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. Willy Brown

    Good let them all stay the freak there.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  2. bezerkur

    islam is against all other beliefs and if yot are not one of them you are a infidal. kind of like the christain movement that killed and butchered the europeans and destroyed my ancestors heritage. oh and dont forget how it destroyed south and central america. im against any religion that uses force to subjecate or make war with another. religion teaches peace and morals. not hypocrites

    November 4, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  3. Tony

    It's such a shame that one man lied to a group of people about a visit from the Arch Angel Gabriel... Just like the Mormons... Oh sure... He only would speak to me & recited these words to me & blah blah blah... Muhammad must have had a hatred for Christians & Jews based on the writings of the Quran that encourage all Muslims to hang with other Muslims & discourages friendships with Jews & Christians... Say what you will about Christians, but we follow a book that gives many prophecies, that were fulfilled 100's of years after the scripture was written... It is very hard to discredit... The Quran just tells people how to live & has no prophecies to prove it's authenticity which is why I believe Mohammad was a false prophet as Jesus said ""At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. . . . For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time" (Matthew ;24 NIV).

    November 4, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • shawnl

      One religion is no more of a lie than another. All religion is based on myth, lies, stories and half truths.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Terry Andeson

      Tell it like it is Tony! Good for you.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • You can't handle the Truth

      Very convenient to say that Prophet (PBUH) lied when if you read about his life he never once in his life lied even when his life was in danger. On the other hand you as a person has lied many times so I think I find his words to be more credible than you.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • TC Williams

      I think you should preface your entire post with the caveat that you have never actually read the Quran.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Derek

      Whatever Tony, if you want to drink that Kool-Aid too, have at it. All religion is bullsh**. All religion is made made for you to believe out of pure fear, Lemmings are such simple creatures. Funny it was all written 400 years after the dudes death, and someone figured that they could profit on the simpletons during that time Christianity is a "business" and nothing more. Jesus didn't need a church to speak his mind or the word....he did for free on a hill top. Religion is the root of all evil.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  4. Mujeeb


    November 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  5. humanone

    That's an impressive picture – sure paints the magnitude of the masses. Somebody often gets accidentally trampled to death at the Haj – I see why. Could be a riot if the Arab Spring springs forth from the black rock.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Angryants

      Impressive...pfft!! I've seen plenty of people dancing in circles screaming madly at rock concerts. Unimpressive.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  6. Descarado

    How many Western feminists are aware that the 52-year-old pedophile Mohammed copulated his child-bride Aisha when she was only 9 years-old? Does it surprise that a woman witness is equal to half of a man's testimony in court?

    November 4, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • ajinla

      Ignorance said the Budha is a "SIN" and I say self imposed ignorance is a greater SIn, You descarado are a buffoon and an ignoramus, take off your blinds open your eyes, read, learn from a reliable source not from FOX NEws, and then come back and make comments about Islam, Until that time, keep your mouth shut.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Descarado

      @aljinia It takes a special psychotic to come to the defense of a pedophile. You are sooooooo special, aljinia!

      November 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Kay

      For crying out loud...do you seriously think we don't know about Mohammed's *alleged* pedophilia? OF COURSE WE DO!!! But what *YOU* don't seem to know is that what he did was culturally accepted 1,400 years ago.

      And, before you start arguing about this being a Muslim thing or something that only other countries did, let me point out the fact that...right here in America...it used to be common and accepted that girls under 12 years old were married! Indeed, being 9 years old was the legal age at which a girl WHO WAS A WIFE was *also* eligible for a dower (a settlement) from her late husband's estate!!!

      By the 1880s...we're talking only 130 years ago, mind you...most states set the age of consent at 10-12, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only 7!

      So...do you still want to pretend that Mohammed was a pedophile? Or assume that "Western feminists" are clueless about any of this?

      November 4, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  7. peick

    Where is the Burning Man statue?

    November 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  8. ME

    As a non-muslim, I'd hope so; there needs to be a movement to engender more revolt against the authoritarians and religious fanatics that dominate the political culture in the Middle East. However, if it just leads to more fanaticism, that may be paradoxically a good thing; that would force the rest of the world to acknowledge that perhaps this so-called "violent minority" is not being rejected by the society as a whole and then we can react accordingly.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  9. David

    What a picture, may god bless all Muslims and what the stand for. Jesus is coming back, let me assure you he will be with them!!

