Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The politicisation of the pilgrimage

Qatar has been trying to politicise the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, imitating the historically irresponsible behaviour of Iran and Turkey, writes Sayed Khattab


Iranian protesters during last year’s hajj

Politicising the pilgrimage is not a new idea, but it is one that usually comes to the fore at times of political quarrels between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This is no surprise as Iran has a record of using this issue to annoy Saudi Arabia. However, what is surprising this time round is to see Qatar, an Arab state and a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), irritating another Arab state and GCC member, Saudi Arabia, by imitating Iran’s attempt to politicise the pilgrimage to Mecca or hajj.

This issue has drawn the attention of outside observers who follow the political scene in the region and have been watching the quarrel between Qatar on one side and the Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the other unfolding.

On 5 June, the Arab quartet cut diplomatic relations with Qatar and closed its air, sea and land ports to it. The resolution was because of what the quartet described as Qatar’s support for terrorism, including of groups operating against the Arab quartet itself. There are enough documents confirming Qatar’s assistance to terrorism in countries of which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen are only examples. The documents have shown that Qatar’s support for terrorism is tactical and that it is not only financial, but also logistical, and that it includes military equipment, ideological and military training, and safe havens for terrorist leaders and ideologues from the Taliban to Boko Haram and from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group to Hamas, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham.


Qatar’s support for terrorism and the resolution of Arab quartet against it have been dealt with in previous articles. Here the focus is on Qatar’s attempt at imitating Iran’s efforts to politicise the pilgrimage. These two countries usually take the opportunity of the hajj season to promote their politics among the pilgrims. Bringing political views to the hajj and presenting them to pilgrims in religious form pollutes the rituals and creates hatred and schisms among the pilgrims.

It is a tactical manoeuvre that is particularly perilous as it interferes with the security and safety of pilgrims numbering at least three million of varying nationalities, languages and cultural backgrounds. Bringing politics to a crowd this size during the hajj is very dangerous if promoted by influential religious figures. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged Iranian pilgrims to exploit the pilgrimage rituals to express Iran’s political positions in the region and show their solidarity with the Palestinian cause, for example.

On the occasion of the hajj, religious leaders usually try to educate citizens about the role of the hajj and to rationally instruct them to complete the religious rituals faithfully and peacefully and return to their country and family safe and well. However, instead of this Khamenei has been teaching his followers that the hajj is a good occasion to show their political positions regarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the American presence in the Middle East that he has labelled as “evil”.


Bringing politics to the sacred sites works against the safety and security of pilgrims coming from all over the world. Iran has a long history of exploiting the hajj to provoke unrest and strife and to try to cause sectarian conflict. Since the Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran in 1979, the regime has wanted to export its revolution to the rest of the region. In trying to do so, the Khomeini regime used all the means at its disposal, including the hajj, to spread its ideology among pilgrims of varying national and cultural backgrounds.

Focusing on the behaviour of the Iranian pilgrims in the hajj since Khomeini came to power, it can be noted that their behaviour has gone from bad to worse. In the year after Iran’s revolution, the Iranian pilgrims in the 1980 hajj started to provoke riots and raise the image of Khomeini over the head of worshipers in the sacred places including the prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

In 1982, the behaviour of Iranian pilgrims crossed red lines when they tried to enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca itself carrying firearms. In 1986, Iranians were caught carrying 51kg of highly explosive materials. In 1987, some Iranian pilgrims started demonstrations in crowded areas and blocked roads and burned cars, causing a stampede among the pilgrims and the deaths of 402 people.

In 1989, two explosions near the Grand Mosque killed one person and wounded 16 others. The Saudi security forces arrested 20 pilgrims who admitted that they had got the explosive materials from Iranian diplomats. In 1990, Iranian pilgrims let out toxic gases that killed 1,426 pilgrims of various nationalities. In 2003, Iran was involved in the Riyadh bombings on the orders of an Al-Qaeda leader in Iran.


The hajj season in 2015 was also marked by an Iranian-led riot that created chaos and resulted in the deaths of about 2,300 pilgrims, including 464 Iranians. In the 2017 hajj season, Khamenei has advised his followers to use their presence among the worshippers to spread Iran’s politics.

How this will work out only time will tell, but it will be in the same spirit as has been seen above. This means that Iran’s attempt at politicising the pilgrimage is intentional and involves specific aims and objectives.


