Each adult believer in Islam is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Prophet Muhammad’s holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, unless unable physically or financially.
Some believers repeat this unique experience. The media usually relegate the annual ritual to news features, but this year’s event August 9- 14 is laden with spot news significance.
That’s because ongoing tensions in the Muslim world have produced a campaign to boycott the current Hajj — a nearly unimaginable break with tradition that has received scant coverage in the West. Western reporters should pursue reactions to this in their regions with Muslim sources and agencies that cater to pilgrims. How many believers have postponed Hajj visits till future years after things calm down?
The boycotters are protesting the devoutly Sunni host nation of Saudi Arabia and its ruler since 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”). The particular grievances are the Saudis’ prosecution of Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing hostilities with Iran and toward Islam’s minority Shia branch, and human rights violations, including the murder of a regime critic, The Washington Post ‘s Jamal Khashoggi.
An anti-Saudi analysis at foreignpolicy.com by Ahmed Twaij of Iraq’s Sanad for Peacebuilding notes that in April Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s chief Sunni authority, declared that making a repeat Hajj visit or the Umrah (voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year) is “an act of sin rather than a good deed.”
In June, a senior official with Tunisia’s Union of Imams joined boycott calls, saying Saudi income from Hajj visits “is used to kill and displace people,” as in Yemen, instead of helping the world’s impoverished Muslims. Twaij reports that “Sunni clerics around the world have also called for a boycott,” whereas past enmity toward the Saudi regime has come largely from Shia Muslims.
Most remarkable of all was a fatwa last August from Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is very influential among Mideast Sunnis through his Al Jazeera TV appearances and Internet postings. His words could be interpreted as undercutting even the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime Hajj: “Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj and Umrah every year.”
Some of this campaign could be payback for the recent years when Saudi Arabia barred believers from Qatar and Iran from joining the pilgrimage, or helped repress a Shia uprising in Bahrain. The financial stakes are considerable, since Twaij reports that income from pilgrimage traffic amounts to an estimated one-fifth of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product apart from the lucrative oil business.
Reporters might want to explore with Muslim sources other issues surrounding the modern-day Hajj. One problem is that with Islam’s global population growth and modern transportation, the annual observance can draw more than 2 million participants. Compared with former times, such throngs become very difficult to handle at certain sites along the pilgrimage route, and over the years hundreds of visitors have died in stampedes.
A 2015 article, also in foreignpolicy.com, accused the (pre-MBS) Saudi regime of despoiling the center of the holy city with a lavish $26 billion development project of luxury hotels and shopping malls. On September 11 in 2015, a massive construction crane crashed into the Grand Mosque, killing 107 and wounding hundreds.
These renovations reflect a long-running desire to wipe out historical sites and tombs, which are cherished pilgrimage places for the Shia but abhorrent to the Saudis’ strict Wahhabi school of Islam. The Saudis have expended vast oil wealth to extend this version of Islam by subsidizing Wahhabi-style mosques around the world.
The foreignpolicy.com piece had this protest from Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Center: “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city that has no identity, no heritage, no culture, and no natural environment.”