Hajj and the holy neglect
Cultural and religious rituals have played an important role in human evolution as treating some symbols as sacred has helped primitive societies attain stability and cohesiveness in order to survive against multiple forces of destruction. Congregations at sacred places can be found in the history of all ancient societies. The ritual of Hajj in pre-Islamic, pagan, Arab society was important on two accounts. One, it was a peace ventilator as all feuds were suspended during the month of Hajj since pilgrims would congregate in Mecca to pay homage to their holy deities. Second, the caravans of pilgrims arriving from various parts of the then Arab lands would provide a good opportunity to both hosts, the Quresh tribesmen and the pilgrims, to undertake brisk trading activities. The happy blend of religion and commerce therefore made Hajj an important social tradition of pagan Arab society.
When people gather in big numbers, health and safety concerns become important for the organisers of the event. Risk management requires that the organisers keenly address the relationship between the number of attendees and the capacity handling of the place and associated facilities. Either the number has to be reduced to stay within safety limits or the capacity has to be adequately increased. Risk managers learn lessons from any mishap and ensure that such accidents do not happen again by addressing health safety issues. Unfortunately, the history of Hajj is replete with incidents of accidents and criminal negligence. In 1975, about 200 pilgrims lost their lives due to a gas cylinder causing a fire. In 1987, hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed by the Saudi police. To the horror of all, about 1,500 pilgrims were crushed to death in 1990 inside a tunnel near Mecca. In 1994, a stampede near Jamarat bridge caused the deaths of 270 pilgrims while, in 1997, a tent fire again killed 343 pilgrims. In 2004 and 2006, hundreds of pilgrims were killed due to a stampede while this year a crane crashing and yet another stampede resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 lives.
While deaths due to medical reasons every year are understandable the saga of deaths due to accidents at regular intervals is a case of gross neglect and incompetence. The holiness-tainted discourse of martyrdom does not help the cause of making the organisers of the event accountable to the visitors who spend a huge part of their savings to reach Mecca. It is a bit concerning that every year hundreds of thousands of Muslims gather in Saudi Arabia but they put up with poor arrangements by the organisers resulting in the deaths of many of them. A few years ago, in Pakistan, both the media and judiciary were vociferous over the alleged corruption of the then religious minister and officials in hiring accommodation facilities for the pilgrims who were then jailed. No one had, however, the courage to state that corruption could not take place unless the property owners in the holy cities were a party to the arrangement. The corrupt real estate mafia enjoyed state protection in Saudi Arabia while we were relentless in prosecuting our service providers over corruption charges. Our sight cannot penetrate the holy curtain of petro dollars. Reportedly, the government has issued directives to the media not to discuss Saudi Arabia even after two tragic incidents that would have been investigated for criminal negligence in any country where the rule of law existed. But pilgrims’ lives are dispensable. Whether 70 die or 7,000, who cares?
When the pilgrims are busy outdoing one another in pelting stones at the imagined devil it never occurs to them that thousands of their fellow countrymen languish as victims of inhuman treatment by their Arab lords. While praying for maximising their wealth none of them ever remotely thinks about Nimr, who at the age of 17 was arrested for joining Shia demonstrators seeking equal religious rights in the Sunni-majority country and is now condemned to be crucified and beheaded. When thousands of East Germans gathered around the Berlin Wall in 1989 it soon disappeared from the face of the earth. Voices have been raised by international campaigners over human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The devil would have felt grievously hurt if the two million Muslims gathered in Mecca even once had raised this voice.