The House Of Saud has failed in its role as Guardians of the Shrines, it is time to give our holy cities of Mecca and Medina back to the Ummah as a whole.
By Ali Abbas Taj
Fanaticism, Colonialism and Greed: How The House of Saud came to control Medina and Mecca
The dynasty of Al Saud was founded by Muhammed ibn Saud in the mid 18th Century. A local tribal leader, Al Saud joined forces with the extremist religious ‘reformer’ Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of what has come to be known as the Wahabi sub-sect of Islam. With the fusion of these two elements, the tribal and the religious, the first Saudi state was established in 1744 around the area of Riyadh. The Saudi family and their allies rapidly gained power and territory through a series of brutal military campaigns across southern and eastern Arabia. Driven by greed and fanaticism, they slaughtered thousands, justifying their murderous actions with accusations of heresy. Shi’ite Arabs were singled out for particularly harsh treatment and in 1801 the Saudi/Wahabi alliance sacked the holy city of Karbala, home to the shrine of Husayn ibn Ali, the third Shi’ite Imam, and a man revered across the Muslim world for his courage and integrity in the face of tyranny.
Seeing the Saudis as a threat to their eastern flank the Ottomans crushed the first Saudi State. A Second Saudi State emerged in 1818 but was wiped out by an alliance of local tribesmen. The Third Saudi State, the basis of modern Saudi Arabia, emerged in the first decade of the 20th Century. Capitalizing on Ottoman weakness, especially during and after the First World War, the Saudis allied themselves with British colonialists – swearing fealty to the British crown and declaring their territory a British protectorate with the treaty of Darin. Backed from London with weapons cash and support, they attacked various clans allied with the Ottomans, as well as the Empire itself. In 1924, the armies of Abdul Aziz Al Saud defeated those of the Hashemite Kingdom of Hijaz and soon controlled Mecca and Medina, the birthplaces of Islam, on behalf of their colonial masters. All Saudi military campaigns were characterized by a brutality far outside the norms of the Quranic understanding of a just war and Saudi rule was marked by the vicious oppression of Shias and other groups that did not adhere to their extreme perversion of Islam.
The conquest of the Hijaz marked the start of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we know it today and was formally ratified by the British in 1927 and the Saudis current position as Guardians of the Shrines owes as much to the patronage of the British as it does to their own fanaticism and expansionist tendencies.
No Master but the Master of Worlds: Why the Cities of Mecca and Medina Must Be Independent from the Saudi State
Since the House of Saud took control of the Holy Cities, there have been numerous disasters involving pilgrims during both the Hajj pilgrimage, which takes place annually and during the lesser Umrah pilgrimage which Muslims can undertake at any time of year: In 1987, heavily armed Saudi security forces clashed with unarmed Shia and Iranian pilgrims, killing over 400 people; three years later, a stampede resulting from poor crowd management killed over 1400 pilgrims; stampedes in 1994 and 1998 claimed at least 400 lives between them, with a fire in 1997 accounting for another 340 dead. Between 2001 and 2006, around 800 people lost their lives in incident that include two stampedes and the collapse of a hotel housing pilgrims.
2015 was the worst year on record for deaths at Hajj. The collapse of a construction crane at the start of the pilgrimage killed 118 and injured several hundred more and during the ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual, a crush apparently caused by the motorcade of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, killed thousands. The official report for the 2015 crush is yet to be released, but estimates of the dead vary from 2,411 (Associated Press) to 4,173 (a hastily-deleted press release from the Saudi interior ministry).
Taken separately, these incidents are all tragic, taken together they demonstrate that the House of Saud is not only failing in its duty to keep pilgrims safe but those failures are worsening with time. .
- Religious Coercion and Intolerance
Hajj is a religious obligation for every Muslim at least once in their lifetime. As such, the ability to travel safely to the Holy Cities and freely exercise the rites of Hajj is a matter of religious freedom. Not only has Saudi mismanagement left the question of safety in doubt, but the actions of the Saudi religious police and security establishment regularly curtail the freedom of worship of every sect and denomination of Muslim other than the Saudis own Wahabism and its Salafi and Deobandi cousins.
Shias, whose various branches account for at least 1.5 of Muslims, are forbidden some of their most basic practices, including mourning rites for the Prophet and his family; Sufi orders are no longer allowed to practice chants and congregational devotions that date back centuries and any perceived deviation (biddah) is punished with harassment, beatings and even disappearances.
A recent video of a group of Chechen men being assaulted whilst performing a hadra ritual is just a hint of the violence that befalls any Muslims who offends the puritanical fanaticism of the religious police.
