Politics

What’s a Muslim to Do About Hajj?

Saudi Arabia has turned the holy journey into a political and moral nightmare. I don’t see how I can go.

Muslim worshippers pray and circumambulate around the Kaaba.
Muslim worshippers pray and circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on Aug. 25.
Bandar Aldandani/AFP/Getty Images

As excruciating details have leaked over the past two weeks about the killing and reported dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents, the most high-profile public backlash has come in the form of defections from a glittery upcoming conference, the Future Investment Initiative, planned by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, along with dozens of other politics, business, and media figures, have pulled out of the so-called Davos in the Desert because of scrutiny around the case and the crown prince’s likely involvement. They don’t want to be associated with an event designed to bolster the image of (and enrich) a brutal regime and prince that might kill a dissident and barely try to hide it. Go figure.

But for me, there’s another annual gathering in Saudi Arabia that comes to mind. It’s an essential and religiously required journey for Muslims: the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam. My mom told me it was the greatest moment of her life when she went. In Arabic, my father asked me to pray for him when I make it. At 29, I still haven’t been able to afford it, but I remember the look in my parents’ eyes after I told them I was saving my money for the expensive trip. It was pure emotion—a clear affirmation of their parenting. Personally, I’ve always dreamed of converging with fellow Muslims on the location believed to be the birthplace of our final prophet, and where the first words of the Quran were revealed: Iqra. Read.

Now I’m starting to wonder how I can go at all. And I’m also wondering why more Muslims don’t question the powers that control our most sacred site—and how the Saudis have already twisted it to their own political and financial ends.

In some ways, it’s absurd that the alleged murder of one journalist is what has sparked a high-level reckoning with the kingdom, or finally caused my own doubts to spill over. To participate in one of our religion’s most important rites, we shouldn’t have to look past the Saudis’ merciless, brutal campaign in Yemen. We shouldn’t have to look past decades of notorious and flagrant human-rights abuses. Personally, I shouldn’t have had to look past the hate-filled, Saudi-peddled “textbooks” that the kingdom has distributed to children in Islamic schools in America, including mine.

But whatever the catalyst, the moment seems finally to have arrived, if President Trump doesn’t manage to help the Saudis talk their way out of it. Although various investigations into Khashoggi’s murder continue, it doesn’t seem too early to ask how any Muslim—particularly one in pursuit of a profound religious duty—could not be troubled by such horror and corruption. Should we not hold the guardians of Islam’s holiest sites to a higher standard? This kind of flagrant thuggery and extrajudicial murder does not belong in this century, and we’re complicit if we line the pockets of those responsible. The Quran teaches, “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witness to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor … ” The message isn’t ambiguous. Saudi Arabia’s violent disregard for basic human rights isn’t either.

The Saudi regime itself has politicized the pilgrimage before, using it as a bargaining chip to put pressure on other Muslim-majority countries. Earlier this year, Qatar accused the Saudis of withholding access to hajj from its citizens. For a while last year, it also wasn’t clear whether Iranians would be allowed to visit, because of long-standing tensions between the countries. And in many other places, angry protests sought to remind the kingdom of the weight of its religious duty as “immoral” prices surged out of control. “Only God has the right to forbid anyone to go on Hajj, not Saudi Arabia,” one Indonesian organization said.

In practice, of course, that’s not true. The time has come to change it. Muslims have more power over the royal family than we think. Make no mistake: Mecca is big business for the Saudis. Hajj and umrah revenues are estimated to surpass $150 billion by 2022. That’s a lot of money to collect from Muslims, many of whom have been selling their belongings and saving money for years to afford the trip. If we can harness the anger at the kingdom’s arrogant violence and abuses, it won’t have a choice but to notice. Executives dropping out of the Future Investment Initiative and some high-profile business cancellations have already rattled the royals there and raised questions about the crown prince’s future. Muslims should stand up to the regime now, when its abuses are finally too glaring and inescapable that they can no longer be ignored. We can do it by staying home until something changes.

As with most Muslims, my desire to complete the hajj carries an intense emotional and spiritual weight. It isn’t just a ritual—it’s a foundational and indispensable pillar of my religion. I can’t say I’ll never go. I must. But I do know I can’t focus on my hajj while Saudis make a mockery of the journey and corrupt Islam without consequences. I’m still putting money away in an account—I got married last year, and I dream of bringing my wife with me so we can complete our religious obligation together. But for now, I’m going to keep that money far away from Saudi Arabia.