To hold the guardianship of Islam’s most holy site in Mecca has always been an honor, even in pre-Islamic Arabia. It was, and is, seen as a privilege and a great responsibility to care and provide for pilgrims who come from all parts of the world to fulfill their religious rites.
Kudos should be given to Saudi Arabia where due. Year after year, it accommodates millions of people who flock to its land, and it is constantly updating technology, infrastructure, and procedures in order to allow people to perform Hajj.
However, after the recent stampede that killed over 700 and injured over 900 pilgrims, it is clear that a radical change is needed. Unfortunately, these deaths happen far too often, and Saudi Arabia’s renovations are not effective in preventing these occurrences from happening again.
MPAC calls for an independent investigation into the recent tragedy. An international team made up of the world’s best experts on disaster management must look into what happened and make concrete recommendations for future plans to ensure the safety of pilgrims. To leave the investigation to the very party responsible for the tragedy is akin to doing the same thing but expecting a different result.
Furthermore, religious scholars must emphasize the flexibility Islam has when it comes to fulfilling the rites of Hajj. Because pilgrims are told that their Hajj is not complete if they do not do certain rituals by certain times, they rush to the same place at the same time, causing dangerous situations. Also, it is clear that Mecca is unable to safely handle the number of people it gets each year, and thus visas for Hajj should be reduced in number if it creates hazards.
Hajj is known to be a time when both the rich and the poor, Muslims of all colors, privileged and unprivileged, walk side by side with no distinction- all equal before God. However, comments by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, who is in charge of Hajj, blaming those of “African nationalities,” and another comment by a royal family member blaming Iranians for the stampede, have no place in Islamic discourse. Race-baiting is not only unbecoming of a state, but goes against the principles of Hajj. Moreover, the Saudi government is the responsible authority. If it cannot handle the logistical challenges of millions of visitors from differing nations and of differing languages, then it should consider handing it over to an international Islamic authority.
Iranian pilgrims made up the largest number victims, with over 400 people dead. A harsh war of words is now taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Iran questioning Saudi Arabia’s role as custodian of the Hajj and lambasting it for not returning its victims expediently. Moving forward, the focus should instead be on what steps the Saudis must take to create safer conditions for pilgrims during Hajj.
Saudi Arabia must demonstrate transparency and accountability in this latest Hajj tragedy. Since 1990, 3500 pilgrims have died in the same circumstances in the same general vicinity. If Saudi Arabia cannot handle the scrutiny and answer the challenging questions, it is time to re-evaluate its roles and responsibilities for the Hajj.