Arab Spring haj pilgrims talk politics and regional tensions despite heavy security
Saudi Arabia interior minister has assigned 95,000 members of the security forces to keep order
Muslim pilgrims climb Mount Mercy yesterday on the plains of Arafat during the peak of the annual haj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca. Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters.
The young Syrian ascending Mount Arafat yesterday brooded about his war-shattered country, his concerns a common preoccupation among Arabs in the sea of humanity making the annual Muslim haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Wary of regional tensions that could flare into protests at the haj, the Saudi interior minister asked pilgrims last week to leave their disputes at home, and he assigned 95,000 members of the security forces to keep order.
“This was a very tough year for us,” said Syrian AbdelJabbar al-Badr, speaking to an Egyptian oil trader, who in turn fretted about his family’s safety back at a time of widespread unrest and militant violence.
“I had to move my family to Saudi Arabia after all the murders in our village,” Badr said.
Ban on debate
Despite a ban on political debate during haj, pilgrims from Arab states shaken by popular uprisings found personal security a common theme as they climbed the rocky mountain where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon some 1,400 years ago.
The ascent by more than two million pilgrims in seamless white robes up the holy mountain chanting prayers for forgiveness, marks the spiritual climax of the haj.
There was an undercurrent of frustration: disgruntled Arabs from Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya expressed exasperation with the instability brought about by the Arab Spring uprisings, and tried to console each other.
Badr said he was relieved to have been able to bring his wife and children to Saudi Arabia, but he remained worried about family members still in Syria.
“We still don’t have enough security on the streets to feel safe,” said Mohamed Zaki, the oil trader, referring to Egypt, where regular protests and periodic violence has plagued the country since the army overthrew elected President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government earlier this year.
“I don’t feel comfortable knowing people get shot every day.”
In Syria, more than 100,000 people have been killed in fighting since 2011 between mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The haj, among the world’s largest religious gatherings, has so far been proceeding without any problem, despite expansion works at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that forced Saudi authorities to cut the number of pilgrims attending.
A planned peaceful protest by young Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the start of the pilgrimage on what is known as Arafat Day failed to materialise and the ascent proceeded without incident. So far about 1.6 million pilgrims have come from abroad to perform haj. – (Reuters)