A People and a Faith are Held Hostage to the House of Saud
The House of Saud is using the Hajj pilgrimage as an asymmetrical weapon of war to forward its agenda. To prevent God to become a tradable commodity, and abuses institutions onto themselves, silence must be lifted and a faith freed from under the thumbs of tyrants.
The most violent, repressive, and reactionary theocracy to have ever graced the corridors of History, Saudi Arabia has long towered over Islam’s holiest of cities: Mecca and Medina, arguing legitimacy and ownership on account none ever dared challenge its rule.
We ought to remember that if the kingdom has become today the fountainhead of radicalism, it is its hold over Islam by way of the Hajj that has allowed for al-Saud’s clergymen to distort Islam, and thus assert fanaticism as normative Islam. Who will be there to speak in opposition if all those who do are immediately label apostates to be then condemned to death?
Saudi Arabia’s monarchy we must admit is anchored not in its oppression of the people, but its claim over Islam’s holiest of sites, and thus by extension and by way of conflation Islam itself: its Scriptures, its Traditions, its Jurisprudence …
When al-Saud imprinted its name onto the Hijaz, it too, branded a faith to its name and to its interpretation.
Maybe now one can understand how terrorism came to be. A weapon of war in the hands of ambitious man, Wahhabist Islam has ambitioned to rewrite Islam to its abominable ideology to better enslave its people.
If the king of Saudi Arabia still holds to its title of Custodian of the two Holy Mosques – a title ibn Saud keenly granted himself to silence all detractors, and somewhat bestow upon his kin divine anointment … if not appointment, the House of Saud has only ever acted a landlord and an owner of … Custodianship here is but a pretty euphemism aimed at hiding a terrible truth.
To put it simply the House of Saud ambitions to rule unchallenged over the Islamic world – 1.5 billion souls, by sitting itself sanctified over a world faith. I would venture and say that the kingdom is the greatest colonial power of all since its ambitions exist beyond just land and power, and instead aim to acquire the divine.
Such dynamics – if unspoken still by mainstream media, are nevertheless identifiable in the manner Saudi Arabia has managed the Hajj pilgrimage, exploiting one of Islam’s pillars to bully, blackmail and altogether hold sovereign nations ransom.
This August (2017) a report in Newsweek opened an interesting window onto Saudi Arabia’s rationale when it wrote: “The ongoing diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has put a stranglehold on the number of Qatari pilgrims able to travel to Mecca during the annual period of the Hajj after Riyadh accused Doha of declaring war over Islam’s holiest sites … The Qatari government body accused the Saudi officials and business owners of obstructing Qatari pilgrims, provoking swift rebuke from Riyadh. In response Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Qatar of calling for the internationalization of Islam’s holy sites, characterizing the demands as “aggressive and a declaration of war against the kingdom.”
If over the centuries many nations, individuals and political constructs have vied for control over Islam’s holy sites so they could derive power from their control, none more that the House of Saud have assumed complete ownership.
For Riyadh to deem any challenge to its authority over the Hajj a declaration of war it would imply that it holds sovereignty over it, and what it represents. There lies Terror’s throne. By treating Islam as a tradable commodity, a privilege to be wielded so that communities would bow in submission the kingdom has essentially allowed for the vulgarisation of a faith – and thus opened up the door to abuses.
If for centuries Mecca has stood together a source of unity and a testament to pluralism – living proof that to reach the divine one needs to embrace humanity; under the rule of al-Saud, Mecca, and to a greater extent Islam itself, has sat divorced from its context, and meaning, a tool of oppression and repression in the hands of tyrants.
The Kingdom’s ‘Hajj War’ with Qatar, which has seen it refuse to process visa applications for pilgrims, is just the most recent in a string of examples that demonstrate that the Saudis are not fit to administrate the Islam’s holiest places and its most important communal ritual.
Despite spending billions on expanding the Hajj complex, the Saudis have been unable to ensure the safety of pilgrims. Between 1987 and 2014, at least 3,000 people lost their lives in various incidents caused by mismanagement. In 2015, the worst Hajj disaster of the modern era saw at least 2,400 and possibly as many as 4,500 people killed, as well as accusations of a cover up.
The Saudi failure to ensure the safety of 3 million, despite spending and having access to unlimited billions of dollars stands in stark contrast to the Arbaeen commemorations in Iraq, where up to 20 million pilgrims come to the war-ravaged nation to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussain ibn Ali. In Iraq, there have been no large-scale catastrophes, despite the nation’s relative poverty, whereas in Saudi, the list of avoidable disasters is long and deeply distressing.
Saudi extremism also means that Muslims do not have the ability to worship freely. Shi’ite pilgrims have long been aware that the Saudi religious police will not allow them to engage in prayers and rituals considered obligatory in Shia Islam and that any attempt to do so will result in harassment, beatings and imprisonment.
In recent years, this repression has increased to cover mainstream Sunni groups (as this video of a group of Chechens being attacked for performing a Sufi hadra ritual demonstrates). The desecration of the graves of the Prophet’s family by the Saudis in the 19th and 20th Centuries remains a bleeding scar for millions of Muslims – across all denominations, as well as a stark reminder of just how far the Saudis are prepared to go to lay waste whatever they see as contrary to their extremist viewpoints.
The link between both the Saudi government and the Wahhabi ideology it espouses and terrorism is long established. The Saudis have perverted the Hajj by making it both a source of revenue for these activates and an annual focal point for gathering and funding militant groups.
When taken together: the inability to ensure safety; the assault on freedom of worship; the funding and support of terrorism and extremism and the use of Hajj as a foreign policy weapon should leave all Muslims certain that the House of Saud are unfit for the role they hold and that a radical solution is needed.
Some, such as Pakistani-American activist Ali-Abbas Taj, are even going to far as to propose that Mecca and Medina be declared as city-states; administered by a council of Muslim nations. City states such as the Vatican, Singapore, Monaco and Hong-Kong (prior to integration) show that such states can be ‘successful, wealthy and secure,’ argues Taj, going on to point out that if a nation like Qatar, until a few months ago a close ally, can find itself blackballed, then no nation or sect can count themselves safe from Saudi capriciousness.
The idea is a bold one, and unlikely to find support in Riyadh or amongst either the Saudis paymasters in Washington or the network of client states the Kingdom has established throughout much of the Muslim world. However, two things are clear: we cannot continue with the current situation and however influential Saudi petrodollars might be, they cannot stand up to the unified will of the rest of the Muslim world.
It will be the work of many years to unify that will, to create the consensus that will ensure that Hajj once again becomes open to all Muslims, not just the ones who accede to Saudi geopolitical demands and Wahhabi extremism. But we must succeed in doing so, if we fail, then our most important ritual and our most sacred sites will continue to be held hostage by a regime that shames the Muslim world with its decadence and profligacy on the one hand and its brutality, intolerance and promotion of takfiri terrorism on the other.
Catherine Shakdam is the Director of Programs of the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.