Published in The Guardian - Comment is Free, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Friday 2nd October 2015
I am grateful to be alive after a distressing Hajj experience – and urge
all Muslims to protest about the inhumane treatment of pilgrims.
Radical change is needed
With 2 million people gathered in one small city for the hajj,
some discomfort was to be expected. And putting up with it was, I
initially thought, an opportunity to exercise the patience so very
valued by our faith of Islam and in the holiest of cities. So we marched
But with the 40-plus degree heat of Mecca,
the harsh policing, the aggressive crowds, the chaotic organisation,
the pressure was relentless. As the days went on, I couldn’t have felt a
starker contrast between the spiritual tranquillity and contentment
experienced within the confines of the Grand Mosque and sites, and the
anxiety and distress caused by those policing it. Prior to my arrival in
Saudi Arabia, accompanying my parents on pilgrimage, my ignorance had
led me to believe that one of the richest Muslim countries in the world
would be well organised in facilitating the rites of hajj.
Now, back in the UK, I am grateful to be alive and still horrified by
what I witnessed. I fully understand why hundreds of people were crushed
to death and I don’t believe that “God’s will” can be used an excuse.
We’d had a pleasant and spiritual warm-up in the crowded but
welcoming streets of Medina. Our group of UK pilgrims remained
incredibly organised, my mother’s diabetes was stable and my father, an
asthmatic, remained mercifully unaffected by the heat. As a pilgrim,
daughter and a GP, I was happy and excited to be heading for Mecca. But
the reality was a shock.
Even getting to and from the mosque and other sites was distressing.
Accompanying wheelchair users, we had to help them on and off the
wheelchairs many times as the pavements were almost knee high with no
clear ramps or similar. Considering the number of people with permanent
disability or debilitating conditions, this was shocking.
The heat was one of the biggest tests of all, causing many to become
exhausted and dehydrated. Yet only a few of the crowded routes had
supplies of water. Some of the common pilgrim routes, where the symbolic
stoning of Satan takes place for example, were devoid of any water
supplies other than the presence of young policemen occasionally
squirting random pilgrims’ faces with water.
The manners and communication skills of the stewards and police
deployed in and around the mosque were deplorable. With pilgrims from
hundreds of countries, one would think that communication in at least
one language other than Arabic would be available. This was not the
Not only that, but their manner of aggressively shouting at even
the most softly spoken of pilgrims was both needless and a cause of
humiliation for those on the receiving end. Nobody had ever spoken to me
or my parents in this way before.
It appeared the only thing the very young policemen were authorised
to do was shout the Arabic word for “no” and to barricade entry routes
as and when they pleased without warning, offering no alternative:
clearly a recipe for a crush or a stampede in any of the holy sites.
We were in the mosque when they barricaded an exit and said we
couldn’t leave until the next prayer finished, an hour and a half later.
The physical pressure of hundreds of people had started to build up
behind us, causing extreme anxiety and hyperventilation. I politely
asked first, then literally begged the guards to let us exit as my mum’s
diabetic medication was in our hotel which was quite near the mosque.
Her sugar levels were dropping, but it made no difference. When we did
finally find a pilgrim to translate for us, our exit was still refused.
When I almost cried and asked “What happens if she collapses and dies
here?”, the response was a shrug of the shoulders: if she dies she dies.
Aisha Khan, a Manchester-based business manager who was part of the
same tour group told me a few days later of her anguish after the
authorities would not open the barrier to let her husband through to her
when she felt very unwell. She physically collapsed. Even then the
stewards remained in a small group laughing, not helping him to call for
an ambulance. She recalls him running distressed from one side of the
road to another pleading for help.
Actually making it into an ambulance was another problem. I saw
ambulances stuck in the stopped traffic with no provision for them to
manoeuvre or overtake. Having stopped with a group of fellow pilgrims
and doctors to help a lady slumped on the ground looking as if she may
be having a heart attack, it was infuriating to find that when the
so-called paramedics arrived (they appeared to be drivers in uniforms
and not medically trained), they refused to even let us tell them what
had happened. I partially stepped into the back of the ambulance
concerned for the poor lady, to find no medical equipment visible
whatsoever. We were shooed off and some of her family were left on the
street in tears with no idea as to where the ambulance had gone.
There are numerous other distressing experiences I could relate, as
most pilgrims can. But the insistence of some that the deaths of
hundreds of people represented God’s will and were therefore unavoidable
is something I refuse to accept. I believe Islam
is based on reason: unless you have done everything you can within your
means to actively avoid a bad situation, you cannot use the excuse of
it being God’s will.
Some people who have made the pilgrimage before describe how things
are slowly getting better with time. And the Saudi authorities are
denying visas to pilgrims if they have done it in the past five years,
in an attempt to control the influx. Heavy construction work is being
completed at the mosque at the moment (the work indirectly led to the
deaths of hundreds of people last month when one of the cranes fell through a roof at the Grand Mosque). But radical changes are required.
Much of the poor management of the hajj stems from the actual functioning of Saudi Arabia
itself. Authorities around the holy sites are clearly not allowed to
make independent decisions, while members of the royal family and their
guests are treated as VIPs, and therefore have no motivation to push the
authorities into creating a safe and workable system.
In Mecca I saw Muslims, but I saw little Islam. I did not see
compassion from our hosts, I did not see their concern for our welfare. I
urge all Muslims, pilgrims or otherwise, not to just accept the above
as part of the challenge or experience of hajj, but to raise their
voices. Write to your local MP, write to the Muslim Council of Britain
and utilise your local community groups to express your outrage, and
add to the clamour already building in the international arena.
Pilgrimage is supposed to enlighten and change lives, not endanger or end them. It is time to reclaim it.
Sabreena Razaq Hussain is a doctor, writer and activist