Two culpable rivals
What lies behind the Mecca tragedy? Yassamine Mather looks at the facts
Herded like cattle
On September 24, the Saudi authorities told the world that 769 pilgrims had been killed and 863 injured during what was described as a “stampede” in Mecca, as Muslim pilgrims were beginning the Hajj ritual. A few days later, however, it was claimed that Saudi officials had given Indian and Pakistani diplomats 1,100 photographs of different corpses, and it was only after these revelations that Riyadh admitted the death toll was even higher.
According to Tehran, at least 246 of the dead and 630 of those injured were Iranians. Amongst those missing and presumed dead at the time of writing was Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi. Saudi administrators denied he was in Mecca, but Tehran produced a short film of him addressing Shia crowds during this year’s Hajj. Official figures released by Saudi authorities had the number of Iranian deaths at 131 - the largest national contingent (the second largest being Moroccans, of whom 88 are believed to have died).
Later the Iranian broadcaster, Press TV, quoted Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage organisation, who predicted there would be “3,000 to 3,200 bodies” in the 21 containers where the dead had been placed - clearly an exaggerated figure.1 The Iranian official claimed that “imprudence, irresponsibility and the mismanagement of the Saudi authorities are the main factors behind the tragic incident”.2 Iran’s Islamic republic has done its utmost to place the entire blame on the Saudi authorities, challenging the kingdom’s competence to run this “important event in the Islamic calendar”.
Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an investigation, and his demand was echoed by every Friday prayer leader in the country, prompting religious zealots to pour to the streets. Instructions from mosques were sent by text, urging Shias to demonstrate, in what was labelled “spontaneous protests”. Supporters of the regime, carrying black flags, shouted: “The Saudi regime is a friend of Satan” (part of the Hajj ritual consists of pilgrims throwing stones at ‘Satan’). One paper, Tasnim, carried a cartoon showing king Salman of Saudi Arabia as a camel riding over pilgrims and ayatollah Mohammad Kashani, addressing Friday prayers in Tehran, called on the Organisation of Islamic Countries to take over responsibility for Hajj, since the Saudi authorities were “incapable” of running it.
The war of words between the two regional powers rapidly escalated, with Saudi Arabia categorically denying “misleading and distorted allegations” about inappropriate road closures that it alleged had been started by Iranian state-controlled media. Iran’s allies were repeating the same claims, with Iraq’s discredited former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, stating that the disaster was “proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season” - a bit rich, coming from a leader who lost two of his country’s major cities, Mosul and Tikrit, to Islamic State in 2014, through incompetence and corruption. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah added his voice to the Shia chorus, saying the Hajj tragedy reflected a “malfunction in the administration”.3
Originally the Saudi authorities had claimed that African pilgrims had disobeyed instructions given by the Hajj authorities blocking the route of the procession. However, Press TV (not the most reliable source of information) countered that “the convoy of prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the son of Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz, had arrived at the site, forcing the pilgrims to change their original directions”.4 Whereupon the Saudi media changed its story and Sabq News quoted unnamed “eyewitnesses”, who claimed that the “stampede” was actually caused by Iranian pilgrims. This was followed by a comment from Dr Khalid al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, who used his Twitter account to claim that “the time has come to think - in a serious way - about banning ‘Iranians’ from coming to Mecca, for the safety of the pilgrims”.5
The official Saudi response was more measured, with prince Mohammed bin Naff Al Saudi, the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, stating: “Claims that the stampede occurred following road closures because of a ministerial event or a dignitaries’ convoy are false.”6 However, Iran is not the only source claiming road closures played a part in the tragedy. On September 29 The Daily Telegraph quoted Libyan pilgrim Ahead Abu Barr as saying: “The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one.”7
To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, implied that nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. He told Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef: “As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.”8 Unsurprisingly, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani disagreed and demanded an international enquiry.
As I have said, the Islamic republic’s allegations about Saudi culpability are exaggerated, but there is no doubt that Riyadh’s incompetence in running the only major annual event they host should be exposed and condemned. This is not the first time that hundreds of Hajj pilgrims have died. In 1990 in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel, 1,426 pilgrims lost their lives - most of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis (the Saudi authorities encourage groups of each nationality to walk together). On top of that, incidents in May 1994, April 1998, March 2001, February 2003, February 2004 and January 2006 cost the lives of pilgrims - around 3,000 have perished in the last 20 years.
Given the Saudi royal family’s pride in hosting the event, the direct responsibility falls on the crown prince himself, who just happens to be minister of the interior. It is truly incomprehensible why even such a bureaucratic dictatorship cannot organise a better process, ensuring the safety of the pilgrims as they progress through the various stages of Hajj.
Hajj is the fifth ‘pillar’ of Islam - the other four being Shahadah (testimony to a single god and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet), Salat (physical and spiritual worship), Zakat (obligatory religious tax), and Sawm (fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan). According to Islamic belief, every Muslim man or woman should undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, should they be healthy and financially able to do so. The ceremony involves wearing a simple white cloth (hiram) - the idea being to strip away all distinctions of wealth, class, status and culture. Not quite true: in the first place, the cost of travel only allows the wealthy to attend Hajj, especially when it comes to believers from east Asia or Africa.
According to Basharat Peer, an Indian journalist who has written on Mecca,
You could be an Arab prince, you could be a south Asian construction worker, you could be an Afghan warlord … you are all wearing the same clothes and you just walk through this barren landscape and it is miserably hot. But when you look a little more carefully what you see is that even during the Hajj the distinctions of wealth and class do not disappear.9
The Saudi authorities have helped ensure such class distinction by overseeing the building of luxury hotels, where wealthy Muslims pay astronomical sums for rooms with a view of the Kaaba - the black stone structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque. The experience of the wealthy pilgrims is very different from that of the poorer ones, who suffer in the often sweltering heat in camp sites or hostels with no air conditioning.
As with everything else relating to Islamic economics, the ownership of land and capital are key factors. The cost of Hajj might be paid by the pilgrims, but the real price is obtained from the surplus value of workers, whose exploitation allows the Muslim shopkeeper or workshop owner to undertake the pilgrimage.
Hajjis from Iran are often representatives of the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie and small capital, on whose support the regime relies. Traditionally, the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches (who have accumulated huge fortunes under the Islamic republic) prefer to spend their wealth in holiday resorts in Europe or North America, while the less well-off middle classes and those who cannot afford to travel far would escape up Turkey, Dubai or anywhere near Iran’s border, where they can take a break free from strict Islamic regulation regarding dress, alcohol consumption, etc.
After over 36 years of unpopular rule, then, Iran’s Shia clerics can only rely a petty-bourgeois minority - primarily the bazaaris and shopkeepers, the section of the population that tends to be obsessed by Hajj. Hence the regime’s overzealous response to the Mecca tragedy, which can be blamed in its entirety on Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.
However, it is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. After all, Iran’s Islamic government cannot guarantee the health and safety of Iranian workers or flight passengers - let alone its political prisoners (many of whom ‘accidentally’ die in the regime’s many prisons).