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Will this year's Hajj have an ‘Arab Spring’ effect?
Tens of thousands of pilgrims perform the evening prayer at Mecca's Grand Mosque on Wednesday.
November 4th, 2011
07:57 AM ET

Will this year's Hajj have an ‘Arab Spring’ effect?

By Dan Gilgoff and Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the world's largest gathering of Muslims - the biggest annual gathering of humanity, period.

So it's no surprise that Middle East experts expect this year's pilgrimage, the first to happen since the Arab Spring began last year, to be different.

The pilgrimage, called the Hajj, happens in the same global neighborhood as countries that have been roiled by protests, revolutions and war over the last 11 months.

But there's uncertainty about exactly how this Hajj, which officially begins Friday, will be different.

Some experts are watching for potential flare-ups in Saudi Arabia, a country governed by an unelected royal family and where freedoms are limited. They note that ordinary Saudis will be rubbing shoulders with Arabs making pilgrimages from countries that have staged anti-government demonstrations and have unseated long-entrenched regimes.

"This idea of freedom and dignity is spreading like wildfire, and at a gathering like the Hajj it's conceivable that the electricity coming from these ideas will be picked up," says Akbar Ahmed, the chair of Islamic Studies at American University. "This is what scares the Saudi bureaucracy."

"There are thousands of pilgrims who want to topple the established order of the Saudi monarchy," he says.

But Ahmed and others say the Hajj's effects on the Arab Spring are just as likely to be much broader, as many pilgrims share notes on uprisings and overthrows before returning home to countries ruled by despots.

"This is a venue where you can come into contact with hundreds of thousands of people, so for people who are coming from these newly liberated lands, it is a bit much to ask to say absolutely nothing about it," says Kelly Pemberton, an assistant professor at The George Washington University who studies Islamic reform movements.

"Many people are going to see this (Arab Spring) as a sign of God's favor," she says.

At the same time, experts on the region note that the Hajj is a solemn religious event that is physically and spiritually demanding and that affords little time for politicking, raising doubts in some scholars' minds about the magnitude of a Hajj effect on the Arab Spring.

The Saudis haven't announced special security measures for this year's Hajj.

But the event, which draws roughly 2.5 million pilgrims, has long been managed with military precision, and scholars say the government there has been preparing for months for its first Arab Spring-era Hajj.

"They'll be on guard for a flashpoint moment or a riot, something that flares up and becomes something," says Ahmed, referring to Saudi security forces. "In Tunisia, one man set himself on fire and three months later the Egyptian president is toppled."

There has been political violence during the Hajj in the past, most notably in the 1980s, on the heels of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's followers attempted to disrupt the pilgrimage throughout the '80s, though their plots were repeatedly quashed by Saudi security forces.

In 1987, however, Iranian pilgrims incited a riot that killed more than 400 people, according to globalsecuity.org, a stark illustration of the rift between Shiite-ruled Iran and Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has not seen the kind of protests now roiling countries like Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, but people there lack many basic freedoms. Political participation is limited.

The Saudi government has been politically sensitive to its people since the outset of the Arab Spring, spending billions on domestic programs aimed at improving the lot of its citizenry.

And scholars say that Saudi Arabia has supported anti-government forces in some Arab countries, including rebels in Libya and protestors in Syria.

"I can't image anybody is going to show up in Mecca denouncing the royal family," says Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. "A lot of people going to Hajj will be connected with the (Egypt-based) Muslim Brotherhood, which has longstanding good relations with the Saudis."

Some experts speculate that Saudi Arabia, which tightly controls the numbers of pilgrims allowed to attend Hajj from each country, is reducing its quotas from certain politically unstable countries to curb the influence of would-be revolutionaries.

The U.S. embassies in Egypt and Tunisia, two countries that have seen their governments overthrown this year, did not immediately reply to requests Thursday for statistics on slots for pilgrims granted by Saudi Arabia.

Some scholars say the governments of other Arab countries are likely to be reducing the number of pilgrims allowed to attend Hajj in Saudi Arabia this year.

"The leaders of Syria, Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia are somewhat worried about the Hajj providing a forum for people to trade ideas and strategies and coming home to pick up protests and really find the momentum to get things going," says Pemberton of George Washington University.

