries

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Sadly, the concerns don’t stop here. With the #MeToo movement shedding light on the previously untold stories of (predominately) women who’d been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual violence, you’d have hoped that scared religious sites were clearly not in the picture. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Back in 1982, American-Egyptian feminist advocate and journalist Mona Eltahawy shared her story of sexual harassment in Mecca in – having been assaulted twice. However, it wasn’t until a sister of Pakistani origin shared her story on Twitter (which was subsequently deleted) that subsequent stories of those affected went viral – providing yet another example of how social media can be used by individuals worldwide to expose great injustices and shed light on silenced often “taboo” topics.

Naturally, the world was shocked as further stories of women who’d been abused in the holiest of places in Islam came to light. From these stories, the #MosqueMeToo movement was born and we’ve since gone on to learn of a host of further incidents of women being sexually harassed during Hajj. This also includes a woman being groped by a Holy Mosque guard. Mona Eltahawy herself revealed that a Saudi policeman fondled her breasts whilst she was on Hajj.

With the movement offering Muslim women a safe-space to share their harrowing experiences, Muslim women have decided to bravely share their harrowing experiences after feeling forced to be silent for so long. Another such incident includes 21-year-old Asra Nadeem – a Muslim sister of Pakistani origin and living in the US:

I was next to the Kaaba and somebody grabbed my bum. I thought it was just the crowd; everyone was pushing. But then, when I moved up, somebody grabbed my boobs.

I turned my head and I saw this guy just smirking at me. I couldn’t do anything, and he was still holding my breast. So, I yelled at him, and then people started pushing me forward, shouting “yalla” (“hurry up”).

I reported the incident to the first two guards that I saw but both of them did not speak English and told me to move along.

(Asra Nadeem)

The lack of care and protection mechanisms in this example and those of other Muslim women such as Mona and Asra, highlight a previously concealed – but all too very real – problem:

So, it must be asked: what is being done about the problem? In what community are women not even safe whilst undertaking the most sacred ritual of their lives? With such huge crowds, the authorities cannot obviously be responsible for each and every individual but with the authorities not only failing to deal with the issue but also being complicit: there can be no room for excuses.

The Saudi authorities must step up, speak out and take appropriate action – including against their own staff and officials.

Mecca and beyond: Where lies the future?

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We cannot ignore the all too real issues at hand. Regarding sexual harassment and severe safety concerns at the Holy Sites for starters: the Saudi authorities are not doing anywhere near enough.

Following the #MosqueMeToo outcry, in August 2018 journalist Hebah Ferrag – Assistant Director of Research at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture – asked: Will there be reforms? Well we’ve yet to see any. Likewise, in the same month, a “hajj hackathon” was organized in Jeddah to brainstorm on how the Saudi authorities can help improve security on site. But is it too little too late? The price money may have be $420,000, but that’s nothing compared to the mass sum that Saudi Arabia receives each year from Hajj-related travel costs. Experts have in fact estimated that by 2022, Hajj revenues will have exceed £117 billion – that’s not even a drop in the Saudi royal family’s oil-fuelled ocean.

When it comes to the treatment of women in Mecca, this is however sadly more showing of a wider-scale problem within the Muslim community of misogyny and age-old sexism. Only when women’s rights and women’s issues are really made a priority by the Saudi government and the leading figures in the Muslim community can we address the sexist attitudes behind the #MosqueMeToo harassment and begin to both change attitudes and enforce stringent legal action for anyone found guilty of violating women’s privacy, safety and security. Likewise, until people are put before profits and the elitism of Hajj – or at least measures are taken to better organise management and development of the sites – security will continue to be an ongoing concern.

In addition, we cannot deny the clear moral dilemma of the “custodians of Hajj” gravely abusing the civil, economic and political rights of its. Let’s not forget the ongoing trauma of civil and political activists and prisoners of conscience such as Jamal Khashoggi, Raif Badawi and a host of other individuals including women’s rights defenders such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza-al-Yousef.

Furthermore – and I’m both shocked and surprised to have to say this – when it comes to the long-suffering torment of the Yemeni people, the (in particular Muslim) world has been far too silent. It begs the question: how many starving children are too many?

Here in the UK and over the pond in the USA in particular, there are now growing voices for Muslims to boycott Hajj until Saudi Arabia embraces human rights and puts people ahead of profits. So, is it #TimesUp for Hajj? Well, the obvious contradiction between the innate equality and spirituality of Hajj versus the violence, harassment and bloodshed of its custodians must no longer be ignored. Whether you decide to boycott Hajj or not (I for one have chosen to), it’s certainly time for the Saudi Authorities to be brought to account and for the Muslim community to wake up, stand up and demand change.

Everyone deserves better – the people of Yemen deserve better, our Muslim sisters deserve better, the Muslim community deserves better, Saudi citizens deserve better and the wider world deserves better. We must demand freedom, equality, life and integrity for everyone – isn’t that what Allah Almighty would want?

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