For more than 14 centuries, Hajj has been a sacred religious ritual that unites more than two million Muslims, in spite of their sectarian and political differences. However, some governments have attempted to exploit this symbolic gathering to score political points.
Ironically, the same governments that have attempted to politicize Hajj have accused the Saudi government of using Hajj as a political leverage. A brief examination of the basic principles on which the Hajj policy of Saudi Arabia is based reveals that politicizing Hajj is a direct threat to both the Kingdom’s religious values and national security.
King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, annexing Mecca and Medina became a turning point in Islamic history and the history of modern state in the region. In 1924, the formation of the Saudi state, that governs Islam’s holiest sites, coincided with the end of the Islamic caliphate in Turkey.
Despite his powerful position at the time, King Abdulaziz managed this momentous development very pragmatically. In contrast to a number of Muslim leaders, who were claiming the caliphate, King Abdulaziz declared: “I do not claim or seek the Islamic caliphate. The duty of an Islamic Caliph is to implement the Islamic law on every Muslim, everywhere…It was possible during the era of the first four Righteous Caliphs when every individual Muslim was under their direct authority, but today it is not possible. I wish, however, that Muslims would unite their stance, make peace, and stop harming each other.”
In addition, King Abdulaziz banned political rallies that would use religion for political purposes. One of his most notable decisions was to reject the request from Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, to establish a branch of the Brotherhood in the Kingdom during the Hajj of 1936.
Although Iran, Syria, and Qatar have employed the same rhetoric to politicize Hajj, their motivations are differentDr. Saad Alsubaie
Universality of Islam
King Abdulaziz’s policies aim to strike a balance between the sovereign rights of the Kingdom over its holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the universality of Islam, according to which every Muslim has the right and is obligated to visit the holy sites at least once in their lifetime.
During the Hajj of 1967, King Faisal bin Abdulaziz clarified the principle by emphasizing that “Islam is not exclusive to individual, group, population, or country. Islam is the religion of God that he sent through His Messenger to all nations and countries…the people of this country are honored to be custodians of these holy sites and serve their visitors.”
Although the Saudi policy toward Hajj is based on this fundamental principle, the Kingdom has faced both allegations and attempts to politicize Hajj, some of which have resulted in violence and threatened the safety of the holy sites and their visitors.
Most importantly, religious scholars or Muslim populations, who consider Hajj as an opportunity for spiritual purification, have not demanded for its politicization; rather, the demand to politicize Hajj stems from regimes who consider the gathering as an opportunity for political mobilization. During the Iranian revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini attempted to exploit Hajj by directing his first message to the pilgrims in Mecca on September 25, 1979.
Khomeini declared that “Islam is a religion in which worship is related to politics, and political activity is a form of worship.” The demands made by him and his successors in the Iranian revolutionary movement have instigated a series of violent riots during the Hajj seasons in 1987 and 1989 that have not only left hundreds of innocent pilgrims dead but also severed the Saudi-Iran relations.
This year (2017), Syria and Qatar are experiencing chaotic political crises; they are in desperate need of a political opportunity to relieve their isolation. Therefore, it is not surprising that they have seized the moment and called for the internationalization of Hajj. Both governments have accused Saudi Arabia of placing restrictions on their pilgrims despite the fact that the Saudi government is hosting their pilgrims on its own expenses.
Although Iran, Syria, and Qatar have employed the same rhetoric to politicize Hajj, their motivations are different. While Iran is driven by an extreme ideology to mobilize Muslims for its own political ends, the rhetoric from Syria and Qatar stems from the deterioration in their political situations.
Nevertheless, regardless of the political direction, Saudi Arabia will not waiver on the principle of maintaining the balance between its sovereignty and the rights of pilgrims to a safe apolitical Hajj.
Dr. Saad Alsubaie is a Faculty Member at CGSC-MNG and Distinguished International Security Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations, Washington DC. Twitter: @alsubaie_saad.