It has become clear that thousands of hajj pilgrims died Sept. 24 in Mina, Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi government is sticking to its story of 769 fatalities — the number released two days after the disaster. The combined numbers reported by various Muslim governments far surpass this total — Iran alone reported more than 460 deaths — and counts made by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse news agencies exceed 2,000, with hundreds more unaccounted for. Less than a week after the tragedy, the Saudi vice minister of health stated that the death toll had reached 4,173, but the figure was later retracted.
An inquiry was promised, but the prognosis for a speedy and fair investigation is poor. Transparency and accountability are not Saudi strong suits. Still, more than enough is known to draw one important conclusion: Muslims planning to take part in the annual five-day pilgrimage to Mecca should be aware that until better crowd-control measures are put in place, they will be putting their lives at risk.
The hajj is a journey of a lifetime for Muslims and a transformative experience for many people. I, too, had some dramatic experiences during my one hajj and two umrahs (minor pilgrimages), and I treasure those memories. But I wouldn’t go again. Saudi arrogance and hostility toward visitors, especially women, are too great.
Poor preparations of the pilgrims, along with a language barrier, are significant problems. Far too many of the Saudi boy scouts and soldiers who monitor and guide pilgrims speak only Arabic, so the majority of pilgrims from the Muslim world are out of luck. Travel agencies in the various countries are supposed to guide their clients through the steps of the hajj. But a handful of people cannot accompany hundreds each step of the way. And instructions can be misunderstood or forgotten.
During my hajj in 2004, we had been repeatedly admonished to avoid attempting to retrieve lost sandals during the stoning of the devil, or Jamarat, ritual, but I saw my friend do exactly that. She was being swallowed up by a vortex of people, and we extricated her just in time from a deadly crush. The death toll was more than 240, and the moment is forever stamped in my memory. Two years later, during the same ritual, 345 people were killed in a similar stampede. Afterward, international outrage forced the Saudis to reconstruct the entrance and exit to the area, and there were no more incidents. Until September’s catastrophe.
What’s known about what happened is that a panic broke out on narrow streets near the entrance to the Jamarat site, about three miles from Mecca, but reports have been contradictory. Iran and many other countries blamed Saudi mismanagement. The Lebanon-based newspaper Ad-Diyar, citing witnesses, reported that a convoy escorting Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a role in the incident by making some pilgrims turn against the flow of the crowd. Saudi authorities denied this report and instead blamed pilgrims for not following instructions. Other witnesses said closed exits touched off the panic.
It’s clear that some simple, workable steps need to be taken.
The administration of the hajj should be a fully international effort. All Muslim countries should send a large contingent of guides to Saudi Arabia months in advance. These guides should receive ground training at each of the sites where the hajj rituals occur, especially with regard to crowd control. During the hajj, they could then be stationed at important locations wearing colored jackets denoting the country they represent or the language they speak.
Each Muslim country should be responsible for training its pilgrims. A training course on hajj rituals and crowd responsibility should be created by Saudi Arabia and translated into the various necessary languages. Formal hajj training sites should be established in all countries with significant Muslim populations, and a hajj visa should be issued only if a certificate of training is attached to the passport.
The hajj is a pillar of Islam and must be completed once in our lives. But why would any Muslims make the pilgrimage knowing that they risk injury or death? Muslims will not announce that they are boycotting the hajj, for that seems blasphemous and could invite retribution. But as parents and breadwinners with responsibilities to their families, they simply will refrain from making travel plans.
The Saudis have a strong incentive to act. It would be naive for them to think that Muslims won’t think twice before making the hajj until definite, credible arrangements are made to ensure their safety. According to the Al-Hayat newspaper, Saudi Arabia received $16.5 billion from Muslim pilgrimages in hajj in 2012. Saudi Arabia’s main source of revenue is oil. Falling oil prices have contributed to a Saudi budget deficit of $98 billion this year, with a projected shortfall next year of $87 billion. The Saudi intervention in Yemen is costly. Discontent in the royal family and rumors of a possible palace coup have been reported. High unemployment remains a problem. And now a horrific tragedy has struck the hajj. Riyadh can no longer afford complacency.
Muslim countries and Saudi Arabia badly need to conduct a transparent inquiry into the cause of September’s hajj crowd collapse and make swift arrangements for a detailed, international orchestration of hajj for the future. The survival of pilgrims is not all that is at stake. The Saudi monarchy may be as well.
Mahjabeen Islam is former president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.