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Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy Hajj

Belated happy holidays to everyone. I had a suitably grumpy Christmas, and am now back online to rant again.

First up, though, let's move away from the Christian fairy tale for a moment to consider some other ones. Apparently six million people celebrate Kwanzaa in North America each year.

It's a week long celebration of pan-African culture that runs, conveniently for those seeking to extend their Christmas break into New Year, from the 26th of December to the 1st of January.

It's also totally made up. Some random Marxist invented it in the heady counterculture days of the late Sixties, because he reckoned that 'Jesus was a psychotic' that black people should distance themselves from.

Fast forward to today and George Bush is dishing out the patronising 'Happy Kwanzaa' wishes.

Maybe black citizens of the US and other places should pay more attention to their African origins (which are predominantly West African rather than the East African celebrations pastiched in Kwanzaa, incidentally). But spoof festivals made up by muppets who can't even spell in Swahili surely aren't the answer.

A much bigger party is set to kick off over at Mecca/Makkah though. The annual Hajj, wherein the world's Muslim population is encouraged to gather in a tent city in the Saudi desert and re-enact the trials of Abraham, is this coming week.

No doubt, the duty of a Muslim to pay this pilgrimage weighs heavily on many. And many save for years and dedicate their lives to the experience of doing their hajj. And equally no doubt, hundreds of those who attend this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage will die as a result.

Surely it is time for someone, either in Islamic religious authority or in the Saudi regime, to stand up and say that it is no longer practical for a community that now numbers over 1.2 billion people to converge on a desert for a week at a time this year, all circling the ka'aba at once, all stoning the pillars at once, all listening to the sermon in the desert at the same time.

Of course, the full 1.2 billion Muslims do not all attend the hajj at once. But at least 2.5 million do each year, plenty more than the authorities can cope with. And the annual mass deaths that occur as a result of stampeding and crushing are the evidence that no infrastructure exists to deal with the movement of so many people.

Let's review recent statistics, kindly gathered by the BBC:

2006: 345 die in a crush during a stone-throwing ritual
2004: 251 trampled to death in stampede
2003: 14 are crushed to death
2001: 35 die in stampede
1998: At least 118 trampled to death
1997: 343 pilgrims die and 1,500 injured in fire
1994: 270 killed in stampede
1990: 1,426 pilgrims killed in tunnel leading to holy sites
1987: 400 die as Saudi authorities confront pro-Iranian demonstration

That's a lot of deaths for what should be a celebratory religious festival. One wonders how come people consistently die in their hundreds at the Hajj when 70 million can gather in the one spot for the Hindu Kumbh Mela in 2003 with only 39 deaths due to stampeding.

Yet somehow, mass deaths and the Hajj seem to go hand in hand, more years than not. So to anyone heading for the Hajj, I wish you all the best. Keep those elbows out and don't fall over, whatever you do.

For some, the real problem with the Hajj is that the lack of a quota system means that some affluent Muslims can fly in for the pilgrimage annually, while others never get a hope of going throughout their lives.

For others, it's putting their safety in the hands of the Saudi authorities, the same guys who have overseen all the stampedes listed above. Already there has been one large fire in Mecca, injuring 16 people. How many more will die this year?

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