CONFLICT WITH SAUDI ARABIA: Following every incident in the hajj season, Iran questions Saudi Arabia’s ability to secure the pilgrims and calls for the internationalisation of the hajj.

Internationalising the sacred sites of the hajj was previously called for by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein when their relations with Saudi Arabia were poor. These two leaders were haunted by their claims and have now been deposed. While the current president of Turkey has also supported the idea of the internationalisation of the hajj, only Iran has not abandoned the idea. Qatar’s attempt to politicise or internationalise the hajj is an echo of the demands made by Iran and Turkey.  

Two months after the crisis between Qatar and the Arab quartet began, the Qatari regime has now reached the stage of hallucination. This is one of the most important symptoms of a person suffering from mental disorders. It is a condition that describes a defect in consciousness reflected in an inability to focus attention and an inability to recognise things correctly. The condition was outlined by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa when he wrote:

“Strangeness fell into the lap of the one who had not raised him;

He lost his milk, his parents, and his family.”

The minister thus portrayed the ruler of Qatar as a child who had lost his sustenance when he went to “parents” other than his real parents and a “family” that was not his true family. He was reflecting on the fact that the Qatari emir had allied his country with Iran and Turkey and had invited their armies into his country.

The Qatari regime has invited Turkish and Iranian forces to protect Qatar, but it is not known what these forces will protect Qatar from. This interesting question was recently raised at a conference about the Middle East in Melbourne in Australia. Three of the countries of the Arab quartet that have cut relations with Qatar are Gulf states and have borders with Qatar. They have branded their dispute with Qatar as exclusively political. The governments in these countries have also admitted that their citizens have intermarriage, family and tribal connections with the Qatari Arabs.


The fourth country of the Arab quartet, not a Gulf state and situated far away from Qatar, is Egypt. Responding to media questions, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has stated that “the military option is completely excluded as a solution to the Qatari crisis.” Al-Khalifa has also stated, when speaking for Bahrain, that “the basis of the dispute with Qatar is about politics and security and not a military one.” Reflecting on Qatar’s invitation to non-Arab armies to take up position in Qatar, he said that “bringing foreign armies to the Arab Gulf nations is a military escalation that Qatar is responsible for.”

My answer to the Melbourne question is simply that Qatar invited the Turkish and Iranian armies onto its territory not to protect Qatar from its Arab neighbours but to protect the Qatari regime from its own people.


QATARI DISCONTENT: The Qatari regime has arrested some of its own citizens who had used social media to express their disapproval of Qatar’s behaviour towards its Gulf neighbours.

Such discontent has also been apparent within the Qatari army, which rejects being put under Turkish or Iranian commanders. As a result, about 62 Qatari soldiers have been arrested after refusing to work under the umbrella of the Iranian forces stationed in the north of the country. In a remarkable development, the Qatari authorities also arrested the director of the office of the military chief-of-staff, Colonel Hassan Youssef, and Said Ibrahim Al-Mohannadi, known as Said Al-Mutawi, for refusing to be placed under Turkish or Iranian commanders. These men had publicly rejected the policies of the Qatari regime which is hostile to Gulf and Arab positions.

Nevertheless, the Qatari regime has now resorted to creating a crisis on grounds that have been repeatedly rejected by Saudi Arabia as well as by the Arab and Islamic nations. The Qatari regime has revived the idea of the internationalisation of the sacred sites of the hajj through a complaint submitted to the United Nations on the grounds that Saudi Arabia has allegedly rejected Qatar’s 2,000 pilgrims.

Qatar’s claim is baseless, because Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz specially opened the border crossing for the Qatari pilgrims. Based on the king’s order, Qatari pilgrims can enter Saudi Arabia through the Salwa border crossing to perform the hajj. The king’s order also says that Qataris can enter the country to perform the hajj without electronic permits. In addition, all Qatari pilgrims who have arrived at the King Fahd Airport in Dammam and the Al-Ahsa Airport have been given hospitality as part of the Saudi king’s programme for the hajj and the umrah, the lesser pilgrimage.

The order also included the king’s approval of private aircraft belonging to Saudi Airlines to be sent to Doha to transport Qatari pilgrims at the king’s expense to Jeddah and host them at his expense as guests for the hajj and umrah. Thus, Qatar’s claim that the Saudis have rejected Qatari pilgrims is baseless, and indeed Saudi Arabia has never rejected pilgrims of any nationality worldwide. In other words, Qatar’s attempt at politicising the hajj has another intention behind it, which is to support Turkish and Iranian efforts to internationalise the hajj.  

