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Saudi Arabia: An Ancient Ritual, This Year's Hajj Wore A Modern Face

  • Don Hill

Nearly 2 million Muslims descended on Saudi Arabia in February for the hajj, the pilgrimage required at least once in the lifetime of all Islamic faithful able to make the trip. Muslim clergy customarily use the occasion for sermons on established themes, including calls for Islamic unity. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill talks to Muslim scholars and commentators to find out how the U.S.-declared war on terrorism affected this year's hajj.

Prague, 26 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- From one perspective, the hajj -- the holy pilgrimage that devout Muslims make to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if they can -- never changes.

Pilgrims journey by land, sea, and air from all over the world in the season of the hajj. They approach Mecca in Saudi Arabia devoutly and in prescribed stages. The 2002 hajj ended on 24 February.

On 21 February, Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Sheik, called for Islamic unity in a sermon delivered from Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammad preached his last sermon almost 14 centuries ago. That, too, was traditional.

However, there were also differences this year. The terrorist attacks of 11 September hung silently in the air over Mecca, as did memories of the U.S.-led attacks on the Al-Qaeda terror network and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sheik Al-Sheik said in his sermon that Islam requires protecting the weak and unarmed and is incompatible with terrorism. He also made evident that what one group calls terrorism, another may call self-defense. Referring to Israel, he said this: "Fighting the oppressed Muslims in Palestine is terrorism and repression."

An estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide are Muslims. Many like to remind followers and outsiders alike that Islamic holy scripture, the Koran, describes Islam as a faith of peace. But the Koran also has passages commanding Muslims to meet force with force whenever Islam is challenged, even to the point of a jihad, or holy struggle.

Abdul Jalali, an author on Islamic history and practices, holds a doctorate in history from the University of Kabul. He is one of those who focuses on the peaceful face of Islam. He says that Muslims who murder, engage in terrorism or commit assaults on innocent bystanders do not understand their own religion.

"Jihad is a holy war against those who are aggressive and unjust, enemies of peaceful nations or countries, no matter where the nations and what are their beliefs and thoughts. But terrorism is an act of criminals and those who do not know the [correct] Islamic behavior toward mankind," Jalali says.

Jalali says that an emphasis on Islamic unity is traditional in sermons on the occasion of the hajj: "Generally, the rules of hajj and the spirit which follows the completion of its performance are the same, like every year, when pilgrims specially gather at the Mount of Arafat in Mecca and pray for Islamic unity and prosperity of all Muslims worldwide."

Ancient religions, however, operate in a world that is changing.

In past years, hajj pilgrims often devoted 10 or more years of their lives journeying from far Russia, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia to Saudi Arabia. Many of this year's 1.5 million foreigners arrived by bus and even chartered airliner. Pilgrims used to come by camel caravan, bearing their own provisions, including tents, ready to face immense difficulties to make the hajj. This year, Saudi religious authorities provided uncounted numbers of fireproof tents for shelter, after a 1997 fire killed almost 350 pilgrims. Vendors supplied necessary, and even luxury, foodstuffs.

Travelers with the means equipped their tents with satellite television, computers, fax, and Internet connections. Mobile telephones were ubiquitous.

As hundreds of thousands of pilgrims performed the symbolic stoning of the devil on 24 February in the last hours of the hajj, casting pebbles at stone pillars, helicopters circled overhead. Police and traffic control officers directed and managed the crowds. Security forces and riot police stood by in personnel carriers and buses. No major incidents were reported.

Saudi authorities announced long before the hajj began that anti-U.S. demonstrations were forbidden. But as they often have before, Iranians held a ceremony within their camp to condemn the United States and Israel.

Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally maintaining warm relations with the United States. Still, many Westerners continue to recall that Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is a native of Saudi Arabia, although exiled and in official disrepute there, and that 15 of the 19 suspected hijackers in the 11 September attacks were Saudi citizens.

In the same way, there is a body of opinion in the Islamic world that U.S.-led forces killed indiscriminately in their attacks on Afghanistan. And that the U.S. is culpable in what many Muslims consider Israeli aggression against Palestinians in the Mideast.

Fahmi Howaydi is a Cairo-based columnist for six Arab newspapers. When asked how the atmosphere of the hajj differed this year, he told RFE/RL that the bombing deaths of Afghan civilians since 7 October now overshadow the deaths from the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September:

"On 11 of September, the people [of the world] were shocked by the killing of about 3,000 Americans. But you can imagine Muslims' feelings when they know that 20,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan after 7 October [when the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan began]," Howaydi says.

Not all of those who died in the World Trade Center attack were Americans. In the indiscriminate way of terror attacks, the victims were random, including many Muslims. Also, such is the chaos in Afghanistan that nobody knows how many Taliban, Al-Qaeda fighters, and noncombatants died in the bombing there. Western critics of civilian deaths from the U.S.-led assaults in Afghanistan condemn what the U.S. military has labeled unavoidable "collateral damage," but the highest nonpartisan estimates of civilian bombing deaths do not reach 4,000, and are certainly nowhere near 20,000.

Even so, there is little doubt that Howaydi speaks for a substantial body of opinion in the Arab world when he says some Muslims consider themselves under attack: "People here are thinking about things in a different way. Now they are seeing the attacks on terrorism as if the Americans and some Western politicians are attacking Islam itself."

U.S. authorities, including President George W. Bush, have said from the outset that the targets of the "war on terrorism" are criminal terrorists, not Muslims. Islamic leaders in the United States say that 5.7 million Muslims live there peacefully.

The Egyptian journalist, however, also reiterates the view of some Arabs that the U.S. support of Israel is by nature inimical to Islam: "The people cannot imagine that the Americans are leading the war against terrorism and at the same time they are supporting and justifying the terrorism committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians. So this is a double standard."