In addition to suffering caused by the Saudis’ well-known incompetence, this year the hujjaj are being confronted by another ordeal: new security measures in Jeddah. Ostensibly intended to prevent pilgrims from disappearing after completing their Hajj, the plan is both sinister and degrading. Pilgrims are being chosen randomly to have their eyes digitally scanned by an American security company, according to a report by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times(February 5). She has also revealed that “in an adjoining entry hall, a French fingerprinting firm that does work for the United States Postal Service and the New York Police Department digitally scans index fingers. Its motto: ‘Security at your fingertips’.”
Rudolph Saleh, a Lebanese Christian who works on the eye-scanning equipment, said that the new technology will assist in apprehending those who plan to stay on in the kingdom illegally; how it will do so is not explained. What is disturbing is that these intrusive measures are being implemented as if the hujjaj were criminals. In general only criminals are subjected to fingerprinting; eye-scanning is a recently introduced techique, which, like the fingerprint, is believed to be unique to each individual.
While it is impossible to prevent some pilgrims from disappearing, regardless of what measures are implemented, the truth about the new measures is more disturbing: data thus collected will be passed to the US. What better place to collect this information than at Jeddah airport, through which about two million pilgrims from all over the world pass during Hajj season, and millions more do so throughout the year for Umrah? Those who disappear do not come back to the airport, so any additional data will not help the Saudis to find them. Even under present arrangements, those who disappear leave their passports behind because these are taken from every pilgrim upon arrival in Jeddah. So the Saudis have more than enough data about pilgrims who stay behind, including their photographs and passports, to need any additional information.
Since pilgrims are to be chosen “randomly” for such data collection, it is likely that those who are profiles to be potential Islamic activists will be chosen. Nor is it likely to be the Saudis who decide whom to screen. It is clear that almost all the technicians and operators will be Americans or Lebanese Christians who can easily pass as Arab Muslims. The new system also belies recent propaganda that differences have emerged between the Saudi dynasty and Washington over the US troops in the Arabian Peninsula. This propaganda is intended to improve the Saudis’ image among their own people and Muslims around the world. Whether it will actually do so is another matter.
The Saudis have no legal authority to institute the new measures, especially against people who come to fulfil their religious obligations. The hujjaj are not tourists visiting the kingdom; in any case, their movements are restricted to Jeddah airport, Makkah and Madinah. It is interesting to note that such intrusive measures have not been implemented elsewhere, not even in the US, where since September 11 the hostility to Muslims has been quite oppressive. It is also important to bear in mind that the introduction of magnetically-coded visas for hujjaj, which contain all relevant data about the pilgrim, leaves absolutely no reason to implement other measures... unless, of course, the new ‘security’ has another, more sinister, purpose.
The fact that American and French companies are handling these new systems means that all data collected on Muslims at Jeddah airport will be available to them as well. As 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens (according to the FBI, anyway), why is data needed on pilgrims from other countries? The pilgrims’ bags are X-rayed on arrival, and many hand-searched for weapons and contraband. So far nothing has been found that would give rise to suspicion. There are bound to be a few among the estimated two million pilgrims who indulge in some illegal activity (drug smuggling, for example), but eye-scanning and fingerprinting cannot solve this problem.
Pilgrims are not only herded according to nationality and given three forms of identification, including a hospital-type bracelet, but also escorted directly to buses bound for Makkah or Madinah at Jeddah airport. The Saudis prohibit any activity that might expose the present-day oppressors’ activities in the world, such as Israel’s brutalities against the Palestinians or US crimes in Afghanistan and mistreatment of detainees transported illegally to Cuba.
In 1987 the Saudis massacred more than 400 Irani pilgrims when they took part in a bara’at min al-mushrikeen rally in accordance with the command of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (Qur’an 9:3). Since, such activities have been severely constained and every effort made to prevent other pilgrims from coming into contact with those from Iran. As far as the Saudis are concerned, Hajj must not be performed according to the Qur’an’s injunctions; only a ritual Hajj is permissible.
There is, however, another kind of activity that the Saudis encourage: commerce. “Make money and be happy” seems to be the Saudi creed. Even this is closely monitored, however: security cameras monitor the main roads, bridges, tunnels and shopping malls, and helicopters fly overhead for surveillance.