Since late last year, some Muslim religious happenings in the Arab world have become forums for anti-government activity.

In Egypt, Friday afternoon prayers - the most significant prayers of the week for Muslims - served as catalysts for the biggest anti-government demonstrations of the revolution.

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, the announcement came on a Friday, hours after Egypt's Muslims had observed afternoon prayers.

In Libya, rebels reached a turning point in a six-month old civil during Ramadan of this year, when evening prayers at mosques helped ordinary people organize against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

With Gadhafi dead, more Libyans may get to attend this year's Hajj than in years past. Other post-revolution Arab countries may send a more diverse mix of pilgrims.

"The biggest effect is the allocation of Hajj visas," said Asim Khwaja, a Harvard University professor specializing in international development. "Some countries did a lottery, some did rationing, and with the government changes, if countries were doing rationing in the past, you can imagine they were sending friends and officials."

"Now there may be a more egalitarian mix," Khwaja says. "This will be a more democratic Hajj for the Arab world."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Islam

soundoff (1,060 Responses)
  1. ThinkWhatYouAreTold

    Mecca itself is now an idol. To criticise it invokes more anger than criticising Allah himself. Shame.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  2. Hashim

    For more info on Hajj read novel – king of Bat'ha

    November 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  3. aceblazin

    So much hate, and yet it is STILL the number one growing religion in the U.S. and around the world. So naive to know. Typical media.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  4. Abdul

    Hajj is one the five pillars of Islam. It transcends all colors, race, and ethnicities. During this journey barriers of language, territory, colour and race disapper and the bond of faith is uppermost. Everyone has the same status in the House of Allah (Kabah) – the status of His servant.

    CNN please do not attemp to turn this blessed religious time and event into a "terroist, freedom mongorers" hook-up spot. It is not a political get together. Hajj is for Allah (GOD). The pilgrims are there for HIM and HIM alone.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Ray

      do they use those pillars to tie people to when they behead them in the name of allah the rest of the year??

      November 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • John

      I don't agree with your religion Abdul, but I wish you peace and that you have a good time at this event.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • hindunegative

      A hindu denier of truth is always eligible for it and you are welcome to experience it hindu , ignorent.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      @hindunegative – look, it's obvious you have an axe to grind. We get it. Now bug off.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  5. Peter

    Largest gathering of humans omn Earth, heh? Can you say drone?

    November 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • hindunegative

      hinduism absurdity of a hindu negative, If it was not hinduism denial of truth by hindus deniers of truth, world would have experienced nothing but peace, Islam among humanity. cleanse hindered filthy swamp of hinduism illegality for good of humanity.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • John

      Why Peter? Because they are different from you? You are a little Hitler.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Optimistic

      The picture makes you a little jealous. Is this what your religion calls for? I am sure christianity does not call for this.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Russell Jeffords

    Methinksa 10 megaton bacon bomb would go down the chute JUST RIGHT on top dead center.

    Uh, and Mean: you are a prack, and I hope that you die buried in pigskin. Your understanding of your own faith is zero, and btw, you don't help when you bang on white people....plenty of your dark skinned brethren are people of the book as well.

    Swine.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Hmm dark skin r u white trash? there are good white people.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Optimistic

      The picture made you a little jealous. Is this what your religion calls for? I am sure christianity does not call for this.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  7. hindunegative

    Word Jesus is hinduism absurdity of hindus absurd, hindu corrupted form of name of son of blessed Nary son, his given name was Easu in Hebrew, Annoited one not Jesus in hinduism fabrication. J is added to make him a Jew but he was a Hebrew,a is deleted and s is added for polarity, as sign of respect , Jesus word not being word of any language and having no meanings. hinduism absurdity of Egyptian hindus pagans pretending to be his follower of son of blessed May but follower of Pharoahnic Mithraism, savior ism labeled as Christian in trinity deception. The way of Pharoahnic hindus criminals to hind fool humanity.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Manifestation of all Evil

      What hinduism in the hell hindu are you hinduism talking hindu about?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      Boring troll is boring.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  8. Bilbo

    There's another name for Jihad....Crusade....we taught the Muslims well, they just happen to be a few hundred years behind.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • MontanaSon

