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Mecca mayhem

Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and for most Muslims, a glorious ambition. Many pool in their lifelong savings for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2006 03:31 IST

Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and for most Muslims, a glorious ambition. Many pool in their lifelong savings for the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is superbly organised, I’m told by my Hajji friends, for the most part. But I have my reservations. It is tragic that Saudi authorities have failed to make the pilgrimage safer, despite close to 4,000 people dying in Haj accidents in the last 25 years. Seven times between 1994 and 2006 hundreds have been crushed to death in stampedes at the Jamiart Bridge. Yet, no significant step has been taken by Saudi authorities to secure the bridge.

The Saudi apathy is reflected in statements like that of Saudi minister Iyad bin Amin Madani, who has said that the “pilgrims’ deaths were fate”. One really can’t see how the Haj can be made safer with such an attitude. The Saudi government is responsible for this event. Allowing 3 million people into the State for the event is just inexplicable and callous.

If the host nation won’t take logistical responsibility, who will? During the last phase of the Haj, nearly two to three million Muslims zealously cast pebbles at pillars representing the devil in a ritual which regularly causes fatal stampedes. The huge numbers have always meant trouble — from bombings, riots, epidemics to mass deaths. Yet, the authorities seem helpless in improving crowd management systems.

In 1997, when the tragic fire at Mina took 343 lives, the Saudis had announced a committee to reorganise the Haj. But there has been little result. Till it is made more secure, Muslim scholars should discourage believers who opt for a second Haj, to reduce the numbers thronging to Mecca.

From the Saudi authorities’ angle it becomes not obligatory but mandatory that the thousands who converge from all parts of the world for the ritual have their security interests guarded. Saudi Arabia’s Haj Research Centre must study the various cultures and social background of the pilgrims from different parts of the world to improve their crowd management.