Fearing that Iranian intelligence may have very well hatched a plot to create disturbances using agents posing as Iranian pilgrims during the hajj season, Saudi Arabia refused to increase the quota for the 2012 season despite massive appeals from 40 countries so far. The official explanation by Riyadh for this rigidness was, ostensibly, that the mega development and infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars currently under way in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina would make it difficult to accommodate more pilgrims.
To say the least, this is partly true; however, Saudis sent delegations to a number of countries explaining the delicate position the Saudi government finds itself in this year, saying that the real reason behind the insistence on limited quotas and the slashing of discretionary quotas was the specter of Iranians, describing their illicit attempt to turn a peaceful practice in Islam into a political firestorm with demonstrations and rallies. No doubt the ongoing Arab Spring was also a factor in the consideration of quotas, and as expected, complicated matters further for the Saudi administration.
Unfortunately, this is a great disservice and huge disappointment to millions of Muslims who are prevented from fulfilling one of the five most important pillars of Islam. According to a working formula, offered by Saudis and accepted with a resolution at the 1988 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), every Muslim country gets a quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants, or 0.1 percent of its population. Saudis changed the quota limit after Iranian pilgrims held anti-US and anti-Israel rallies during hajj season in 1974, prompting a clash with Saudi security forces. The protests turned violent and left 402 people dead.
Since then, the trade of accusations between Riyadh and Tehran over Iranian pilgrims has not stopped. Saudis, concerned that Iran may abuse the gathering of millions of Muslims in holy sites during the hajj, has repeatedly warned Iranian government to keep politics out of religious rites. Naturally Saudi police are more alert to Iranian pilgrims during the hajj than any other nationality because of the unfortunate events of the past, and they are busy profiling them. Iran tries to pass this vigilance as "harassment of its citizens," and makes it a highly contentious issue that needs to be resolved. Saudis have never budged on their position that Iran should keep its political agenda out of the hajj in line with traditional principles of the hajj ritual.
The challenge of hosting some 3 million pilgrims descending on Mecca and Medina on specific dates according to the lunar calendar is a huge task to undertake. Difficulties encountered by pilgrims are not unique to some 60,000 Iranian pilgrims who visit the holy lands to perform the hajj. Yet Tehran is trying to turn this issue into a major political problem to discredit the Saudi government in the eyes of billions of Muslims so that the legitimacy of the Saudi king as the protector of Islam's most holy sites becomes questionable. To some degree, this plan has succeeded in putting a dent in Saudi Arabia's reputation as a gracious and effective host to millions of visitors during the hajj.
But I think Iran has also received major blowback from playing politics with the traditional hajj ritual as millions of Muslims suffer from the tension Iran has deliberately been stirring up with Saudi Arabia. In Turkey, well over 1 million Muslims have applied to make the pilgrimage this year, but unfortunately only 74,000 will be able to make it because of the quota. Even discretionary quotas were slashed this year despite an appeal by the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate that is tasked with organizing the annual pilgrimage.
Last year, 89,023 Turkish citizens were able to go to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj, the highest number in Turkish history with the exception of 1988, when 93,026 Turks performed the hajj. As millions are kept on the waiting list, Turks often opt to go on umrah, known as the lesser pilgrimage as it does not involve all of the rituals associated with the hajj. Muslims wishing to go on umrah are not subject to a quota. According to Turkish government data, 411,498 people performed the umrah in 2011. But the umrah is not a replacement and does not absolve Muslims of the responsibility of performing the hajj. They must wait for their turn on the waiting list.
Turkey is not the exception, of course. It was reported that there are 930,000 Malaysians on the waiting list to perform the hajj while the Saudis have only set a quota of 28,000 for Malaysia this year. For Indonesia, the quota is 211,000 pilgrims, while 1.4 million Indonesians are on the waiting list. Unlike last year, both Malaysian and Indonesian requests for an increased quota were rejected by the Saudis in 2012. For India, however, the quota was increased slightly by 10,000 (as opposed to the Indian government's request for an additional 40,000 slot), making the total figure 170,000 for Indian Muslims.
Apart from the OIC's working formula, Saudis used to offer discretionary quotas to Turkey and other countries using the unfulfilled quotas from poor African countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. It appears even these slots will be left empty this year as the Saudis have no interest in reassigning them to other countries.
I guess Muslims who cannot make the holy voyage in 2012 ought to be thankful to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both of whom did not shy away from exploiting the hajj occasion to advance their own sinister political campaigns. It will not be surprising at all to hear once again a political rally statement by the top Iranian cleric in his message to pilgrims on Oct. 24, heavily laced with hate speech. The hajj is essentially about piety, submission, humility, self-reflection and repentance, yet Khamenei tries to turn it into a political activity by calling on pilgrims to sever ties with the West during the hajj. On the other hand, Ahmadinejad, for political purposes, asks the Saudis to leave Iranian Shiite pilgrims alone so they can perform their own rituals during the hajj season.
Last but not least, Iran has also tried to use the occasion of the hajj to finance terrorist groups in the past using front companies, but was by and large prevented from doing so because of the strict policy the Saudis impose on Iranian financial transactions. The Saudis require that Iranian companies limit their financial transactions in Saudi Arabia through correspondent banks to hajj-related expenses. Saudi authorities also track Iranian front companies by aggressively looking into their backgrounds as well as into the network of people who are involved in any company that does business with Iran.
With political activism that has essentially nothing to do with the hajj, Iran is tainting one of Islam's most important rituals, while victimizing Muslims worldwide.