Sunday, September 27, 2015

Asra Nomani: "I Survived a Hajj Stampede"

Rush hour in hell
How would you like to go on a Hajj pilgrimage with your infant in a Baby Bjorn carrier?

Asra Nomani appears to be a "liberal" or "moderate" Muslim who believes that Islam can be reformed. I do not think she is right. And I think she is is even a bit mixed up about what "reforming" Islam (while still calling it Islam) would even mean. Do not misunderstand. In a sense I want her to be right. But I think the evidence shows that she is not.

In any case, this is a fascinating piece. And in addition to the first-person story, there is a bit about the unholy Saudi mix of fanatically religious ideology with ferocious state capitalism. This fact has been underreported in the West--that in the guise of being the protectors of the most important Muslim shrine, they have in reality destroyed most of it.

I've taken some of the more general, "pro-liberal religion" stuff out for reasons of space and relevance, and to avoid complete plagiarism. But I urge those who are interested to read the original full article.

From The Daily Beast, 24 September, 2015, by Asra Nomani:
I Survived a Hajj Stampede 
Thursday’s killing of more than 700 is a tragic reminder of Saudi Arabia’s dangerous exploitation of the Muslim pilgrimage. I should know—my baby and I were once nearly crushed, too. 
It was 12 years ago, and I was clinging to my son, Shibli, then 3 months old, outside the city of Mecca. I was caught in the kind of frightening crush that claimed the lives of at least 700 on the Muslim pilgrimage of the hajj Thursday, injuring at least 800 others, in a bloody, tangled mess of humanity slain. 
A pilgrim with my parents and preteen niece and nephew, I carried Shibli against my chest in a Baby Bjorn carrier as we fought for our lives in a stream of pilgrims seeking refuge in the tent city of Mina, outside Mecca—the same area where Thursday’s tragedy occurred. We struggled through dirty water, trash, and sleeping pilgrims beneath a bridge named for King Khaled Ibn Abdul Aziz, the wealthy heir who exported Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahhabi and Salafi doctrine to the world, indoctrinating Muslims to radical Islam in the modern day. 
Swept in a press of desperate pilgrims, I wondered whether we would get out alive . . . 
. . . To me, Thursday’s horrific deaths—which Khaled al-Faisal, a Saudi “prince” and head of the Central Hajj Committee, callously blamed on “some pilgrims from African nationalities,” and other reports linked to a Saudi decision to block a road for VIPs—testify to some of the worst that happens to humanity when faith meets avarice. 
I wrote a book with the title Standing Alone in Mecca not because I was delusional. It is a metaphor for my lone spiritual pilgrimage, in conflict with the chandeliers, marble, and air-conditioned tents that make up the multibillion-dollar business the Saudi ruling family has built with the Saudi Binladin Group, with callous disregard to human life. The Saudi government has put in place a grandiose construction scheme for Mecca and Medina, the two holy cites of Islam, bulldozing historic relics and erecting new edifices to “faith,” complete with a luxury 44-story hotel in Mecca. The director of the U.K.-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, Irfan Al-Alawi, now calls the city “Mecca-hattan.” . . . 
. . . On our pilgrimage, there were many occasions when I thought we risked death in the crush of a stampede, but the worst was in Mina, where the pilgrims died Thursday. 
We were warned: “No matter what, don’t stop to pick up lost shoes. Let them go.” Otherwise we risked being trampled. Stopping for shoes was an invitation to death. 
Back in 2003, the Saudi government even warned about the dangers in a health brochure: “Dear Pilgrims, Laying under bridges and setting on the footpaths is an uncivilized behaviours, and doing so causes you many risks. so do not exposure yourself for risks.” Another one of the Saudi government’s tips seemed to defy reality: “Crowding is an important factor for transmission of meningitis, try to avoid crowded areas.” Trying to avoid crowded areas on the hajj was like trying to stay dry in the ocean. 
In that one swift moment of the stampede in which my family and I found ourselves, the dangers became apparent. The crowd started to crush us, pressing my son and me toward a wall of squat buildings on my right. Just over 5 feet tall, I had Shibli dangling at the level of the other pilgrims’ backs. I worked hard to make sure he got air, but I was afraid he’d suffocate if the crowds closed in even tighter. Trust me, my mother, nearby, was thinking: I told you so. I considered escaping into the entryway of a smelly men’s restroom but figured I would just be flattened against its closed doors. There were slippers everywhere. People had lost them and been unable to retrieve them in the crowd. 
Our guide, Muhammad Alshareef, founder of the ultraconservative AlMaghrib Institute of Islam in Canada and the U.S., warned us: “No matter what, don’t stop to pick up lost shoes. Let them go.” Otherwise we risked being trampled in the press of the crowd. Stopping for shoes was an invitation to death. 
Shibli squirmed on my chest. It was increasingly hot, and I jabbed my hand into the crowd like a linebacker, trying to protect him. 
Women and men yelled at me in Arabic. “They’re saying, ‘Put your baby up!’” Alshareef’s wife translated. 
“How?” I exclaimed. 
Suddenly, a young Egyptian-American man broke stride beside us. 
“He is my friend,” Alshareef’s wife said. “He can carry the baby!” 
I hesitated. I didn’t know this man. I could lose my baby in this crowd. I didn’t even have Shibli wearing his ID, “Card Number 34” in our tour group, because it was a choking hazard. I had a badly photocopied map of Mina into my pocket with phone numbers beside Arabic script I couldn’t read. The only instructions in English: “In case of lost,” we had to look for Mina Square 49 under the King Khaled Bridge or call a “Mr. Arafat” on his mobile phone. 
