Saudi Government Responsible for Pilgrims Death
By Ali Al-Ahmed
January 13, 2006 – In what seems to be an annual occurrence, hundreds of Muslim pilgrims have died in a stampede while performing their religious duties outside Makkah, Saudi Arabia. This is the second tragedy that strikes the pilgrims in a week. A hotel collapse in Makkah caused the death of 90 pilgrims.
The Saudi government, who has been the sole caretaker of the holiest cities in Islam, Makkah and Medina, for over 80 years, has so far refused to admit responsibility for the long list of catastrophes that caused the death of thousands of Muslims. Typically, the Saudis lay blame on the victims themselves, or on God. “What happened was God’s will” is a typical statement given by Saudi officials. Instead, in this incident, the pilgrims and luggage from busses were blamed by Saudi officials. Saudi Health Minister Hamed Al-Maneh told the media the stampede was caused by “unruly pilgrims, and a problem of luggage.” A heartless Saudi government has never taken responsibility or offered a single apology after any of the incidents that have killed hundreds of pilgrims.
Typical of unelected governments and officials such catastrophes go unpunished. There has not been a single Saudi official who was disciplined or relieved from his duties in spite of numerous Hajj catastrophes. The Minister of Interior, Naif, who is also the head of Supreme Hajj Committee that has been running Hajj operations for 30 years with repeated failures, is certainly secure in his positions.
The Saudi government must courageously take responsibly for the catastrophes and hold involved officials accountable through a transparent process. To protect the credibility of Saudi government, it must remove and punish responsible officials, even those from the ruling tribe of Al-Saud.
Hajj is not the largest religious meeting attended by Muslims. There are larger religious festivals in Iraq and Bangladesh that are attended by more than 3 million people. These festivals have not witnessed the repeated catastrophes repeatedly occurring in Hajj. In Iraq, the annual commemoration of Ashura, and other Shia Muslim festivals attract millions to Karbala, and Najaf. In Bangladesh an annual religious festival called Ijtema, attracts more than 3 million people. Apart from terrorist attacks on Iraqi Shia, both festivals have not witnessed such calamites although they are held in much poorer countries than Saudi Arabia. [i]
The main cause of repeated Hajj disasters has been the Saudi methodology in managing the Hajj. They have been managing Hajj using security and military forces; lead by a paranoid minister of interior. Instead of approaching Hajj from its service and crowd-control angle, the Saudis have been employing heavy handed security tactics that caused such tragedies. In fact the incident at Mina Thursday was mainly caused by the large number of Saudi army soldiers who were tasked with shoving the pilgrims in tight lines. The 1990’s death of over 2000 pilgrims was caused by similar security action. The killer stampede inside Al-Muasim tunnel occurred after the tunnel’s exit was blocked by Saudi police to allow a Saudi minister’s motorcade a clear path. Last year, over 250 pilgrims died in a similar stampede in the same place. According to photos obtained by the Gulf Institute, the Saudi government desecrated the bodies of dead pilgrims by collecting them using garbage trucks.
Civilians specifically trained in crowd control must be in charge of Hajj instead of untrained Saudi army soldiers who are reportedly rude and aggressive with the pilgrims.
Where are the Films?
The Saudi government has stationed hundreds of cameras across pilgrimage routes, and where they congregate. Certainly the incident yesterday was taped through more than one camera. These tapes should be released unedited to the media and all Muslims governments. The failure to do so will only confirm Saudi culpability in the repeated death of Muslim pilgrims.
Most Muslims Don’t Perform Hajj:
The reality is that most Muslims, over 1 billion people, are not able to perform Hajj. According to the quota system engineered by Saudi Arabia through the Organization of Islamic State, each Muslim country is not allowed to send more than 1 pilgrim for each 1000 citizens. This means that only 0.001% of Muslims are eligible for Hajj. According to the Saudi government, only 2.5 million Muslims attended Hajj this year, and of these about half a million came from Saudi Arabia itself. The number of eligible pilgrims will increase drastically over the next few years, leading to larger strains in the current management.
A Muslim Solution:
The Saudi failure to conduct an incident-free Hajj necessitates the involvement of Muslim talent from countries with experience in managing large congregations. It is imperative that the issue of Hajj management be addressed with all involved. Muslims from around the world who partake in this holy duty must be consulted to reach the best solution.
Allowing other Muslim countries to participate in the management of the Hajj operations is a major step in ensuring a safe Hajj for all. Other Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey have a long history of experience in managing large religious congregations. Malaysia has been among the leading Muslim governments in preparing their pilgrims for the experience[ii]. Moreover, expertise by amusement parks such as Disney Land can be utilized. This issue must be urgently addressed before the number of pilgrims reaches 5 million people.
Timeline: Hajj Catastrophes
1990 – Stampede in tunnel at Mecca causes deaths of 2000 pilgrims.
1994 – Stampede near Jamarat Bridge in Mina kills 270.
1997 – Fire kills 343 pilgrims at camp in Mina.
1998 – Stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 119.
2001 – Stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 35.
2003 – Stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills at least 14.
2004 – Stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills at least 251.
2006 – Collapse of Makka hostel housing pilgrims kills 76
[i] Ijtma Festival in Bangladesh http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1773722.stm