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. independent

    If anyone thinks this many people will get together and politics will not be shared, they are delusional. That is not to take anything away from the Hajj. People are politics. People share. People talk.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • HNZ

      Agree. Politics and religon are the most discussed topics when people get together.

      November 4, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • wisdom

      Go to Hajj, your brain NEEDS that..

      November 4, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Rev. Rick

      That's the primary problem with all Abrahamic religions – the line blurs between faith and politics. Just look at most of the GOP presidential candidates in the U.S., each invoking their Christian faith as part of their political platform in the hope of swaying conservative Christian voters. And Islam? Look how peaceful things are in the Middle East where Islam is the primary religion, and has been for centuries. So, when full-fledged democracy breaks out (and spreads) in the Middle East, let's talk. Until then, stay vigilant!

      November 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • tyler

      You know they're there to worship right, not to discuss worldly matters.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  2. Lil

    Peace and conflict are day and night. Ergo, the world cannot be at peace.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • hippypoet

      if thats the case then we can be at peace in the daytime and fight eachother while we sleep. 🙂 just going by your logic. and just so you know, conflict doesn't mean a war, or even a fight, just a disagreement. With that said, we need conflict or else there will be no more proper debates as we will all agree without conflict!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Lil

      If that is not our purpose for living, may I be struck by … my little brother.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • hippypoet

      i;m not sure i follow your little brother thing, but sharing ideas and a conversation with two differing view points is a debate, and if both parties don't try to kill the other one this is a world of understanding thru conflict, for a differing point of view is in confliction with the others. its not the purpose of living, if a purpose you seek, you may want to go talk to a tibatan monk, they can speak volumes on purpose.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Lil

      What's a tibatan? It sounds racist.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • hippypoet

      lol, sry, tibetan

      November 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  3. immig.c


    November 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • MJ

      ...We are the children
      We are the ones who make a brighter day
      So let's start giving
      There's a choice we're making
      We're saving our own lives
      It's true we'll make a better day
      Just you and me

      November 4, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      Mmm, whirled peas.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  4. Ron

    We can only hope. It's a form of Natural Selection! People dumb enough to live in the dessert and killing other Humans in name of a God is absolute lunacy. If they eliminate each other, well, they won't even care!

    November 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Lil

      You should start with the Sudan. Now there is a desert!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • omz

      dumb enough to liv ein the desert? Have you heard about oil?? what do you drive..a car or a donkey?

      November 4, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Lil

      Neither. I drive you… CRAZY!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • omz

      your recycled jokes are extremely lame. You would have to pay a zombie to laugh at them and he will be caughing to much dirt when he comes out of the grave to laugh at your joke.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Lil

      Of all the things you could believe in on this blog, and you choose zombies? The entire tea party had just LOLed!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • omz

      Yes your right because the tea party have nothing else better to do. I agree with you

      November 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  5. Lucky

    People dont go to hajj to discuss about politics or personal issues. People go there to be connected to god and be find peace.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • derp

      "connected to god and be find peace."

      And plan suicide bombings

      November 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Me

      And decide which group of people who don't believe exactly the way they do should be killed.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  6. hippypoet

    Peace is made in such ways – understanding is the key to a lasting peace! try at least!

    November 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • AGuest9

      Understanding of those who only understand death? That's pretty easy, hippie.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Rebecca Stanker

      you are a stinking flea-infested dope-headed meth-head pot-smoking baby-killing street vermin who doesn't bathe nor work at a job. how long have you been in jail or on welfare you schitttbag?

      November 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • hippypoet

      the extremists of any religion act the same way – death to all non believers... the rest of the group i find to be rather peacefu, however the majority of christians are not so peaceful... its just the extremists who get heard!

      the true peace of the human race will come by the power to understand our fellow person.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Lil

      No jail time. He got out on a technicality!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • AGuest9

      I don't know anyone who straps on C-4 to go to the supermarket, fortunately.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • 2tor

      If one side applies understanding, and the other refuses. It's a moot point. That's why we are where we are no. "PC" ring a bell?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  7. hajj sojourner

    The hajj in not about, and most likely will never be a western style gathering where people name drop and exchange business cards and email. It is a duty that for most is a once in a lifetime event. The focus is reflection and submission to Allah. This is no interest in who's doing what in this country vs. that country to the true pilgrim.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • I_Love_Jesus_Too

      It is people like Ahmad Akbar who have been giving wrong advise to our political leaders for decades. No one goes to Hajj to discuss ideas and share experiences. For overwhelming majority of the people it is once in a life time trip for which they have saved all of their lives. People are going there to reflect on their lives, and walk in the foot step of prophet Mohammed's (May Allah's peace be upon him) foot step.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      Hajj during the time of Prophet was a political event. But out of the fear of Muslim uprisings against tyrant rule, the Ummayad and Abbasids (and now the Saudis) have limited it to rituals. This is a lost opportunity.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  8. NorCalMojo

    Are analysts really this delusional?

    This is pure intellectual appeasement.

