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Pilgrims Will Be Pilgrims?

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And trample each other to death – every year. Andrew Anthony thinks it may be pertinent to mention this inconvenient little fact.:

    Listening to a report last Saturday on From Our Own Correspondent, I heard John Simpson describe the Haj as a “superbly organised” event. I remember thinking that this was an odd choice of phrase. It’s true that the pilgrimage to Mecca is the largest annual gathering of humans in the world, with more than two million Muslims arriving in Saudi Arabia from around the globe. And therefore just housing and feeding that number of people is in itself an achievement.
    But despite the impressive manner in which a major conurbation’s worth of people are moved in and out of the Saudi desert, the Haj has suffered frequent problems. Not trifling problems, such as a shortage of air-conditioned accommodation, but serious stuff such as bombs, riots, epidemics, and large-scale death. Back in 1990 a stampede in a tunnel killed 1,426 people. Three years earlier some 400 Shi’ites were killed in skirmishes with Saudi security forces.

    In 1979, a battle raged for two weeks between Islamic radicals, who took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and Saudi troops. At the end of it 127 Saudi soldiers lay dead, with more than 450 injured, and several hundred militants were killed; 63 of the surviving rebels were beheaded in the biggest mass execution in Saudi history.

    ….Anyway, the very next day, at the climax of the Haj, 244 pilgrims were trampled to death during the stoning of the devil ceremony. To those of us used to the cry of judicial inquiry whenever an accident leads to even a handful of fatalities, 244 dead could be seen as something of an organisational failure. But apparently not. When questioned about the safety measures that were in place, Iyad bin Amin Madani, the Saudi minister for the Haj, replied: “I assure you that all preparations are always made, but we don’t always know God’s intentions.”

    Ah, yes, God, He moves in mysterious ways. Surely one of the greatest mysteries is why He should see fit to move with such lethal regularity on visitors to the Haj. It seems particularly ill-fitting that the vast crowd were shouting “God is greatest” at the very moment that He revealed His tragic intentions.

    I’m no theologian, so I can’t pretend to understand the apparent contradiction of a religious festival celebrating God in which the celebrants, as part of God’s grand scheme, are trampled to death. [Guardian]

Yes, when in doubt blame Allah, not poor crowd control, mass hysteria, indifference for human life, and other such human foibles. Why the lack of concern?

    The main reason for this, I suspect, is that the west is in no way responsible for these deaths – which in the past 25 years of the Haj run into the thousands. Thus, unlike, say, the victims of the war in Iraq, they are without political significance and therefore moral weight. At the same time, no one else is interested in bringing attention to this recurring carnage because western governments – some of whose citizens are part of the pilgrimage – are afraid of offending the Saudis. And most westerners probably dismiss the whole thing as the strange workings of religious fanaticism.

    But of course the loss of each of these lives was a needless tragedy. All Muslims who are able to travel are obliged to perform the Haj once before they die. They are not obliged to perform it once and then die.

    The Saudis have announced that they will set up a committee to look at reorganising the Haj. But to have any real effect they need first to reorganise themselves. After the battle of 1979, the Saudis responded to the extremist threat by handing responsibility for religious and moral affairs to the extremists.

    ….God’s intentions are not an explanation for incidents such as this and the stampede on Sunday. They are an excuse. Similarly, to hold the Saudis to account for these deaths is not an act of a racism. But it is a form of racism to ignore them.

The relative lack of value that Islamists put on human life is the exact reason their culture has failed. It is well and good to take comfort in notions of a paradisiacal afterlife – I know I do – but we must live our lives fully in the here and now and act as if every human life were irreducibly precious. Because they are.

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