      That's not historically accurate. Islam started with death and destruction.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • John

      Christianity ( 1st century CE ) Started with the death of Yoshua Ben Yoseph ( Jesus ) by Edomites ( decendents of Esau ) and Rome. Rome promotes a world wide religion by stealing Jewish texts and then defiling them with garbage, changes Yeshua's name to Jesus (J-Isis) intermingles, Assyrian, Greek and Roman Gods. Burns believers of Yeshua, Jews, Muslim at the stake. The biggest mass murder ever over 1800 years. Christianity is certainly no religion of peace and it breaks every rule that it claims it stands up for. What's the difference?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • hindunegative

      yes, of hinduism illagality.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Optimistic

      Islam did not start with death. Who thought they killed Jesus?

      November 4, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • mag

      Why are you targeting the Edomites? Was the Jewish council who condemned Jesus an edomite? I am not saying you are wrong, i just cant confirm it after doing a little bit of research. Yoshua Ben Yoseph is a cool name.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  9. bobcat2u

    If these millions of religious pilgrims decide to join forces in a united front in this holiest of muslim sites, this could turn into the mother of all jihads.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • sam

      And they will perish together

      November 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Bobcat. Agreed. you are smarter not like Montana 😦

      November 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  10. PhotoGirl

    To the authors: This is actually not the largest gathering of humanity on the planet. That honor would go to the Kumbh Mela in India, which boasts attendance of closer to 60-70 million people. Search on Kumbh Mela and Wiki to find more info. I'd send you a note, but I don't have any way to contact you directly.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  11. Bilbo

    What a bunch a maroons. When I see the mindless throngs whether it be jammed into Mecca, St Peters Square or just a parking lot at the Crystal Cathedral it tells you all you need to know about he sheer stupidity of the human race...and it's all motivated by MONEY...what do you think built all these fancy buildings?...How about an Occupy Vatican movement? Or maybe an Occupy Mecca? The money changers are alive and well and living in all 4 corners of the earth.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • WhackyWaco

      Why don't you occupy this mm^mm.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  12. Johnna

    Let me tell you people, I'd be hallucinating also, if i starved myself for 30 days, even less. It's no wonder Muhammad saw ALLA.
    He probably saw the 40 virgins as well. But I'm sure they were all fugly like most middle eastern women in general as that's why they wear veils. God bless them!

    November 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • dviper

      You are denser than a door knob!

      November 4, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • iknow

      Obviously that the school was far away from your home so the CNN was the only source you could read. If you don't have education please learn some manners, it will help you to communicate with people properly. Don't lean to much on CNN it is just media as any other. Just sayin'.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  13. AvdBerg

    For a better understanding of Islam and Hajj we invite you to read the articles ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    Also, to give people a better understanding of the issues that divide this world we invite you to read the article ‘CNN Belief Blog ~ Sign of the Times’.

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how this whole world has been deceived as confirmed by the Word of God in Revelation 12:9. The Bible is true in all things and is the discerner of every thought and the intent of the heart (Hebrews 5:12).

    November 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  14. jtnc85

    Wow reading some of these comments is depressing, people really are ignorant.

    My religion is better than your religion! It never stops.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Blues Festival

      Wow – I'd love to have the rights to set up a hot dog stand at this gig...

      November 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • stumpy

      The Internet: where losers go to feel like winners.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Pedo Mohamed

      Islam is not a relegion, its more of a political system.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  15. Dale

    Trillions of dollars spent on religious centers like this from all faith and we still have massive poverty and homelessness in the world. How come no one is questioning or protesting the 1% religions?

    November 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  16. Thomas

    I see a big bulls-eye in the center of that photo.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Meki60

      That is the drop target for a planeload of hams

      November 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • jtnc85

      Boooo go away

      November 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • John

      I see a person that is full of hate and needs help.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  17. MuukMeanAndProud

    First Of all I am a Muslim, I take great offense to you people (white) who think you are better than others. Islam Means Peace if you so called claim to know so much read the Qur'an and the Hadiths and get your understandings straight. Those who commit suicide are not true muslims who follow the Qur'an. I wish you ignorant fools could see the blessings that Allah has bestowed but you obviously have the seal over your eyes, ears, and hearts. Have a nice day and hopfully you will see soon, Inshallah.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • tootmonkey

      So, you denounce Sharia Law then, right?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • ray

      TAKBIR TAKBIR TAKBIR

      November 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Peace???

