Mecca’s disasters and Muslims’ responsibility

Mecca’s disasters and Muslims’ responsibility

Two days ago, yet another horrible disaster took place in Mecca, near Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba, and during the holy week of the hajj, the pilgrimage. An astonishing number of 753 pilgrims were killed in a stampede that took place near the point where the devil is ritually stoned. At least some 800 pilgrims were also reportedly injured.

This is only the latest in a series of horrible accidents or stampedes that have taken place during the hajj in the past couple of decades. Just two weeks before, a huge crane had fallen on pilgrims, killing more than a hundred people. Notably, one of the technicians of the company that operated the crane had argued that they had no responsibility, for the accident had taken place due to “fate,” and “an act of God.”

That is why I wrote a piece titled, “Islam’s Tragic Fatalism” (NYT, Sept. 23), in which I argued that such fatalistic excuses by Muslims are nothing but an easy way out to escape from responsibility. “God’s will,” I wrote, “Becomes an easy cover for intellectual laziness, lack of planning and irresponsibility.” Then I added:

“Colossal accidents in Mecca and elsewhere must be taken as alarm signals for Muslims to purge our societies of this problematic mentality and seek the great intellectual revival we need.”

Alas, the next colossal accident took place the next day: The stampede that killed 753 pilgrims. This time, at least so far, nobody put the blame on “fate,” but Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih pointed a finger of blame at the dead, saying the pilgrims were undisciplined and did not follow instructions. In other words, the responsibility was again in other hands. 

In fact, I am sure that many pilgrims were indeed “undisciplined and did not follow instructions,” because the hajj, often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is not something people get disciplined for. It is the responsibility of the organizers to foresee all these problems and risks and take all the precautions.

A report in The Guardian suggested the precautions were in fact not enough. Survivors of the stampede argued the police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills to communicate with foreign pilgrims. Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, similarly said: “They don’t have a clue how to engage with these people; there’s no crowd control.”

It is good that Saudi King Salman did order an investigation into such organizational faults, as he ordered an investigation into the crane collapse. But Saudi authorities still have a long way to go in terms of re-planning the hajj scene and re-educating their personnel in a way that will eliminate such colossal disasters. The know-how of other societies, including non-Muslim ones, must be employed. 

Deep down, such coal accidents in Mecca (or the coal mines of Turkey) point to a deep mentality problem in the modern Muslim world: A lack of enough care, attention and precision for security measures. This ranges from a driver who refuses to use a seat belt, to a crane operator who disregards safety rules, to a police force who “gathers in one place doing nothing,” as a witness said after the latest stampede. We need to replace this culture of negligence with a culture of responsibility. It surely is not an easy task. But it is also a task we cannot avoid taking on.