01/10/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Hajj Tragedy And Saudi Arabia's Blame Game

Islamic Holy Place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Zurijeta via Getty Images
Islamic Holy Place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

A deadly stampede on 24 September took away lives of 769 pilgrims and left 934 injured in Mina, Saudi Arabia. Two miles from Mecca, Mina is where pilgrims take part in the Hajj's last major rite. Pilgrims come to worship here from Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and many other countries - people from everywhere.

However, regardless of the fact that people from everywhere perform Hajj, Saudi Arabia's health minister Khaled al-Falih blamed "undisciplined" pilgrims for the deadly stampede, adding that the tragedy would not have occurred had they "had followed instructions".


The "public" is a large, heterogeneous and scattered audience. (At least this is what Mass Communications taught me at university.) The people comprising the "masses" differ from each other. For Hajj, they are united by their religion - Islam -- and the fact that they are humans. And yet the health minister decided to label the pilgrims "undisciplined" in general.

In Saudi Arabia, the "instructions" are mainly given in Arabic (official language) or English. Only a few of those who go for pilgrimage may understand one or both of these two languages. What to do with the remaining pilgrims who can't understand either of the two?

"The fact is: robots or those from the military do not gather for Hajj. If it were so, then discipline could be spoken of."

Hajj is known to be the biggest annual gathering in the world. It is mandatory for physically and financially fit Muslims to perform Hajj at least once in their lifetime. The deadly stampede occurred in Mina where pilgrims were going to perform the ritual of "stoning the devil".

The fact is: robots or those from the military do not gather for Hajj. If it were so, then discipline could be spoken of. How does Mr Falih plan to "discipline" people who come from everywhere?

During Hajj, a pilgrim can only see heads in front, or the sky, or anything above. Space is so short between pilgrims that they cannot even look down at their own feet. You have to set your speed of walking according to the rest of the pilgrims around you. Slowing down leads to those behind you bumping into you and may cause you or them to fall. Whereas walking faster will make you bump into others. If a pilgrim is tired, nobody cares, you have to keep up with the others. This is the only "discipline" that they can bring with them for Hajj as there is no space for more.

The Thursday of the tragedy, according to the pilgrims, was a hot day (46 degrees Celsius). And it is common sense that when there are so many people around, it gets hotter. This caused exhaustion. There were reports about many pilgrims suffocating. When a person is finding it difficult to breathe, they will want to move away from the crush and get at least some space to take a breath. Since that is not an option, it's possible that the pilgrims tripped over each other. Why? When they can't see in front of them, they'll just end up going with the flow: falling. Those who had the energy and breath, ran, creating a stampede. When people want to escape from being trampled, they run to save themselves. And if there are people running haphazardly, they bump into one another and that is where things go wrong. Reportedly, the stampede took place at an intersection in Mina.

Ironically, Mina is where multiple deadly accidents have taken place in the past as well. Stampedes have taken place in the years 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2006 as well.

Facilitating millions

Saudi Arabia is undergoing major constructional changes all the time. From the expansion of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, to the increase in the number of hotels, or the construction of bridges to facilitate pilgrims every year -- it is an annual expense that runs to billions of dollars. After all, dealing with millions of pilgrims is not an easy thing to do.

On 11 September, a crane that collapsed on a part of the Grand Mosque led to 111 pilgrims being killed and 394 others injured. Taking notice of the incident, Saudi Arabia's King Salman suspended the work of the powerful Saudi Binladin Group. Further, just for the safety of the pilgrims, authorities deployed 100,000 police personnel quoting a possible terrorism threat. But pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor management of the flow of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in searing temperatures.

Whatever that the Saudi authorities plan to do in order to decrease such incidents from taking place in the future, the minister should accept that he cannot just blame all the pilgrims for the mishap.

In the name of God

Hajj is of high importance for Muslims and Saudi Arabia is a "holy" land for Muslims everywhere. Victims and their families never protest against the authorities for mishaps that take place there. It is because many Muslims believe that dying on the holy land is lucky and that the person goes to heaven, leaving it to God's will. For this reason, the Grand Mufti (religious leader) Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh said that authorities cannot be blamed for something "beyond human control" and that "fate and destiny are inevitable".

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