By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
As September 24 turned from morning to afternoon the death toll in a massive stampede climbed from hundreds to over 700. A day before many websites had been lauding the beauty and majesty of the Hajj on Eid al-Adha. Al-Jazeera was promising “Hajj in real time” with Basma Atassi travelling on the pilgrimage along with more than a million people. Saad Qurashi was reminiscing about the old days of the the Mina neighborhood before it had been demolished and replaced by the modern tent-city for pilgrims. He discussed how the Saudi authorities had carefully attempted to limit the ability of wealthy people to occupy VIP areas during the Hajj.
Saudi Civil Defense had commented that those on pilgrimage could not construct temporary walls in the tent camps. “This is very dangerous and defies the regulations of the Saudi civil defence…In case there is a fire, walls will obstruct the water from sprinklers installed around Mina,” one official was quoted at saying. The article recalled that in 1997 a fire had erupted and killed hundreds. Not to worry, Saudi had invested in new fiberglass tents and sprinkler systems.
There is a long history of mass death tolls in Saudi. In 2004, some 244 people had been killed and in 2006, 364 people had died in an identical stampede while attempting to get to the “stoning of the devil” portion of the pilgrimage. In the 1990s it was the same story, with hundreds killed in 1994 (207) and 1998. Al this palls in comparison to 1990 when 1,400 people died.
Every year the Hajj is portrayed in media as a beautiful event and media is cautioned against reporting about the dark side and safety concerns. But on September 11 a huge crane fell in Mecca and killed 109 people. Corruption and various lack of safety measures were found to be the culprit. Even as the dead were being cleaned from the streets, thousands went on about the pilgrimage as if nothing had happened. Atassi noted “During and after the stampede the pilgrims continued to flock into Mina to perform the devil stoning ritual.” Nothing must get in the way of religious devotion.
That’s the message Saudi’s authorities continually send. Ignore the killing of hundreds or thousands, keep marching, then go away. Want to complain, we’ll put you in your place. And so everyone remains silent. The media doesn’t say too much. Foreign governments take their dead home and congratulate Saudi on a wonderful year of hosting the Hajj, lauded as “guardian of the holy places, Makkah the Blessed and Madinah the Radiant.”
But is it guarding them? Is it hosting the Hajj in a competent manner? Whenever there is a mass death the Saudis disregard the victims as “others,” in 1990 it was blamed on “Asians” and this year The head of Central Hajj Committee Prince Khaled al-Faisal blamed the stampede on “some pilgrims from African nationalities”, according to Saudi-owned al-Arabiya Channel. The only country this year to condemn Saudi was Iran, which has a regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia, but 43 of whose citizens died. African and Asian countries know to keep quiet, lest they be “punished” by Saudi, just as they keep quiet over the years and millions of their citizens are abused in Saudi Arabia as servants and workers.
It is a huge shame that these mass deaths come and go without questions, as if they are the fault of “third world country” Muslims. Some people point to large stampedes in India as “proof” that “other places do this too.” But India, one of the poorer countries in the world, is not Saudi, which is one of the richest. It is the duty of Saudi to provide protection for pilgrims. Hajj is supposed to be a once in a lifetime event, but Saudi has made it an end of a lifetime event for too many for too long, and because Saudi cloaks itself in “religion” it can hide behind this shield as if any critique of its incompetence is a critique of “Islam,” when in fact Saudi is becoming a land of death for many many Muslims.
If hundreds of people died every year at the Vatican on Christmas, one would hope there would be an outcry against the Vatican authorities. Wealthy states have a duty to protect people on pilgrimage or attending massive events. Saudi always gets out of responsibility because of its oil wealth and the ridiculous view that it’s monarchy is above reproach. It’s time for people to protest this mass killing and demand answers and not just call the dead “martyrs”; they are victims of incompetent policy.