The Saudis cannot be left to manage the affairs of Hajj. They are unfit physically and mentally to discharge this great responsibility. It should be taken over by a group of learned scholars backed by properly trained professionals.
The massive casualties during this year’s Hajj have far surpassed similar casualties in previous years. They have rekindled debate about the Bani Saud management—or mismanagement—of Hajj and its related activities. They started even prior to formal Hajj ceremonies when on September 11, a large construction crane collapsed into Masjid al-Haram causing 115 deaths and 398 injuries. Strong winds and rainstorm were blamed for the tragedy without addressing the question of why the most sacred mosque in Islam has been turned into a huge construction site with tens of cranes dotting the skyline assaulting the spiritual ambience in such a grotesque way.
The hujjaj had not yet overcome the shock of the Haram deaths when an even greater calamity struck at the Jamarat site in Mina on September 24. Initially, the Saudis mentioned 310 deaths gradually revising it upward to 717 dead. The last official figure released by the Saudi regime is 769 dead and some 934 people injured. These bear no resemblance to reality. For instance, on September 28, Pakistani diplomats said Saudi officials had given them photographs of 1,100 dead pilgrims from which to identify their own citizens. Indian diplomats have also corroborated these figures.
What this indicates is that the Saudis have indirectly admitted that at least 1,100 pilgrims died. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on September 28 that the bodies of over 700 African pilgrims had been buried in Saudi Arabia. He mentioned this in the context of Tehran’s demand that the bodies of its pilgrims be returned to Iran. President Hassan Rouhani cut short his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York and returned to Tehran the same day to receive the bodies of Iranian pilgrims but the Saudis created a hurdle and failed to live up to their obligations.
The head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, Saeed Ohadi said that 464 Iranian pilgrims had been killed in the stampede at Mina. This is the largest number of casualties of any country. Earlier, he had said that a total of 228 Iranians were confirmed dead with 27 wounded and 248 Iranians still unaccounted for. Among those missing were about 200 Iranian diplomats that prompted Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and advisor to the Rahbar on International Affairs, to say that the Mina tragedy was highly “suspicious”. He said that the Saudi regime works closely with the Zionist regime and hinted that the diplomats could have been kidnapped. The Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei issued a strongly worded statement warning the Saudis of a “harsh” response from the Islamic Republic if the bodies of Iranian pilgrims were not returned immediately.
The questions everyone is asking are: how many pilgrims have died and what responsibility does the Saudi regime bear? Also, how did the tragedy occur? It is unacceptable for the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd al Aziz al-Sheikh to declare that this was an “Act of God” and the officials bear no responsibility. The Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih has also tried to blame the pilgrims by saying they “did not follow instructions.”
The latest casualty figure, as gleaned from a statement by the Saudi Deputy Health Minister Hamad bin Muhammad al-Duweili is 4,173 dead and hundreds perhaps several thousand still missing. True to form, other Saudi officials immediately denied the report without saying what the actual figure was. Foreign diplomats have complained of lack of information and access to hospitals or other facilities to get a true picture of their pilgrims’ plight.
How did the tragedy—not the first in Saudi-controlled Arabia—occur beyond the self-serving statements of Saudi officials blaming pilgrims? Reports from survivors at the stampede site have mentioned the arrival of Saudi deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The security forces immediately blocked off two streets to allow the Saudi ‘royal’ and his huge entourage to pass through. Also, all exit gates from the Jamarat site were blocked resulting in pilgrims being forced to return the same way they had entered causing a massive crush as other pilgrims were coming in. Who gave the order to shut off the exit routes and why?
King Salman bin Abd al Aziz has ordered an inquiry into the stampede. What credibility would such an inquiry have when the Saudi grand mufti has already exonerated officials with the flourish that it was an “Act of God”. The Saudi health minister went even further; he blamed the pilgrims. Perhaps the pilgrims had a death wish!
There is a long list of such tragedies under Saudi control. On November 4, 1979, the Saudi regime brought French and Moroccan commandos to attack and killed 230 people, mostly Saudis that had sought refuge inside al-Masjid al-Haram. They carried out another slaughter on July 31, 1987, when Saudi security forces shot and killed 402 Iranian pilgrims for participating in the bara’at min al mushrikeen march in Makkah. Allah has expressly forbidden even arguments in the precincts of the Haram much less killing anyone (2:197). The other horrific episode was the death by suffocating of 1426 pilgrims in a tunnel on April 17, 1990 when the Saudis block off its exit. The reason? Some prince was passing nearby!
These recurring tragedies raise serious questions about the administration and management of Hajj. Unfortunately there is lack of understanding among many Muslims about the Haramayn—the two holy cities of Makkah and al-Madinah. They do not belong to the Najdi Bedouins. They are the common heritage of the entire Muslim Ummah, hence they should be administered by a competent authority of ulama from all schools of thought. Muslim professionals specializing in crowd control, traffic management and flow should assist them. Additionally, Muslims specializing in urban planning should plan the cities of Makkah and al-Madinah as well as how Mina and Arafat are to be developed. The current Saudi practice of building massive structures without regard to pilgrims’ safety and security must stop immediately.
Such structures have only added to the problem. The greatest problem, however, is the illegal occupation of the Haramayn by the Najdi Bedouins. If they do not give up their control voluntarily, then the global Islamic movement has to take other measures to rescue the two holy cities from their clutches. Nothing less would do, for the safety of the hujjaj as well as the larger Muslim Ummah.