    November 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Test


      November 4, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • humanone

      What day is the Lord coming back? Woo hoo!~

      November 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Kay

      That was a very nice comment. Kind and loving. Thank you so much for being the kind of Christian that Jesus was talking about 🙂

      November 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Timothy

      Jesus is not coming back and fools like you will continue to be fair game for the ruling class.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Timothy

      If you really were a Christian, which I doubt, you would know that it is written that no one will know when
      the son will return. You are just a moron prattling about things you know nothing of. Get off these blogs,

      November 4, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  10. rami

    What a beatiful pictures, may God bless Islami

    November 4, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • YourMom

      I love Islami. Especially on a hard roll with mustard and onions!

      November 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Angryants

      Rami, I bet you'd like to offer blessings to the tip of my Islami.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  11. BobZemko

    Just put whoopie cushions down when people begin to kneel. That will get the revolution started.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  12. Ahmed Saoudy

    Peace to you all,
    Imagine that some people of a religion are performing one of their duties and surrendering to the will of GOD and here I see others, with lots of anger/hatred expressing themselves. Will this harm them the pilgrims, no way, but the haters will collect more sins that GOD, in the day of judgment, will take them to task.
    Please show love, mercy and peace that all religions (including) Islam. Call for a greater pilgrimage for your own religion. Compete in the love and obedience to GOD.
    And peace to you all

    November 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • sakesalive

      Your right! "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head"

      November 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • jesse

      religion is stupid. live a good life cause you want to not because of a "higher authority". u are just slaves.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Statesrule

      Thou shalt have no other Gods...read the commandments before you enter unto God's children...The Hajj is idolatry..Islam is false religion..read the scriptures and convert to Christianity

      November 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Statesrule

      as Golden Cow...the stone at the Hajj is the same..

      November 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Jack Chambers

      @statesrule Abraham built that house after he was commanded by GOD. What idolatry are you speaking of?

      November 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  13. 3be1

    It’s really amazing how hateful the people of Christianity are against Muslims. Please don’t tell me this was all because of 9/11, its not! This hate was their before. So before you ask why do they hate us? Just look at the mirror!!!

    November 4, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Descarado

      You are the woman-stoning spawn of Satan.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Elayne

      Embassy bombings in the 90's. The first WTC attack. They have given plenty of reasons. What religion preaches hate?

      November 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Bayousara

      Two of the most miserable things that have happened to me in my life were the responsibility of Muslims. I don't like them and I have darn good reason to feel that way. If they don't want to assimilate into American culture, they need to go back to where their ancestors came from. Period. Let them walk in circles till they're dizzy!

      November 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • jesse

      i'm not christian, i don't like religion or believe in it. i hate muslims because whenever i meet them or talk to them they are either boring or rude and usually both. they seem to have a chip on their shoulder. i won't say all of them but most. i don't care about the religious stuff at all. i don't judge people on that crap but i do judge them on how they act and socialize and i just don't enjoy being around most towelheads, sorry. you may not enjoy being around most white people and thats fine with me as well. i have no hate for you, i just rather not be living amongst you. segregation isn't a bad thing in my mind. it doesn't mean hate, it means different. and different is what makes life amazing but different is reality. that's not to say i would outlaw different races or religions from being friends and hanging out with each other but society shouldn't force us to live amongst each other and implement our beliefs onto others.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Angryants

      Reasons why the world cannot be peaceful with Islam in it:

      1) Their religion preaches violence against non muslims.

      2) Acts like Sept. 11 are glorified in mosques by believers.

      3) Their obsession with Palestine.

      4) Their unwillingness to climb out of the stone age and treat women as human beings, not possessions.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • American_Fury

      Not true, I didn't hate muslims until 9/11. But now I really despise them. I have come to realize the islam is satan and vice versa. The only way to cleanse the world of this plague is to erradicate all of the radical muslims. It might be difficult to single out the radical ones since they hide among innocents. So we have to just kill as many as possible and deal with the collateral damage. They don't care about who they kill, so why should we?

