I have been blessed to perform the Hajj pilgrimage on two occasions, and can confirm that being part of the greatest Islamic show on earth is not only life-changing, but also a privilege granted by the Almighty.
One of the first things that we who embrace Islam later in life are taught is that the pilgrimage to Makkah is a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims who have the financial and physical ability to undertake the spiritual journey at least once in a lifetime while maintaining support for their family back home. I will cherish the memory and hold it in my heart forever. Whenever I’m invited to talk about my experience, I see peoples’ eyes well up with tears as they recall their own Hajj, while others continue to dream that one day they’ll also be an honoured “guest of God”.
Talking and writing about my wonderful experience makes me sad, though, because I know that I will probably never be allowed to go back to Makkah, and that if I should ever step foot in Saudi Arabia again there is genuine cause for concern that I will not be allowed to leave. I am not alone in being in such a position.
Just when many observers thought that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia couldn’t stoop any lower in terms of human rights, a group of leading humanitarian organisations and activists have accused the regime of weaponising Hajj and Umrah (the Lesser Pilgrimage) to punish political opponents or journalists like me who criticise the regime’s abuse of power.
It’s an astonishing claim set out in a statement signed by the London-based Sanad Organisation and others, including the International Centre for Justice; the Scholars’ Forum; Cage; the Community of Tunisian Scholars; the Emirates Detainees’ Advocacy Centre; and the Institute for Gulf Affairs. The signatories make clear that Muslim activists, politicians and scholars from around the world are not able to perform the rituals of Hajj and Umrah as required by their faith.
They also expose how others are lured into entering Saudi Arabia only to be forcibly disappeared or handed over to other repressive regimes that violate their freedoms. The signatories quite rightly point out that it is the duty of every Muslim to perform the pilgrimage and no nation state of kingdom should be able to stop them.
It is ironic that, today, the last place you can enjoy your rights as a Muslim is probably Saudi Arabia, home to Mohammed Bin Salman, who as Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom is viewed as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Makkah and Madinah. Had he not filled his prisons with some of the kingdom’s greatest scholars, including Awad Al-Qarni, Sheikh Salman Al-Oudah and Ali Al-Omari, I’m sure they would have told him of his responsibilities and duties as a “Servant of the two noble sanctuaries”.
The three clerics were arrested because they did not back Bin Salman’s blockade of neighbouring Qatar in 2017. A year after the arrest of Al-Qarni, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor even demanded the death penalty for him.
Saudi prisons are filled with hundreds of scholars and clerics who have dared to criticise the regime. They share their cells with thousands of dissidents, political prisoners and ordinary citizens who have also stood up for the rights that we take for granted in this country.
Who is going to stop Bin Salman? Not US President Joe Biden, that’s for sure. The world’s so-called most powerful man vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah state” when he entered the White House, but then went cap in hand to beg the Saudi prince for favours.
We are still reeling from the brutal murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the kingdom. There is legal action unfolding in the US against Bin Salman — who was accused by the CIA of ordering the assassination — but realistically speaking, we all know he is beyond US law.
The crown prince knows very well that the West, with its institutionalised Islamophobia, will not criticise Saudi Arabia for not allowing Muslims to fulfil their obligation to perform the Hajj. In terms of oil and the arms trade, it is the Saudis who are calling the shots these days; remember the historic U-turn performed by Biden in Jeddah in December 2022?
Will this latest move by human rights advocates have any impact on Bin Salman? I doubt it, but I applaud everyone who signed the statement for their courage. They’ve almost certainly put themselves on the prince’s hate list and, like me, will have lost their chance to perform Hajj in the future.
The kingdom’s de facto ruler appears to be a man without shame or principles. Although I hate to say this, it has served him well. While the leaders of China, Turkey and Russia have drawn the West’s ire, Saudi Arabia has escaped Western opprobrium to become a major influence on the world stage.
The recent rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran following decades of competition for regional influence punctuated by proxy wars, took the world by surprise. According to a Gallup poll, Saudi Arabia enjoys a wellspring of support that Iran doesn’t have. Across 13 Muslims nations from Morocco to Pakistan, the Saudi leadership has a substantially higher approval rate than Iran’s, at 39 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
It is about time, though, for Muslims around the world — and this is aimed at some of the most respected and influential scholars enjoying life in the West — to stand up for their faith and fellow Muslims. If they don’t, then who will? We have all seen the extreme lengths to which the Saudis and their allies, especially the UAE, will go to destroy their perceived enemies.
Renowned and respected European scholar Tariq Ramadan came into the crosshairs of a dirty tricks operation to ruin him, as influential US magazine The New Yorker revealed. It has taken years for the academic to unpick the complex case which embroiled him in France and Switzerland.
Clearly targeted in an elaborate plot to bring him down, Ramadan was shocked to discover that he had been targeted by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel in a secret plot orchestrated in Abu Dhabi that went to extreme lengths to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, the popular movement founded in Egypt by Ramadan’s grandfather, Imam Hassan Al-Banna. Controversial among secularists who see him as a supporter of political Islam, Ramadan’s doctorate from the University of Geneva focused on Al-Banna’s work.
Ronald Deibert, a political scientist at the University of Toronto and the director of its Citizen Lab research centre, revealed in the Journal of Democracy last year that the growing use of private intelligence agencies by authoritarian rulers and their cronies is ushering in “a golden age of subversion.” He pointed out that, ‘“even a few decades ago, most authoritarian regimes” lacked the capacity to “mount the types of foreign influence, espionage, and subversion operations that have become common today.” Digital spying does not require people to be on the ground in a foreign country, and the growing number of private firms — often staffed by former Western intelligence agents — make it easy for governments or oligarchs to order an espionage or misinformation operation à la carte. “Anyone with enough cash can hire a ‘private Mossad’,” he wrote. “Subversion is now big business. As it spreads, so too do the authoritarian practices and the culture of impunity that go with it.”
With revelations like this in the public domain, the signatories of the Sanad-led campaign would be wise to watch their backs and avoid any trips to Saudi Arabia, even for strictly religious purposes, such as Hajj. In their statement, they make it clear that using and abusing the Hajj to punish critics is against Islam, and urge scholars to remind Saudi Arabia and its ruler of their duty towards Muslims.
“We also call all scholars of the Islamic world, scholarly institutions, human rights organisations, and all Muslims in the world to remind the Saudi government of its duty towards the Holy Places and their visitors, and explicitly inform them that enabling all Muslims to visit them and ensuring their safety is a legitimate right and an imposed duty that must be done to the fullest and without discrimination or political bias.”
Furthermore, they remind scholars “to make it clear that these unjust practices and sinful violations are a betrayal of God’s covenant, and remind them to fulfil this duty and abide by its obligations and stop everything that harms those who go to the Holy Places.”
Bin Salman is likely to shrug this campaign off, as he has done with similar calls to his better nature — does he even have one? — since he came to power in Riyadh. The Western governments which pay lip service to human rights in return for the flow of oil and huge arms deals may turn a blind eye to the plight of the victims of injustice in Saudi Arabia but, deep down, even Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman must know that his day in the dock will come, a day when no eyes will be blind and justice will be served. The “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” will have a lot to account for.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.