The term internationalisation means something becoming international rather than national in the legal sense. In the case of internationalising the hajj, this means that the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, as well as the other sites of the hajj in these two cities, would be controlled by a federation of Islamic countries and not by Saudi Arabia alone. This in turns would mean that all the city of Mecca and most of the city of Medina would be removed from Saudi sovereignty and placed under international sovereignty. This idea of internationalisation has been rejected by all Arab and Muslim countries, and Saudi Arabia considers it to be tantamount to a declaration of war.

Those countries that want to internationalise the hajj and its holy places want to remove Saudi authority and sovereignty over the holy cities. They demand that their countries be present in Saudi Arabia for one reason or another. Turkey dreams of returning to the Ottoman period, as if it still controlled the holy cities like when they were under Ottoman occupation. Iran dreams of having one foot on the soil of its enemy Saudi Arabia. As for Qatar, this thinks that following Iran and Turkey will make it important enough to fit into the shoes of the Saudi kingdom.

Consequently, when Turkey, Iran and Qatar think of internationalising the hajj, they think of this issue in the same manner as they think about the Vatican in Rome. They want to see the hajj cities of Mecca and Medina be made like the Vatican. But this similarity cannot stand. In the event of the internationalisation of the two holy cities, their administration and sovereignty would be shared by several countries. Thus, they would be run by international law and no longer by national law. As a result, the claim that the holy cities should be like the Vatican is misleading.


FALSE ANALOGIES: The Ottoman Empire was once compared with the former Holy Roman Empire in Europe such that terminology associated with the empire came to play a major role in the examination of Islamic institutions.

It is not so difficult, then, to imagine the confusion that has risen about the similarities and differences between the two institutions and related issues. It has been said that the Muslim “Caliph was both a Pope and an [Holy Roman] Emperor in one.” But the analogy is misleading, and the former Ottoman institution of the caliphate is not the only one that Muslims must conform to. Such false analogies are being used to take over the hearts and minds of those who are trying to internationalise the holy cities of the hajj and make them like the Vatican.

The analogy between the “hajj” of Christians to the Vatican and the hajj of Muslims to Mecca and Medina is also deceptive. Regarding the hajj Hajj of Muslims, one should be aware that Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed. In this holy city, there is also the Kaaba, which was renovated by Ibrahim (Abraham) centuries before the Prophet Mohamed himself. It was in Mecca that the prophet was raised and received the revelations and started his mission. It is in Mecca that the Mount of Arafat stands as one of the most sacred places for Muslims.

Medina is also known as the City of the Prophet, as it is the city to which the prophet migrated, lived in and is buried in, and it contains the prophet’s Grand Mosque. Thus, Mecca and Medina are at the core of the hajj, and Muslim pilgrims travel between these two cities to perform their rituals. Both are the cities of the prophet, and for those who believe in Islam it is necessary to perform the hajj once in their lifetimes to visit these cities and to follow in the prophet’s footsteps in his country. Mecca and Medina are thus quite unlike the Vatican.

Saudi Arabia welcomes everyone who comes to it for the hajj or umrah, and history shows that it has done everything possible to ensure the comfort of pilgrims. These pilgrims come from varying countries and have varying languages and cultural backgrounds, as well as varying educational levels and physical capacities. Some can read and follow signs, and some cannot. Either way, the efforts of the Saudi authorities in overcoming any difficulties have been enormous, and their achievement has been dazzling.

Calls to separate Mecca and Medina from Saudi Arabia and make them like the Vatican are thus at the very least misleading. These cities are the birthplace of Islam and the prophet and are under the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia. The two holy cities and whatever belongs to them are under the protection of the Saudi king, who has the title of the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in the era of the prophet was the prophet himself. This role was later taken over by the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the first four caliphs of Islam, and it was then carried out by the Umayyad and then the Abbasid dynasties that continued to care for these holy cities until these dynasties fell.

When king Abdel-Aziz founded Saudi Arabia and unified the Arabian Peninsula in the last century, he brought the holy cities of Mecca and Medina into his kingdom after they had been ruled by the former Ottoman Empire. Since then, the Saudi kingdom has always provided security and safety for pilgrims and visitors to the holy cities.

The writer is a professor of international relations at Monash University in Australia.

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