As Hajj death tolls soar, why does Saudi Arabia duck safety issue?

By an AT correspondent

The fervor of the Eid ul Adha, one of the two biggest annual festivals in the Muslim world, was marred by the shocking news of a stampede at Mina near the city of Mecca on Sept. 24, 2015 that reportedly killed at least 717 pilgrims and injured more than 800 others, who had come to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Victims of September Hajj stampede

Victims of September Hajj stampede

Those who met their demise came from more than 20 countries of the world. Suffering the highest loss at 239 and with 241 more still missing, Iran has lashed out at the authorities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The Saudis, for their part, have resisted taking blame for the tragedy. This has led to depressing and mudslinging propaganda from both sides since the tragedy occurred.

What frustrates most Muslims across the world is the fact that other countries, who have lost Muslim nationals during the stampede, have done little to press for an investigation into the real reasons behind the stampede. One reason for the seeming indifference is that stampedes during Hajj have become commonplace over the past few decades.

But most countries, especially if they are Muslim, hardly speak up against the KSA, to ask for better measures to be taken during the annual Hajj. Such a global silence may lead to more such tragedies in the future.

This year, more than 2.5 million Muslims from across the world had arrived at Mecca of Saudi Arabia in September to perform the pilgrimage.

Being the final pillar of the Islamic faith, the Hajj must be undertaken at least once by every able-bodied adult Muslim in their lives if they can afford it.

Completed in various stages over five days, some of the steps include circling the Kaaba en masse and throwing seven stones at pillars called Jamarat which represent the devil. Jamarat is located at Mina, which is five kilometers away from Mecca, where the stampede had occurred around 9:00 am local time on Sept. 24.

Immediately after the incident, Iranian media had claimed that the stampede was triggered by a convoy carrying Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, one of the sons of the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

On that night, Said Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Hajj organisation, accused Saudi officials for “mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims” for the incident. He also said that for “unknown reasons” two paths had been closed off near Jamarat.

The Saudi government denied the allegations with the Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih assuring that “an investigation would be conducted rapidly and a final toll of dead and wounded calculated.” The toll is still being calculated with families of missing pilgrims still praying to find their loved ones alive to this day.

Besides Iran, the pilgrims who died and were injured were from nations like Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Chad, Algeria, Tanzania, Libya and others.

But the government and political leaders of these countries are hardly saying anything to ensure sincere investigations in a bid to unravel the actual reason behind the stampede.

The Saudi government’s sway over these governments can be realized through the respect the former receive from the latter for simply being the custodians of Islam’s holiest site. Also there is the underlying fact that the KSA is one of the richest nations in the Muslim world, often providing aid and grants to most Muslim countries.

Still, these nations need to demand for a thorough inquiry into the matter as this will help in finding out the flaws existing in the management of the annual Islamic congregation.

Deadly stampedes during Hajj is nothing new as at least 364 pilgrims had died during a stampede in Mina in 2006.

Three years before this, 270 pilgrims had died during a stampede at Mina while 1,426 pilgrims died during a stampede in a crowded tunnel leading to the holy sites, in 1990.

Besides stampede incidents, pilgrims had also perished through other disasters over the years.

This year, a week before the Mina stampede, a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in KSA killing 109 people.

At least 300 people died when a fire fueled by high winds swept through Mina’s tent city during Hajj in 1997.

In 1987, 402 pilgrims died when local security tried to break up an anti-US demonstration brought out by Iranian pilgrims.

As the number of pilgrims visiting Mecca have increased manifold (from 57,000 in 1921 to more than two million this year), the Saudi authorities are coping with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims by deploying 100,000 security personnel and 25,000 extra health workers this year. Also, more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents were set up as temporary accommodations.

But it’s apparent more needs to be done. And this can be achieved only if all the nations of the world, who see their citizens go to KSA every year to perform the Hajj, make a point to ensure a safer environment for all.

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Categories: AT Opinion, Middle East

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