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Middle East: The Hajj (Part 4) -- Pilgrims Dismiss Terror Fears Amid Saudi Security Deployment

  • Zamira Eshanova

http://gdb.rferl.org/ACDA85C5-8103-4BE1-9AD8-47C721C746B7_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/ACDA85C5-8103-4BE1-9AD8-47C721C746B7_mw800_mh600.jpg Saudi security forces preparing for this year's hajj Some 1.5 million-2.5 million Muslims are expected to take part in the world's biggest religious congregation -- the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj. Although the hajj is a spiritual ritual, there are fears that militants could try to disrupt the hajj as part of their ongoing resistance to the Saudi regime. While there is no history of terrorist attacks during the hajj, Saudi Arabia has been battling a wave of violence by militants linked to Al-Qaeda. More than 100 people have been killed, many of them foreigners, since May 2003. Some 50,000 Saudi security forces are reported to be deployed during this year's hajj, with some 10,000 of them assigned directly to security matters. In the fourth and final part of our series on the hajj, RFE/RL looks at what security precautions the Saudis are putting in place and speaks with pilgrims, who largely discount the terror threat. (In Part 1 --> /featuresarticle/2005/01/cf26e68a-2dc4-4ebc-9c22-32eeee5f8b45.html of this series, RFE/RL examines the history, rituals, and meaning of the pilgrimage; in Part 2 --> /featuresarticle/2005/01/3c24591b-8bed-42dd-ab5e-5d6bc90f84f9.html , RFE/RL reports that the number of young Muslims making the journey to Mecca appears to be growing; in Part 3 --> /featuresarticle/2005/01/4f5c109a-7670-426e-a3ec-cb4217782165.html , we look at complaints of bribery, corruption, and price gouging at the annual pilgrimage.)

Prague, 18 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Said one Uzbek hajji: "No, I am not concerned. People go to the hajj with a readiness to sacrifice their lives. We bid farewell to everyone and asked for everyone's forgiveness."

Another Uzbek, a woman, who is participating in this year's hajj, added: "I am not aware of such threats. I am very positive and wish to return home safely. All my relatives will be waiting."

As renowned Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf explained, Muslims believe that, if they die during the hajj, they will be granted great rewards in the afterlife.

"Great rewards are promised. If a pilgrim dies in a special cloth [ihram] while doing the hajj, that person will be resurrected in the same state on judgment day, according to the holy promise," Yusuf said. "During Prophet Muhammad's time, a hajji fell off his camel, broke his neck and died. While comforting his relatives, the Prophet Muhammad said, 'Allah, the exalted, will raise him on the day of resurrection with talbiyah [the words uttered during the hajj by pilgrims] on his lips."

Another reason pilgrims discount the threat of terrorism is that the hajj is defined as the holiest of all times on Earth. Violence is strictly prohibited. The pilgrims are God's guests. Yusuf said that's why no Islamic extremist groups dare threaten the peace and prayers.

"There is no Islamic group or sect, whatever the level of its delusion, whatever violent slogans they carry, which allows itself a suicide or other terror attacks on hajjis," Yusuf said. "So far, we have not seen anything like this."

Khaleed al-Maeena is editor in chief of the leading Saudi English daily "Arab News." He said Muslim communities will not tolerate any kind of violence during the hajj.
Eye-scanning and fingerprinting devices were installed at King Abd al-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, the entry point for up to 80 percent of the expected 1.5 million-2.5 million pilgrims this year. The new technology is designed to track suspicious individuals amid Saudi fears that Al-Qaeda might use the hajj to recruit new members, if not organize actual terrorist attacks.


"They also cannot do these things [terrorist attacks] for one reason: whatever little support that they have they [would] lose it, because people will not tolerate it," al-Maeena said. "Remember, the pilgrims are coming from all over the world. It is a time of peace and a time for prayer. Who would do such an inhuman thing in any prayer place and try to place a bomb or cause any terrorist actions?"

Nevertheless, Saudi authorities have imposed strict security measures. Eye-scanning and fingerprinting devices were installed at King Abd al-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, the entry point for up to 80 percent of the expected 1.5 million-2.5 million pilgrims this year. The new technology is designed to track suspicious individuals amid Saudi fears that Al-Qaeda might use the hajj to recruit new members, if not organize actual terrorist attacks.

Many Islamic scholars and historians say security precautions have always been a part of the hajj and that Saudi authorities have to guard the image of the pilgrimage itself as much as their own image as a peaceful country.

Kazzem Khwaja is a member of the National Executive Committee of Hezb ut-Tahrir in the United Kingdom. The group officially espouses peaceful means to achieving its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate, but it's been blamed by Central Asian governments for a recent upsurge in Islamist violence.

Khwaja said he believes that Saudi security measures are part of its attempts to control political discussions during the hajj.

"I am sure that there are many attempts to create fear amongst the Muslim communities and there is an attempt to control very tightly the discussion of Islam," Khwaja said. "For many of these governments, the physical threat is far smaller than the intellectual threat, which is the fact that many of the Muslims will be congregating, they will be from many corners of the world and it is an avenue for great discussion amongst the Muslims around the world."

Al-Maeena of "Arab News" said Saudi authorities are eager to control any kind of political activity during the hajj, since the hajj is a spiritual event, not a political platform.

"Remember one thing -- that the Saudis do not tolerate any political discussion or any political demonstration during the time of hajj," al-Maeena said. "Remember, for the pilgrim, it is a time for peace and a time for prayer."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the prominent Washington-based Islamic civil rights and advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations, said fear that Islamic extremists might use the hajj to recruit new members is pushing not only Saudi, but also U.S. authorities, to take some drastic measures.

"Well, our main concern at this point is not so much that there is some kind of attack in Saudi Arabia," Hooper said. "In fact, I don't think there has ever been an incident of terrorism associated with the hajj in Saudi Arabia. The safety concerns generally result from overcrowding. But our main concern as an American Muslim organization this year is the American Muslims who will be returning from hajj, and how they will be treated at the U.S. border."

Hooper said the group's concern is based on reports that American Muslims who have recently engaged in religious activities abroad have been fingerprinted upon their return. He estimated that around 10,000 American Muslims are attending the hajj in 2005.

Hooper said he hopes American hajjis will be able to join their fellow Muslims in Mecca, complete one of the five pillars of Islam, and return home safely and without harassment.

Editor Al-Maeena, who himself has performed the hajj three times, said he believes that, despite security fears, the pilgrims are focused on only one thing: "What I really believe is that when you go there you completely forget who is there and who is not there. You are absolutely devoted to prayers and begging the almighty God for peace and prosperity, not only for yourself but for the world over. So I think that the prime concern of anyone who is here is to perform the pilgrimage."

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said the government is "doing its best to make this hajj secure for all the guests of God. But security at the hajj is an issue of cooperation."
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