- Oct 10, 2009
This month, hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the globe are converging upon the Saudi Arabian holy cities of Mecca and Medina to perform the hajj, the pilgrimage that believers are supposed to make at least once in their lives as long as they have the health and the means to manage it. The hajj takes place this year from Nov. 25 to 29, but many of the faithful are already thronging the airport and docks of Jeddah, the main entry point for pilgrims.
It's an event of huge religious significance. Some three million Muslims from all around the world -- Indians and Pakistanis, Nigerians and Bosnians, Arabs and non-Arabs, rich and poor, Sunni and Shia -- will commune, worship, and celebrate the global unity of Islam. They'll be performing the same set of ritual acts, dressed in exactly the same clothes, all equal in the sight of God. For those who've completed the hajj, it's a lifetime landmark, a transformative religious experience.
In reality, though, there's another reason why the hajj is important -- even if most Muslims would rather it weren't the case. Today's hajj -- given the widening sectarian rifts within Islam -- is also very much about politics. To some extent, of course, it's always been that way. The royals in Riyadh have always taken their guardianship of the Two Holy Places in Mecca and Medina as a key to the spiritual and political guidance of the global community of believers. (It should be said, by the way, that though the Saudis invariably evoke the "nonpolitical" character of the hajj, they've also been known to shower pilgrims with literature espousing the benefits of the sere Wahhabi version of Islam that holds inside the kingdom.)
Given this potentially explosive mix of politics and religion, the recent war of words between the governments of Iran and the hajj's Saudi Arabian hosts deserves to be taken seriously. On Oct. 26, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, met with officials from the Iranian hajj organizing committee and seized the occasion to rail against alleged past mistreatment of his compatriots during the pilgrimage.
"Such acts are against the unity of Muslims and contribute to the goals and wishes of the U.S. and foreign intelligence services," he said. "The Saudi government should fulfill its duty in confronting these acts." He received immediate support from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who warned on his Web site that the government in Tehran would respond with a "necessary decision" to defend the dignity of Iranian pilgrims.
On Nov. 2 the Saudi cabinet of ministers fired back: "The kingdom does not permit any party to disrupt the security of the pilgrims or to attempt to divide the ranks of Muslims." The text didn't mention Iran by name, but everyone in the region knew whom the Saudis had in mind. The hajj has remained a central battleground for these two rivals at least since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for regional influence and worked to spread their competing interpretations of Islam. Those divisions remain alive and well despite some superficial improvements in places like Iraq and Lebanon -- and hopeful rhetoric from President Obama. The rise of a Shia-dominated government in Iraq and Iran's nuclear aspirations certainly haven't helped to assuage Saudi fears.
Throughout the 1980s, Iranian pilgrims tried to use the hajj as an opportunity to propagate Islam à la Khomeini. That conflict culminated in full-scale riots in 1987, when Saudi security forces opened fire on demonstrators. The clashes resulted in 402 deaths, not to mention some 600 wounded. That's a nightmare that the Saudis, presumably, would do anything to avoid. And they probably aren't finding much consolation in a recent statement by an Iranian government spokesman that this year's Iranian pilgrims are planning to stage a "peaceful demonstration" calling for "Death to Israel, Death to America." (Apparently, he didn't notice any irony.)