It's the greatest yearly pilgrimage on Earth. But these days, the annual trek to Saudi Arabia's holy sites is as much about politics as it is religion.
This month, hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the globe are converging upon the Saudi Arabian holy cities of Mecca and Medina to perform the hajj, the pilgrimage that believers are supposed to make at least once in their lives as long as they have the health and the means to manage it. The hajj takes place this year from Nov. 25 to 29, but many of the faithful are already thronging the airport and docks of Jeddah, the main entry point for pilgrims.
It’s an event of huge religious significance. Some three million Muslims from all around the world — Indians and Pakistanis, Nigerians and Bosnians, Arabs and non-Arabs, rich and poor, Sunni and Shia — will commune, worship, and celebrate the global unity of Islam. They’ll be performing the same set of ritual acts, dressed in exactly the same clothes, all equal in the sight of God. For those who’ve completed the hajj, it’s a lifetime landmark, a transformative religious experience.
In reality, though, there’s another reason why the hajj is important — even if most Muslims would rather it weren’t the case. Today’s hajj — given the widening sectarian rifts within Islam — is also very much about politics. To some extent, of course, it’s always been that way. The royals in Riyadh have always taken their guardianship of the Two Holy Places in Mecca and Medina as a key to the spiritual and political guidance of the global community of believers. (It should be said, by the way, that though the Saudis invariably evoke the "nonpolitical" character of the hajj, they’ve also been known to shower pilgrims with literature espousing the benefits of the sere Wahhabi version of Islam that holds inside the kingdom.)
Given this potentially explosive mix of politics and religion, the recent war of words between the governments of Iran and the hajj’s Saudi Arabian hosts deserves to be taken seriously. On Oct. 26, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, met with officials from the Iranian hajj organizing committee and seized the occasion to rail against alleged past mistreatment of his compatriots during the pilgrimage.
"Such acts are against the unity of Muslims and contribute to the goals and wishes of the U.S. and foreign intelligence services," he said. "The Saudi government should fulfill its duty in confronting these acts." He received immediate support from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who warned on his Web site that the government in Tehran would respond with a "necessary decision" to defend the dignity of Iranian pilgrims.
On Nov. 2 the Saudi cabinet of ministers fired back: "The kingdom does not permit any party to disrupt the security of the pilgrims or to attempt to divide the ranks of Muslims." The text didn’t mention Iran by name, but everyone in the region knew whom the Saudis had in mind. The hajj has remained a central battleground for these two rivals at least since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for regional influence and worked to spread their competing interpretations of Islam. Those divisions remain alive and well despite some superficial improvements in places like Iraq and Lebanon — and hopeful rhetoric from President Obama. The rise of a Shia-dominated government in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear aspirations certainly haven’t helped to assuage Saudi fears.
Throughout the 1980s, Iranian pilgrims tried to use the hajj as an opportunity to propagate Islam à la Khomeini. That conflict culminated in full-scale riots in 1987, when Saudi security forces opened fire on demonstrators. The clashes resulted in 402 deaths, not to mention some 600 wounded. That’s a nightmare that the Saudis, presumably, would do anything to avoid. And they probably aren’t finding much consolation in a recent statement by an Iranian government spokesman that this year’s Iranian pilgrims are planning to stage a "peaceful demonstration" calling for "Death to Israel, Death to America." (Apparently, he didn’t notice any irony.)
And yet, as Tariq Alhomayed of the London-based newspaper al-Sharq Al-Awsat points out, the situation has recently deteriorated further. "We’ve always expected a certain degree of tension, but usually they don’t talk about it this openly," he notes. One reason, he says, is that the present Iranian leadership is facing intense domestic pressure in the wake of the controversial elections earlier this year and the mass demonstrations and dissent that followed. Confronted with a crisis of legitimacy at home, he says, stoking the conflict with the traditional enemy — the hated Sunni Arabs — is one logical way to rally people around the powers-that-be. He speculates the Iranians might also be angry about the mysterious defection of an Iranian scientist, allegedly connected with Iran’s nuclear research program, during his visit to the kingdom earlier this year to perform the umrah, the "lesser pilgrimage" to the holy sites. Even if the Americans were behind the defection, he says, they probably wouldn’t have been able to carry it off without the cooperation of Saudi security authorities.
For their part, the Saudis see Iran as vulnerable and are not willing to let any criticism of their patronage of the hajj go unpunished. "In the past Iran has said this stuff and they [the Saudis] chose to let it go," says Anoush Ehteshami, a specialist on Gulf security at Britain’s Durham University. "This year they haven’t. The Saudis are looking at Iran now as a wounded animal, and they’re not going to take this stuff from the Iranians in the usual fashion."
Then there’s the regional context. One reason for Tehran’s display of attitude might well have to do with the extent to which its international influence has grown over the past decade — indirectly abetted by the United States, which toppled Tehran’s archenemy Saddam Hussein and brought Shiite parties to power in Baghdad. The Sunni-dominated countries in the Middle East and South Asia are reacting with conspicuous skittishness to the new assertiveness of Shiite groups throughout the area. The Saudis are particularly worried about the large Shiite population within Saudi Arabia’s own oil-rich Eastern Province, which has sometimes found itself at odds with the harsh Wahabbi version of Sunni Islam that dominates the kingdom.
This war of words over the hajj could very easily take the form of a shooting war in Saudi Arabia’s unstable southern neighbor, Yemen. Simmering tensions between the Saudis and Houthi rebels in Yemen’s lawless northeast exploded into open conflict last month, prompting subsequent Saudi air strikes along the Yemeni border. The Houthis are Shiites, and even if their own brand of Shiism differs rather starkly from the Iranians’, their discontent with the central government in Yemen and the traditional lawlessness of their region potentially make them a perfect instrument for Iranian troublemaking. (Whether the Houthis are actually acting on Iran’s behalf is somewhat disputed. The Yemenis claim to have a captured a ship bringing Iranian weapons to the rebels, but so far they’ve offered little to verify that. One Yemeni newspaper recently claimed to have seen a map projecting the creation of an Iranian-sponsored Houthi state along the border — and then warned the Saudis to expect Iran-inspired "chaos" during the hajj.)
A Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen could have a destabilizing effect throughout the region, as the other Gulf states would be forced to line up in support of either regional power. There are already signs of this polarization: When the Saudis canvassed their regional allies, the tiny, majority-Shiite state of Bahrain initially refrained from offering a statement of support. The Bahraini parliament ultimately approved support for the Saudis, but only after the largest opposition bloc, representing Shiite voters, opted to abstain.
So what will actually happen when the expected 65,000 Iranian pilgrims descend on the hajj? Perhaps nothing. But you can bet that Saudi security officials will be prepared, carefully vetting the lists of attendees provided by Tehran in order to screen out possible agitators. Sadly, all the talk of political intrigue tends to hide the salient fact that, for the vast majority of hajjis, the pilgrimage is a life-transforming event that emphasizes peace, tolerance, and the equality of all believers despite racial, political, and national differences. That’s according to a 2009 statistical survey conducted by three American scholars, including Harvard economist Asim Ijaz Khwaja. According to the study’s findings, says Khwaja, efforts by the Saudis to impose their own brand of Islam on pilgrims — much less any other group’s proselytizing effects — don’t seem to have much effect. And that’s precisely because the modern hajj experience is a decidedly global one, where the average pilgrims aren’t necessarily traditionalist Arabs but pious, tolerant Southeast Asians. "In today’s Muslim world the average person you’re interacting with is Indonesian," he says. One can only hope that the politics will catch up.