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Saudi-Iran Hajj spat more political than religious

September 9, 2016 at 2:05 pm

In recent days, tempers have flared, voices have been raised and scathing words have been uttered by both Saudi Arabia and Iran as their dispute over the annual Islamic pilgrimage raged on. The Hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam that must be performed by every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their lives, has become an arena for a political showdown between the two regional rivals. Although tensions are uncharacteristically high, quarrels over the Hajj are nothing new in this relationship.

The recent troubles began early this year when Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, who they convicted of supporting and inciting terrorism in Saudi’s restive Eastern Province. Al-Nimr was long viewed by Riyadh as an Iranian flunky due to his strongly held views against the Saudi monarchy and his statements that they and other Gulf Arab monarchs were destined to hell.

In retaliation for Al-Nimr’s execution, Iranian demonstrators descended upon the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set it ablaze. Although Iran later expressed “regret” over the incident, Saudi Arabia and its allies took a very dim view of it and many of them downgraded, or completely severed, diplomatic ties with the Shia theocracy. Indeed, the Saudis closed down their embassy and recalled their ambassador.

Realising that it was unlikely to get away with failing to protect a sovereign nation’s embassy, Iran brought up Saudi’s perceived lack of security and concern for the safety of Muslim pilgrims at last year’s Hajj and demanded that Saudi had to guarantee the safety of Iranian pilgrims. The Hajj last year was marred by a deadly stampede that killed 769 pilgrims, and Iran fully took advantage of the tragedy in an attempt to gain the moral high ground.

Aside from alleged safety concerns, the Iranians demanded that Saudi Arabia issue Hajj visas to Iranian pilgrims through the Swiss embassy in light of the fact that the Saudi mission was now closed. However, Saudi retorted that the Iranians could easily use the online visa system that is used by aspiring pilgrims the world over, and would not be making any special concessions for the Iranians. After all, the Iranians could hardly complain about visas when they did nothing to prevent the Saudi embassy from being burnt down.

This tit-for-tat exchange eventually led to talks between the two nations breaking down last May, and Iran announcing that its citizens would not be visiting Makkah this year. The conflagration was reignited earlier this week when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei denounced the Saudi authorities as “puny Satans” in service of the “Great Satan”, the United States. Khamenei also suggested that the Saudi royal family was not Muslim.

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Al Al-Sheikh furiously shot back that the Iranian regime were “enemies of Islam” and the “descendants of Zoroastrians”, indicating that he similarly believed that the Iranians were not Muslims just as they thought the Saudis were not.

Interestingly, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef accused Iran of “politicising” the Hajj, and this appears to be precisely the case. After all, Iran has been calling for the responsibility of organising the Hajj to be delegated to Muslim countries around the world rather than remaining the remit of Saudi Arabia alone.

This poses the question – has Saudi really failed in its administration of the Hajj and its service for the pilgrims who come to visit Islam’s holiest site? The answer to that would be a resounding “no”. As one example, Saudi invested tens of millions of dollars to enhance safety and security, including greatly expanding the Jamarat pillars where Muslims have to ritually stone the devil they believe to be bound there. These expansions were not only in width, but also included tiered walkways that made the entire ritual infinitely safer by reducing human traffic and congestion, as all those who have ever been on the Hajj can easily attest to.

Naturally, deaths are bound to occur; particularly as many pilgrims are elderly or otherwise enfeebled. Muslims gather in their millions from all around the world and converge usually in one mosque (the Sacred Mosque that houses the Kaaba) in one city – Makkah. Diseases and viruses that are prevalent in one part of the world accompany the pilgrims and mix together to create public health problems that are, in the main, admirably handled by the Saudi Hajj ministry.

Last year’s stampede was a relatively rare occurrence, so it can be stated fairly comfortably that Iran is trying to manipulate a tragic event in order to diminish a regional rival. This can be seen by the fact that all Muslims consider custodianship and service of Makkah and Medina, the most sacred places on Earth to Muslims the world over, a great honour. By “internationalising” the governance of these cities and the pilgrimages there, Iran would deal a substantial blow to the prestige of the Saudi kingdom.

Since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian regime has consistently encouraged pilgrims under its authority to use the Hajj as an opportunity to grandstand and make political statements.

Indeed, this led to a deadly clash in 1987 when Iranian pilgrims, joined by their Lebanese and Pakistani coreligionists, turned violent after being reminded that they were not allowed to demonstrate during the Hajj when they were caught shouting slogans of “Death to America! Death to the Soviet Union! Death to Israel!” rather than engaging in declarations of faith and other Islamic rituals.

As should now be clear, Iran has taken the Islamic holy pilgrimage and attempted to transform it into a political theatre in order to avenge perceived slights and diplomatic tensions. After all, apart from their long history of politicising the Hajj, Iran failed to protect the Saudi embassy after Al-Nimr’s execution, while failing to appreciate how other Sunni powers did not allow Iranian diplomatic missions in their countries to be attacked despite Iran routinely executing its own Sunni population, including clerics.

Before Iran lectures others on the sanctity of human life and religious freedoms, it would be well advised to firstly look within its own borders first before peering deeply and contemplatively into the mirror.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.