    Academia is broken.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  9. omz

    And ofcourse there will be many posting negative comments about Islam and Hajj, thats ok. If you never experienced something like that and you are ignorant to begin with, then it is expected of you.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • NorCalMojo

      That might be because they're not muslim and are therefore excluded from participating.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Olijaan

      I don't have a habit of coming on this site and I have to say this has been quite an unedifying introduction. Let's hope for a little less bias for the commenters (one offensive comment deleted already) and a little more effort from the authors – and a recognition of Hajj as the coming together of diverse members of humanity in solidarity and spirituality.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  10. LifeinVA

    I was stationed in Saudi in 1987 as a member of the AF. I can attest to the incredible security put in place during Hajj. There was an incident when we were all on a military bus on the way to base an an arab tried to jump through the drivers window and take control of the bus. Our Saudi guards made quick work of him and hauled him away within a min or so.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • I Don't Get It

      I thought that going to be with Allah is their heart's fondest desire. Why the security?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  11. omz

    It seems that the author of this article has never been to Hajj and has very poor knowledge about what Hajj is about. I have been to Hajj and it is not in any way shape or form a place/time where people talk politics.

    Don't be upset at me, just please try to learn about things before you talk about them.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • 2tor

      Most westerners, me included have an adverse feeling toward Islam in general. It's violent, narrow-minded, willfully ignorant of others ideas, self righteous, mid evil, and we all know what it's intent is.

      I don't have to burn myself to know it hurts. I'd rather just put the fire out quickly.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      Saudis killed 500 Iranians because they bad-mouthed their American Masters. Who sheds blood in the sacred mosque?

      November 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • derp

      Most atheists, me included have an adverse feeling toward religion in general. It's violent, narrow-minded, willfully ignorant of others ideas, self righteous, mid evil, and we all know what it's intent is.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  12. AGuest9

    So, how many snipers do they place up in each of the minarets?

    November 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • JP

      You will find more suicide bombers per sq km at haj than anywhere in the world at anytime.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  13. Michael

    ... "the biggest annual gathering of humanity, period."

    Or inhumanity, depending on how you look at it.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Lil

      Humans will be present. Ergo, humanity. DEAL!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • ROGER

      hajj smodge

      November 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Lil

      It would kill a lot of people, but that would be nothing compared to how it would kill your wallet!!!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  14. derp

    I am more curious if any of these people will ever bathe.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • fotomuse

      Isn't that what ablution is, derp?

      November 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Mariah001

      You are so ignorant. Islam is the only religion that demands it's people to be clean and pure from the inside out before praying. They are required to wash out their full body from head to toe 5 times a day not including the daily shower. Arabs are the ones who invented the soap and shampoo and body sugaring incase you don't know. You guys are the last ones who should talk about bathing. Muslims come from all parts of the world..different races and cultures..What unite them is Islam.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • independent

      The dirt in our minds, like someone hurling insults at other religions and strangers, that bothers God more than the frequency of our baths. Not to mention the ritual cleanings that take place every day.

      Get God's spirit Derp.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • derp

      If muslims bathe so much, why do they all smell so bad?

      November 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  15. Olijaan

    "Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's followers attempted to disrupt the pilgrimage throughout the '80s, though their plots were repeatedly quashed by Saudi security forces." Plots?? They were simply long-standing demonstrations against Israel and the US.

    "In 1987, however, Iranian pilgrims incited a riot that killed more than 400 people". What is your basis for this assertion? The route of the planned demonstration was blocked by Saudi security forces. The situation degenerated in to violence on both sides, during which the Iranians were fired at by the Saudi forces. My friend's mother was present at the time of the shooting, and bullet wounds could be seen in the corpses – and were indeed displayed to Western journalists. How about carrying out slightly more in-depth research before blithely publishing such remarks?

    November 4, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  16. Cassandra Chu

    the Jewish CNN still making fun of Islam, eh? bad journalism.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  17. hippypoet

    ok first i'd like to say that Notislam is an idiot.

    ok now, i think it would be great to have an arab summer, but only if it truly stems off hajj. It would be a very peaceful summer indeed. I wish the ignorant had knowledge of the peace that is islam when compared to christianity. Jews are the most peaceful, only they are also often the most racist- so its a cultural thing in somecases and has little to do with the beliefs! While others believe that it states in there belief to be a bigot and hate non believers. We need to view the whole of the islamic world not just the people who have wronged us!

    Peace is made in such ways – understanding is the key to a lasting peace! try at least!

    November 4, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  18. Fuad

    The authors of this article have clearly never been on hajj as a non-saudi. for foreigners coming in to the country for pilgrimage the rules are very strict. They are taken from the airport to designated camp sites which they hardly leave. no rubbing of sholders with the locals is given a change. Furthermore, the whole concept of this event is to leave the world behind and be more spiritual. People save their entire lives to do this just once. I will really suspect if they will waste time talking to locals. That being said, if there is some state sponsored pilgrim who is going for the sole purpose of starting a rebellion that is a different story all together

    November 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  19. Notislam

    The USA has been at war with islam since the beginning of the USA. After Thomas Jefferson read the koran and learned about islam, he concluded that war with islam was the only viable alternative. He built the US Navy to smite islam. The rest is history. We are at war with islam and we are winning.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • RJefferson

      Were you born an idiot, or did it just come naturally to you.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Xengaver

      Well You should watch Rambo III, US was not allways at war with Islam. And even supported Taliban aganst Russia.

      November 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  20. William Demuth

    I do hope so.

    People are on the move the world over.

    Perhaps the winds of change are picking up speed!

    Modernity for the Middle East might be a great force for progress

    November 4, 2011 at 8:57 am |
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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.