This year's hajj to Mecca went off without incident

Sunday, December 14, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST

Loory: The largest religious gathering in the world, by far, is the annual hajj to Mecca carried out by the world’s Muslims. Last week over 3 million attended the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is commanded in the Koran to make the hajj at least once in a lifetime. This year the hajj went off without incident but in the past there has been mayhem. In 2006, more than 300 were stoned to death. There has been controversy this year over the hajj. The government of Saudi Arabia refused to allow several hundred residents of the Gaza Strip to attend because Hamas, the anti-Israeli militant group that controls the area, sponsored their visas. Is the hajj, now, an exercise in peaceful coexistence, or is there more political attachment to it?

Ahmed Shaikh, chief editor, Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar: No. The hajj is a ritual; it is not meant to be mixed with politics. It’s a mission of coexistence; it’s a mission of love of other human beings. This part of the world is politically charged, and it enters every detail of people’s lives. If someone goes to the hajj and tries to practice politics, that’s their business, but it is not God’s business. There is a total separation between politics as it is today and hajj as a ritual and worship to God.

Loory: Tell us a little bit about how this celebration developed and what the importance of it is.

Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of religion and the media, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York: Speaking from the U.S., it is becoming an increasingly significant part of the American religious landscape, because the Muslim community is growing. There are travel agencies in important Muslim populations that exist mainly to book people on the pilgrimage to Mecca. In any religious setting, there is always the danger that individuals will take it upon themselves to politicize a religious ritual; that is not by any means exclusive to Islam. It is often the angry voices that get the most attention. One of the most beautiful and evocative images of the hajj for Americans comes from Malcolm X, who described what a transformative effect the hajj had on him just before the end of his life

Loory: Malcolm X was viewed in this country as a much more political figure than a religious one.

Niebuhr: Yes. For much of his life, he was viewed as a political spokesman for African-American separatism. However, when he went on the hajj and embraced orthodox Islam his views began to change. He began to realize there was a much bigger world out there than he had been exposed to.

Loory: Did the problem in the Palestinian territories over the question of who was allowed to attend the hajj overtake the religious component in any way?

Kristen Ess, English director, Palestine News Network, Ramallah, Palestinian Authority territory: The Israeli government has used the 2006 win in the Legislative Council 0f Gaza by the Hamas Party to further the divide between Hamas and Fatah, which is the Ramallah government. After 18 months of siege on the Gaza Strip, Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have an even greater divide. Unfortunately, that was taken out on the pilgrims from the Gaza Strip, but did not affect pilgrims leaving the West Bank. The problems come from two different visa agencies. The Hamas government controls one; the Palestinian Authority controls the other. Palestinian Authority visa holders were going to be allowed to leave, but people with visas from the Hamas government were not going to be allowed. Then, the Hamas government decided not to let anyone leave.

Loory: A prince of Saudi Arabia stated how important the hajj is for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and other religions. Did this get a lot of attention in the Muslim world?

Mayada al Askari, Iraqi freelance journalist, Dubai, UAE: In Iraq, it is a very different situation, but in other places it is being emphasized all the time. A lot of people realize that with globalism, you can’t have it any other way. Islam has 164 different nationalities — and different religions — coexisting as one country. What the emir said is very much in place now.

Loory: Al Jazeera is a worldwide news organization. What can you say about a possible development of a peaceful coexistence between Muslims and other religious and ethnic groups around the world?

Shaikh: Islam calls for tolerance, for exchange of ideas, for exchange of coexistence. We must try to understand each other’s religions more profoundly, more deeply. I ask myself — and all other Muslims ask — what are the Western armies doing in Iraq? Why are they entering other Muslim countries? I know it is simple — or naïve — but we have got to listen to people asking these questions.

Loory: What about conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India and conflict in other places around the world involving Muslims? What can be done, and what part should the religion be playing in clearing these conflicts up?

Shaikh: Conflicts in other parts of the world are not because of Islam. Is it Islam that orchestrated genocide in Rwanda, where non-Muslims were killing non-Muslims? The world did nothing to stop the killings of almost 5.5 million people. Is Islam the reason behind all these troubles? You cannot take these incidents and separate them from other incidents and say this implicates Islam.

Niebuhr: It is necessary for people to talk to each other about what goes on in their individual religions. This is a way to separate religion from politics and the individuals from the negative stereotypes. An evangelical Christian once said, “Do not judge a religion by the acts of its most violent members.” If religion can be disconnected from the other points of conflict, then progress is made toward people getting along with religious differences.

Ess: From the Palestinian perspective, people returning from the hajj say that one of the strongest experiences is going to a place that is away from politics. Everything about life here is ensconced in politics. When people are at the hajj, performing the duties, it is being done with a single voice and purpose. People talk about feeling entirely connected to people from all over the world. Palestinians are treated with additional respect than most people are already treated performing the hajj because life is so difficult living under occupation.

Loory: Explain how the hajj works. Take us through some of the events.

Shaikh: It has its own rituals. The stoning ritual is meant as a signal of purifying yourself. These rituals are meant to teach you how to purify yourself from inside. Another ritual is to walk around the Kaaba seven times, which is not the stone itself. The Kaaba was the first house to be built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Then people walk seven times between Safa and Marwah. This was where the mother of Ishmael went looking for water when her son was thirsty. It is a matter of paying respect to these forefathers of the religion.

Loory: The question of separating religion from politics is something that we have had serious problems with over the ages, and it is something that somehow we will have to try to figure out how to do.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Chris Hamby, Sananda Sahoo and Hui Wang. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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