To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia’s regressive civil laws apply to all pilgrims: female pilgrims must give up their most basic freedoms, such as being able to drive without an accompanying male and small crimes are subject to archaic and brutal punishments administered by an entirely opaque justice system.
- Politicizing Hajj
The Saudi state has a long and ignoble history of using Hajj as a political weapon and bargaining tool, with manipulation of visa issuance as their most effective tool. Pilgrims from countries that have displeased the Kingdom often complain of difficulty obtaining Hajj visas, the cancellation of visas without reason and of systematic harassment by immigration officials. Saudi Arabia’s spats with Iran, which resulted in Iran boycotting the Hajj in 1987 and 2016, are well known, but this year the Saudis have achieved a new low – refusing to even acknowledge receipt of visa requests from the Emirate of Qatar. Qatar, an erstwhile ally, was recently expelled from the Saudi-led alliance that has been waging war on Yemen since 2015 and there is clear punitive intent to the move.
For the Saudis to use the ability to attend Hajj as a weapon against any nation is an offense against all Muslims, but the fact that they could do so with a former close ally is proof, if any were needed, that no sect, no nation, no individual or group can escape their arrogance and caprice. By making Hajj contingent on political and sectarian affiliation, the House of Saud seem less Guardians of the Shrines and more hostage-takers of the holiest sites in Islam.
- Hajj Revenue and support for terrorism and extremism
Saudi Arabia receives over a $30 billion in annual revenue from pilgrimage to Mecca, accounting for about 7% of GDP. Most of these earnings come from travel, accommodation, catering, the purchase of religious gifts and souvenirs and animal sacrifices, generating significant tax revenue. Further, many private individuals in or linked to the Saudi Royal family, hold substantial investments in firms that profit from Hajj, including individuals identified by Western intelligence agencies as funding and supporting terrorism. The Saudi security services have long operated both blind-eve or active support policies towards militant groups, making the country a ‘cash machine for terrorists’ and turning the sacred time of Hajj into a fundraising, networking and skills conference for the world’s most brutal killers.
But it is not just the violence that the Saudis are using the Hajj to sponsor. The web of extremist madrassas, which the Saudis have cultivated, is enabled and sustained by their control over the Hajj, its revenues and the moral authority it lends to their once-obscure ideology. From Indonesia to America, England to Somalia and Pakistan, a generation of Muslims raised under the shadow of Wahabism have lost touch with the rich traditions of mysticism, artistry and intellectual inquiry that flowered during the Golden Age of Islam.
The Free Cities of Mecca and Medina: A Radical Solution to the problem of Radicalism
It should be clear to the majority of open-minded, tolerant Muslims of all sects that the current situation is unworkable on all fronts. When even so close an ally as Qatar, which had forces fighting alongside the Saudis, and which broadly shares religious outlook with the Kingdom is not safe, all Muslims should be aware that the Hajj is not in the hands of a legitimate authority. To protect the right of all Muslims to worship freely at this most unifying of times, a new solution is needed.
Our proposal is that the cities of Mecca and Medina, and all relevant logistical hubs required to facilitate the Hajj (such as highways, airports and sea ports) be designated free cities to be administrated by a body that represents nations with a sizeable Muslim population. The profits generated by Hajj should be disbursed for the basic needs of Muslims around the world: food, shelter and basic sanitation.
A free city or city-state is a sovereign small country that usually consists of a single urban area and some surrounding countryside. Present day examples include Vatican City, Singapore and Monaco. Hong Kong prior to re-integration with China, Venice from the 14th to the 19th Centuries and the Free City of Danzig are historic examples of city states. The above examples, especially those cities still in existence today, demonstrate that city-states are possible and can also be successful, wealthy and secure. If Mecca and Medina are established as free states, and the cities are depoliticized and desectarianized, it is highly likely that they will become focal points for the unity and cooperation of Muslims.
We can of course expect resistance from the Saudis and the allies that they have acquired, through conversion, coercion and bribery, but even that coalition cannot stand against the unified will of the Muslim world. There is no doubt that the task is a huge one, that creating such an organization and giving it the power and resources it needs to do its work will be a task of many years. However, if Muslims are to adapt to the global age, we cannot have our most sacred sites held hostage by a dynasty still rooted in the 18th Century.
The alternative is the loss of our freedom to worship as first Shias, then Sufis, then other mainstream Sunni groups find themselves on the wrong side of Wahabi intolerance and nation after nation has its access held hostage to Saudi geopolitical ambition.
Ali Abbas Taj is the founder of IFUT (Interfaith Unity for Tolerance) and the chief founding editor of the World Shia Forum. He lives in the West Coast, United States with his family.