This year’s hajj has become quite the place to be, judging from an avalanche of articles about the 2-million-plus-person event in Saudi Arabia’s sweltering heat.
First, there are the article/blogs written by Muslim correspondents or reporters going on hajj, as in this Washington Post Q&A and this New York Times piece. But, if you’re going to send someone there, you might want your reporter/blogger to know her religious facts. Not only are there two corrections attached to this Times piece, but she also claims Hagar was Abraham’s wife, which in Islamic thought legitimizes Hagar's lineage through Ishmael as equal to that of Sarah's lineage through Isaac. Concubine, yes; wife, no, is what the Old Testament would say to that.
There are fewer fluffy pieces than, say, two years ago when the rage was selfies in front of the kaaba. This year, however, Bloomberg did run feature about a hajj app. The Guardian had much stronger stuff with its piece on recent changes to Mecca in which whole chunks of its ancient quarter have been destroyed.
So what's the point? I wish to draw your attention to the roughly 2,400 deaths during last year’s hajj that hangs in the air.
Now, this was a huge, huge deal around the world (even Pope Francis sent his condolences), even though we didn’t hear much about this in the States.
One worthy effort is this piece in the New York Times: a beautifully photographed article why thousands of pilgrims died during last year’s hajj. But there’s a huge omission. Start reading it here:
I’m dying. I need water.”
Rashid Siddiqui kept hearing those words from his fellow Muslim pilgrims lying mangled on the ground in 118-degree heat, under a searing Saudi sun. Barefoot, topless and dazed, Mr. Siddiqui had somehow escaped being crushed by the surging crowd.
It was Sept. 24, 2015, the third morning of the hajj, the annual five-day pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by millions of Muslims from around the world. By some estimates, it was the deadliest day in hajj history and one of the worst accidents in the world in decades.
An American from Marietta, an Atlanta suburb, Mr. Siddiqui, 42, had been walking through a sprawling valley of tens of thousands of pilgrim tents. His destination: Jamarat Bridge, where pilgrims throw pebbles at three large pillars in a ritual symbolizing the stoning of the devil. He was less than a mile from the bridge when the crush began.
Hundreds, and probably thousands, died. But nearly a year later, the Saudi authorities have yet to explain exactly how the disaster happened. Nor have they provided what is widely considered an accurate death toll… A count by The Associated Press, derived from official and state news reports of the dead from 36 countries with pilgrims in Mecca, found that at least 2,400 people had died. The Saudi authorities, however, still give an official death toll of 769.
The article goes on to describe the tent city of Mina, where the disaster occurred. Soon after 6:30 a.m., Siddiqui and some relatives and friends set out. Then:
In what seemed like a hiccup, they were stopped by guards who had closed their intended route, for reasons yet to be made clear. (Italics mine). Looking around, Mr. Siddiqui said, they saw a lot of people taking an alternate route via an overpass, and they decided to follow.
Continue reading to the end about the horrific end to his day (his brother-in-law and his wife were crushed to death) and see how the Times used multimedia to illustrate the layout of Mecca’s various sites and how two columns of pilgrims converged to create a disaster. The color-coded areas that how where pilgrims of each nationality spend the night are truly outstanding.
But what was missing? Look at what I italicized above.
The reasons for the road closure have been made very clear in plenty of foreign-media reports. This English-language Persian site claims a large convoy of cars and hundreds of police bearing the deputy crown prince toward Mina caused a major street to be closed, cramming the pilgrims into much smaller side streets. If you care about international tensions, then know that the Iranians bear a huge grudge toward the Saudis as they lost 131 pilgrims in the crush that day. Iranian leaders still don’t believe the Saudis are telling the truth as to the real reason behind the deaths.
British media also covered the crown-prince connection. The Daily Mail also blamed the road closure on a procession of dignitaries and the Independent went so far as to repeat the Saudi-prince-convoy claim in a headline. Press-TV, a Lebanese outlet, had more details:
The Arabic-language daily al-Diyar said in a report on Thursday that the convoy of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud played a central role in the deadly crush on the third day of the annual Hajj pilgrimage earlier in the day.
The report said that Salman, who had sought to attend the huge gathering of pilgrims in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from Mecca, arrived at the site early on Thursday accompanied by a huge entourage.
The report said 200 army forces and 150 police officers escorted the prince.
The report said the presence of the prince in the middle of the population prompted a change in the direction of the movement of the pilgrims and a stampede.
The Lebanese daily further said that Salman and his entourage swiftly abandoned the scene, adding that the Saudi authorities seek to hush up the entire story and impose a media blackout on Salman’s presence in the area.
Why did the Times not mention this? If much of the Muslim world is talking about the Saudis being at fault (and the Saudis, by the way, have blamed the pilgrims for the incident), why not say what the masses are talking about?
True, there’s no video showing the possibly guilty prince, the Saudis aren’t talking and the Middle East is known for its conspiracy theories. But the prince theory (on why a major thoroughfare was closed without warning) certainly makes sense and explains why the Saudis don't want to admit that one of their own might have inadvertently caused thousands of deaths.
It's not just the Times. Western media as a whole -- other than the Brits -- haven't covered this scandal. What if some corrupt officials in the Curia had caused the deaths of 2,000-plus pilgrims in Rome? Don't you think the mainstream media would have been on that story immediately? Why the kid gloves when it comes to the hajj?