It was one of those perilous moments that mothers have faced since the beginning of time. I chose to take the calculated risk. 
I handed Shibli to the young man and tried to stay close beside him. We navigated gingerly but forcefully through the crowds. Shibli rested on the man’s shoulder. Finally, we took a turn out of the crush. We proceeded quickly to our tent, where the young man gave me back my baby. 
We tumbled into the women’s tent, where a fellow pilgrim from Mechanicsburg, Pa., wept from the frightening experience. . . 
. . . The lethal combination of big money with sacred ritual makes Thursday’s stampede and the crane disaster [when 118 pilgrims were killed a few weeks ago] a symbolic reminder of how unfettered and dangerous Saudi excess—both theologically and physically—has become. 
The Saudis have a legacy of deaths on the hajj, marked by deadly fires and stampedes. In 1975, there was a fire in a tent colony outside Mecca that killed thousands. In 1987 the Saudi government gunned down about 400 unarmed Iranian pilgrims protesting its rule. In 1990, an estimated 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel leading from Mecca to Arafat. In 1994, 271 pilgrims were trampled in a stampede. In 1997, 343 pilgrims burned to death and another 1,500 were injured in a blaze that roared through 70,000 tents outside Mecca. The air was left thick with the smell of smoke, and burned-out buses, charred water bottles, and other blackened debris littered the ground. In 2005, another 250 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in Mina, and in 2006, an estimated 360 pilgrims were killed, again in Mina. 
In all of these incidents, spokesmen for the government blamed “divine” predetermination. 
Unfortunately, the Saudis put forward a theological directive that to die in Mecca during the hajj is a “blessing,” and people will sometimes abandon personal safety for faith, creating dangerous situations for those like myself who aren’t particularly interested in dying. As a new mother on the pilgrimage, I knew that I didn’t want to lose my son to human caprice after I had overcome so much to bring him into the world. But I had chosen to take the risk, over the more sensible protests of my mother and friends. 
From beginning to end, the Muslim pilgrimage is dangerous madness. It was madness near the Ka’bah in Mecca, as pilgrims threw themselves against its walls to try to kiss the stone. The situation at the Ka’bah reminded me of the time I wiggled my way into the mosh pit at a No Doubt concert. The hajj is a like a spiritual mosh pit. 
The frenzy was not so different from the rush that had filled the air when I watched Buddhist pilgrims stampede the stairs of the Ki monastery in the Himalayan mountains of India just to set their eyes on a holy mandala that was part of a holy pilgrimage led by the Dalai Lama. An elderly Nepali Sherpa there died in my arms when he was caught in the crush. 
When I closed my eyes on the hajj, I could see the dust storm kicked up by 200 naked Hindu yogis, called Naga babas, as they bolted for their holy ritual bathing in the Ganges River during the Maha Kumbh Mela in India. It was the same devotion that sent Jews and Christians to their pilgrimage sites. But there is something particularly dangerous about the lethal combination in Saudi Arabia of contained spaces and millions of pilgrims. 
Thursday’s tragedy occurred as Muslim pilgrims in Mina completed another antiquated and dangerous tradition of “stoning the devil,” in a ritual called ramy. The devil is symbolized in three stone pillars: Al-Jamara al-Kubra is the tallest pillar, al-Jamara al-Wusta is the middle pillar, and al-Jamara al-Sughra is the smallest pillar. 
The prophet Muhammad said that when the prophet Abraham wanted to do his rites of hajj, Satan blocked his way. Abraham threw seven pebbles at him, and Satan sank into the ground. Abraham proceeded to the second pillar and threw another seven pebbles at Satan, and again Satan disappeared into the ground. Blocked yet again at the third pillar, Abraham again threw seven pebbles. 
But the devil wasn’t the only thing to fear here. In 1998, a stampede in the plain of Mina killed 118 pilgrims as large crowds assembled near a bridge on their way to the devil-stoning ritual. When I was on the hajj, I went against the devil. This time, I listened to my mother and left Shibli at the tent with the women there. 
For this ritual, my family climbed a ramp onto a wide, two-level, roofless pedestrian walkway, inside which sat the three tall stone pillars. I saw giant phallic symbols rising into the sky. Trying to dodge getting hit by an errant stone flung from the other side, I threw each stone not just as a representation of my jihad, or personal struggle, against “evil” but against something much deeper. 
The birth of Islam in the seventh century was supposed to mark the end of the period of Jahiliya, or ignorance. I threw each stone as a blow against the house of greed, indulgence, caprice, intolerance, danger, and jahiliya, exported to the world from the country on whose ground I stood.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so very much for sharing my article. I understand your hesitation, trust me. And my mother had the same disbelief when i told her I'd be carrying my son in a Baby Bjorn carrier on my chest. Pushing him in a stroller would have been impossible in the spiritual mosh pit that is the haj.

    On reform, I understand your skepticism. Just think the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. It's by no means finished with its reforms but at least it emerged from the darkness that had it killing those who didn't think a certain way.

    I have a new piece you might like to read as well:

    Thank you, Asra Nomani