Hajj, a Muslim religious gathering which amasses as many as 3 million Muslims from around the world each year to the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, is an International event involving many great personalities often being part of the symbolic rituals, obligatory for a capable Muslim atleast once in his lifetime. The Pilgrims are required to be in a state of absolute mental and physical purity, and is symbolic to the safety and security of the venue, being a peaceful and spiritual event.
However, this gathering, whose purpose is to elevate a Muslim spiritually and assure safety to the pilgrims, has not always been peaceful and secure, as year after year pilgrims die due to “accidents”, many of which are exactly at the same spot repeatedly, causing hundreds of pilgrims, sometimes thousands to die due to stampede, bridge collapsing, tent-fires, crane falling, etc.
Below is a list of such incidents which will give you an idea of the tragedies which have occurred during Hajj.
- July 2, 1990: A stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel (Al-Ma’aisim tunnel) led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims.
- May 23, 1994: 270 pilgrims killed at the stoning of the Devil ritual.
- April 9, 1998: 118 pilgrims were trampled to death, 180 injured in an incident on Jamaraat Bridge.
- March 5, 2001: 35 pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede during the stoning of the Devil ritual.
- February 11, 2003: The stoning of the Devil ritual claimed 14 pilgrims’ lives.
- February 1, 2004: 251 pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.
- January 12, 2006: A stampede during the stoning of the Devil killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured at least 289 more.
- September 24, 2015: At least 2000-3000 pilgrims were killed during a stampede. The Saudi government is yet to release an official report.
- September 11, 2015: A crane fell in the grand mosque, ten days before Hajj. 118 people died and 394 were injured.
- December 1975: An exploding gas cylinder caused a fire in a tent colony and resulted in the deaths of 200 pilgrims.
- April 15, 1997: 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire.
Now the question is, whether Saudi Arabia has been taking efforts to better manage this massive gathering. It is interesting to note that, apparently, Saudi Arabia has been spending a lot of money in its attempt to avoid such mishaps. In 2006, it constructed a $1.2 billion, five-storey bridge where pilgrims can toss stones in Mina. However, the 2006 and 2015 incidents following this new infrastructure, which have been the worst in Hajj history, still hold the question whether this infrastructure build-up is sufficient to manage the event.
Another question is – the long walk to reach Mina at the allotted time. If you cannot keep pace with the group, you will be late, and probably lost, no wonder the pilgrims are in a state of panic. To add to this, the language spoken by the security volunteers is only Arabic, and as such the pilgrims do not understand their directions.
Why hasn’t the Saudi Government trained their security volunteers to speak multiple most common languages, enough to guide the pilgrims, and keep regional representatives to cater to issues where language barrier causes further chaos and misunderstandings?
Many Muslim countries reacted to the 2015 horrific tragedy, some directly blaming the Saudi Government to be responsible for the disaster.
Algeria did not blame the Saudi Government, but asked proper investigation of the matter, and compensation for the families of the victims. Bangaldesh’s Religious Affairs Secretary heavily criticized Saudi Arabia saying, “The way the Saudi security officials removed the bodies from the site seemed as if they were dumping garbage,” adding, “The stampede has laid bare the Saudi authorities’ mismanagements,”. Indonesian officials criticized Saudi Arabia’s response to the disaster, saying authorities in the kingdom prevented their diplomats from seeing initial data and blocked their immediate access to the dead.
Likewise Senegal and Syria, expressed dissatisfaction at the management of the Hajj, while Nigerian religious leaders were infuriated when Mecca Governor blamed Africans for “not following instructions”. Turkish religious leaders also voiced dissatisfaction over the Hajj Management, not to forget the Lebanese Nationalist Leader Hassan Nasrallah who lashed out very strongly at Saudi Government for careless management.
Iran, which held the largest casualties in the 2015 incident, nearly 500 or more, has been at the forefront of all those who have opposed the Saudi Government as being incapable of managing Hajj, and has repeatedly called for investigation of the matter, and for setting up an International Body to manage Hajj Affairs. Iran’s Leader Khamenei has, a few days ago, in a message directed for Muslims during Hajj, strongly questioned the Saudi Government about the Hajj tragedies, particularly last year’s incident. He expressed deep sadness over the fact that not only were the injured not treated, they were kept thirsty and then packed in a container together with the dead, and were “murdered”. He further went on to shed light on the fact that the Saudis have hired American and Israeli security agencies  for surveillance during Hajj, something which Muslims would seriously dislike would they but know it.
Besides, this year, 3 countries are prohibited from Hajj, namely Iran, Syria and Yemen, which is further a reason for Iran’s leader to come hard against the Saudis. Iran and Saudi held diplomatic negotiations over the safety concerns of the event, over which Saudi did not provide sufficient efforts and assurances of safety and security measures as demanded by Iran.
Saudi Officials have yet to release an investigation report of the 2015 Mina Tragedy, despite modern security equipment throughout the Holy cities, and surveillance cameras, this delay in an investigation throws Saudi Arabia’s genuineness into darkness.
So the question is, while several countries which lost their citizens in the disasters in 2015 have questioned the Hajj management, and called for an investigation, why hasn’t Saudi Arabia produced one? Why aren’t the guilty brought forth and tried, or even identified?
Any incident which occurs in any industry is carefully investigated for two basic reasons: 1) To find the root cause of the incident; 2) To take corrective action and avoid the same in future.
So, the question again is, what is the assurance of safety that this incident has been investigated and corrective actions been taken to avoid this repetition in future?
While Muslims hold Mecca and Medina sacred, and the Hajj Pilgrimage as a matter of high spirituality and Holiness, they deem it wrong to object over the Hajj arrangements. However, it is due to their neglect of safety concerns, and their respect of the Holy place which causes them to wrongly support the existing Hajj management.
Saudi Response to Iran’s Questions: “Iranian’s are not Muslims”
Saudi leaders and clerics are reluctant to talk about the investigation, as their proceedings to the questions have not been in lines with International Safety regimes which are expected to be adopted by authorities responsible for such international events at this massive scale. As the social media was buzzing with anti-Saudi remarks following the message of Iran’s Leader this week, questioning the safety of pilgrims in Hajj, the shocking response which Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh gave was: “Iranians are not Muslims.” As observers and international agencies watch this year’s hajj where 3 million devout worshippers perform their Hajj rituals, it can merely be hoped that those horrific disasters do not occur again.