      November 4, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Get Your Facts STRAIGHT

      Dear Angryants,
      Can you please go in the Qu'ran somewhere and find out for me WHERE it says that Islam is the religion of violence? As I remember christianity and many other religions killed the non believers in the past, as I can recall many muslims have been killed by OTHER religions in the USA? So is that not violence? Nowhere in the Qu'ran or Bible does it say to "make peace with violence". Also, let me guess? You probably have never in your life opened up the Qu'ran or any other book but instead rely on everything you hear on the news huh? As you must know, 9/11 was done by a muslim but as President Obama stated "Islam is and never will be a religion of violence, 9/11 was not a islam hate crime but instead done by a terrorist". So, hm... Hitler? Is the religion he believed in a religion of violence too? What about the KKKs? I believe the majority of them were Christians, so I guess that religion is also of violence? I can go on and on... So buddy, go read a book, and take your head out of your ass.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  14. adamthefirst

    They don't use toilet paper, that says it all!

    November 4, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Test

      Yeah, well Christians force children to marry them and have their babies. What's worse, you don't even take just one, you take entire groups of children to 1 man.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Angryants

      I agree....don't use toilet paper does sum it up. Still stuck in the stone age.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  15. Banana

    Ugh I bet the Grand Mosque smells like the inside of a fake leg.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • rami

      Oh, you must have a fake leg., or fake butt...

      November 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  16. Elayne

    Cat Stevens, do you regret your decision?

    November 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  17. SayWhaa!!

    Liking the future America HAHAHA!!

    November 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Descarado

      Welcome to Dearborn, Michigan kafir!

      November 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • SayWhaa!!

      Oh how did you know the source of the Islamic revolution in America!! What does it matter its already started.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  18. Gopherit

    The Haj basically by its nature is a "conservative" event which takes place in a conservative country. It likely will have no sort of "Arab Spring" connotation.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  19. Optimistic

    You comment is not worht commenting back. It is your choice. No Compulsion in Religion.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  20. AJ

    All friend's , I just want to give a message, Please Islam is religion of peace, brotherhood and happiness. Unfortunately small group of people using for their own means and misleading other to get into the point, where it leads to religious hate and creates conflicts. I appeal to all friends, Please we are all human beings, have same rights, doesn't matter for color, race, religion, country or etc. Let's live peaceful. If I hurt anyone please accept my apologize and forgive me. My intention is to step up for peace and love between us. GOD bless everyone.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Luna

      @ AJ "Please we are all human beings, have same rights, doesn't matter for color, race, religion, country or etc." Sorry, but "all" do not have same rights as is evidenced by the treatment of women in Islmanic society and culture.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Not your equal!

      Hajj in hebrew means brother and we know that both jews and muslims are from the semitic race. About being like everyone else: NOPE!...You don't consider us the same for you guys we all are: infidel's. You promote marriage to a 7 year old and permited by your "equality religion". You blow yourselfs to kill people in the name of your Gd and get 72 virgines. You are not my equal at all. I don't blow my self and kill people, I don't expect 72 virgines and I don't want to take over women from other conquered countries. Also, you are not my equal for your countries like this one, South Arabia is an apartheid country like all the muslims countries...Shame on you and your horrible culture.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • guest

      you should first live in peace with you nearest neighbour Israel

      November 4, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Justice

      First off, I agree AJ. I am an Eagle Scout, college graduate and United States Army Veteran. What people fail to see, that if they read the Koran, it does not say "kill non-Muslims". It says "infidel". Every religious groups have extremists. They interrupt the Book by how they want to. Christianity is a big one with the Crusades a long time ago. The Jewish faith, the Catholics, all of them have extremists. I have seen mankind's unrestrained hate first hand, I have lived it. But I do not treat everyone like they are an enemy because of a few. There is a very interesting article written by Fox News a few years ago about 9/11. It stated, based on random interviews with Muslims, that Osama Bin Ladens attacks on America on September 11th, 2001 cause Osama to lose more then 70% of Muslim support. Muslims who read the Koran on how it is written, do not believe in killing innocent people nor do they believe in terrorism. Again I state we should not punish all but the actions of few. God bless, be safe and never stop loving.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Test

      Ignore those talking about equal rights and how women are treated in islamic nations. These same people probably are against gay rights and have no room to talk.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • sakesalive

      Justice. I agree with you except for one thing. The Crusades were perpetrated by Jesuit Priests and the Roman Catholic Church. Countless real Christians were tortured and murdered by them for not converting to Catholicism. Read The Trail of Blood.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Justice

      Sakesalive, thank you for that. I was a little unsure of the details about the Crusades. I appreciate you understanding and agreeing with me on this sensitive topic.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:58 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.