      Yes. I suppose it is a peaceful religion: as long as you submit!

      November 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Ray

      islam is peace?? do you tell that to people who you behead in front of cheering crowds? do you tell that to women who you beat if you think they are not covered? WHERE are your mullahs when it comes to condemning terrorism....they are MUTE. This religion was BORN in violence when Gabriel beat your prophet until he wrote your Koran and it thrives in violence.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • You

      you really didn't help yourself by calling out just white people.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • ltcoljpm

      Your posting is proof that religion is not good for the brain.
      Too many brainwashed people following the religion of 'peace'

      November 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Meki60

      Please send a photo of Moham__ is I know who you mean.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • sam

      oh yea ..peaceful you meant PIECE FULL

      November 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Pedo Mohamed

      What a peaceful religion. Did you hear last week in your holy land they chopped a guys head off for sorcery? Soon the world will be free of this parasite call Islam, Inshalla.

      Oh Abraham, look what have you done?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • John

      This is a liberal web site and as you see, young liberals hate everybody and show no civility to anyone. Don't take it personally, I believe you are a peaceful Muslim. These are just unpeaceful children and there is no point in asking them to grow up. They won't. By, the way. I am an older white guy. Not all of us are jerks.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • ron

      If Islam means peace then why are you the most hated? Because they kill everyone that is against Islam.. The U.S. needs to return the favor. Blame your own people for it.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • John

      Pedo Mohamed, just look at the trouble the OWS protestors are causing and the hate and garbage that goes on in this country from non-religious people as well.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • John

      Did you take a poll Ron? Such idiocy.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • NYC1972

      If you read the QU Ran you would realized that muhammad was a great manipulator and made up crap just to get his way – do you know how he got his WIVES? did you know how the whole 40 virgin thing came up? it's a bunch of bull, and i'm not picking on just one religion, most religions are full of crap

      November 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Love_Jesus

      As much as you all hate Islam and post junk about Islam and women and equality. There have been more women presidents and prime-ministers in Muslim countries than any of the so called secular or Christian countries. Sadly Pakistan (the largest Muslim country) has more women in parliament and senate than USA. So shame on you for spreading lies.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • reader

      Thanks John 🙂

      November 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • bagger

      well i think you muslims are just as crazy as those white christians.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • John

      and just as crazy as the athiest bashing people because they believe in something different. Can't get along with people at all. Grow up!

      November 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • dviper

      Stop drinking so much haterade!

      November 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • mag

      lol, until 'moderate' muslims start condemning these terrorists, no one will take you claim seriously about islam being peaceful. the reason why everyone hates muslims is because when a terrorist attack occurs, 'moderate' muslims dont say anything. they dont do anything. they just sit blaming america for everything while they eat humus.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  18. Paul

    Oil brings in a lot of money to Islam but I bet the next big money maker is the money they fleece from all those millions that have to make the pilgrimage every year. Islam is all about raking in the money, honey.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Love_Jesus

      Just some facts for other ill-informed people on on this forum. Arab's only represent 18% of Muslim population. Majority of Muslims live in China, India, and Pakistan who do not get any of this so called oil money. All of this oil money that is earned by the authoritarian regime is always reinvested in American and European economies.
      Also, an interesting fact about Arabs is that more than 35% all Arabs are Christians. Especially in places like Lebanon they represent 50% of population and in the hated occupied land known as Palestine they represent 25% of populous.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • mag

      Love Jesus is correct that countries such as Lebanon have a large non-muslim population. also, i believe Indonesia should be on your list large population of muslims that are not arab. another point is that iran and afganistan are not arabs, they are muslims.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • HNZ

      @mag – Arab is a race and Muslim is faith.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  19. etienne gouldinski

    toga! toga! toga! toga!

    November 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  20. MEME

    Can we please get Enola Gay to make a pass over the Mecca?

    November 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • What!? Post my name so I can be nut case target?

      🙂

      November 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • bagger

      you are suggesting mass murder. who is the crazy one?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.