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. uh

    yea – muslims does everything wrong – watch OCCUPATION 101 on utube!

    November 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • hindunegative

      Only by hinduism mental dyslexia of a hindu denier of truth, carrying Gene of his evolution daddy monkey

      November 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  2. chris brown

    it might be the biggest ANNUAL gathering of humanity. but it pales in comparison to the kumbh mela

    November 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  3. Cherry

    To descarado......you are pig and dog because you R eatin them...yummy....

    November 4, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  4. Cherry

    To descarado..they are fleeing your ass...and will probably play your ass...yaks...

    November 4, 2011 at 5:27 pm |


      November 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  5. lokiman301

    Gosh I find it hard to see why anyone would have security concerns. Why would the powers that be be worried about a few million muslim extremists coming to visit? What could possibly go wrong? LMAOL 🙂

    November 4, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  6. mimi bara

    II am a proud Muslim, I love reading hate messages from stupid hating bigots.

    The more you bark, the more I know I am following the true religion of God, so here is my messages to you guys, bark, hate all you want 🙂

    November 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Get This

      Messages from closed-minded, brainwashed, robotic puppets are SO inspiring.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Igor

      C'mon...did you even read some of the Quran?

      November 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  7. perspective

    Around 1 million people from outside of India and from around the world participated in the Maha Kumbh Mela.
    Most were from India. 59,000,000.
    Mother Teresa probably did more for them... You know, the Indian people called her, Mother, also.
    Religion of India and a cast system vs a non cast and more Global and younger religion.

    The vast majority of Hindus, approximately 940 million, live in India. Wiki.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  8. Cherry

    To descarado...cult your ass with your kidsss....

    November 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  9. rick

    hey everyone, its 2011, not 611 and we have discovered that the sun doesn't revolve around our world! . any evidence ever of an omnipotent being and if so who is his Mama?

    November 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Abu Yusuf

      ..and yea we were "slowly" formed from non-living matter?

      November 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  10. katmoondaddy

    Somehow I can't trust a culture or religion that puts two J's back to back in a word. Hajj????

    November 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • adam

      yet you can trust one that has silent K's (ie: knife, knit etc..)

      November 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • hindunegative

      Who cares about hinduism absurdity of a hindu absurd, nothing can come out of hindu denire of truth but his hinduism absurdity.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  11. Abu Yusuf

    True criminals are those that enjoy the blessings of this beautiful life and at the end of the day bow down to their idols. They say we came from monkeys who were "majically" formed over 100 zillion years from lifeless smoke and dust. LOL.
    We are created by God and to Him we will return. Stop hating Muslims and Islam...you are not doing any favor to yourself and to your families. Hell fire is true and the promise of God is true. Successful are those that believe in the unseen Creator Who has no partners (no son no father). A simple and straight forward message, but most of the kuffar are to arrogant to change their ways. Do good deeds and stop the hate – It only makes the Muslims stronger and stronger.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Justin

      Clearly you have a vast understanding of biology.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Igor


      November 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • adam

      stop the hate yourself, stop blowing yourself up, and stop trying to push your religion. If it is so great, your message alone should convince the masses, not violence. This message goes to all religious zealots, not just muslims

      November 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Jarod47

      Abu Yusuf,

      Please read some books on evolution. Nothing magic, all very natural. There is no evidence for the fantasies of heaven and hell.
      If you want to dance around a stone in two bedsheets, please do. A muslim entertainment park, sort off.

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

      So let me see if I've got this. U've read the Quran.....and are saying scientists and non-muslims are the ones who believe in "majic"? I bet you're real fun to have a logical conversation with.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  12. lastofall

    Sorry, but the worshiping of things made with hands [such as a building or structure] does in no wise represent the true and living God, but is merely worldly, secular. And as was described as " the largest gathering of humanity" is meaningless in things that have to do with God, it is again, mere humanism, nothing more. The media of course may comment that this gathering is taking place as a matter of news, but because it is strictly a secular view, they really should limit their comments to the news thereof, and stop attempting to regard it as if they, the secular, know what they are talking about concerning God; they most certainly do not. But only they who are not secular would understand this.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Abu Yusuf

      ok, lets start with the basics..Muslims do not worship the black stone. It is a misinformation the disbelievers like to spread around. Anyone who worships the black stone is burrning you know where..

      November 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • max

      you would argue between which imaginary concept is more imaginary...

      November 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  13. WDinDallas

    How is Israel's progress with the new missles?

    November 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Cherry

      Israel...ahahhha..they are maybe planning to fight america because they did not receive their allowance anymore from uncle sam....I need money..huhuhu...duh....

      November 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  14. sean

    before abusing our beloved prophet Mohammad (SAAW) think about the consequences you gonna face after you die. You all haters of Islam you all will meet your lord after you die, who created it you at the first place will brought forth you alive just like a desert land after it rains. You can't hurt Allah and his messenger by abusing, but will hurt yourself only. Allah is most forgiving and merciful, if you return back to him. He is the creator of the heavens and the earth. May be Allah will guide you to the right path if you wanna be guided. People are accepting Islam among you. Islam is spreading like a wild fire so accept the truth. There is only one God worthy of worship.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Failcongress

      How ironic. That speech is the exact same line that Christians preach all of the time. Face it, you are the same band just playing a different tune.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Abu Yusuf

      these filthy kuffar will realize when their skins are torched till it becomes black and crisp...and then repeats the same x infinity...thats a seriously painful ending for these hate mongers....imagine the metal grief they will have in jahannam!

      November 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Descarado

      LOL You poor, delirious pig-dog worshippers!

      November 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Igor

      That's right...don't be hating on Mohammad. He's a really cool dude and pumps my gas every Saturday in Jersey. Sometimes he gives me free coffee!

      November 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • max

      hell and eternal torment is a sales tool. people need to stop selling their religion based on a prospect of torture, if you fail to do as told. its the ultimate form of oppression for a being as powerful as a god to mandate you living as a sycophant or burn in hell.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  15. Joe

    Arabs standing up for Arab freedom at an Arab gathering. Uncanny!

    November 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Descarado

      Arab freedom??? Are they fleeing Islam?

      November 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  16. Statesrule

    The occupy crowd knows no good. It lurches forward to strike the hand that feeds...learn to feed yourself and adapt to the merit bound system...unless you are running the race when you have no legs..learn to run

    November 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  17. farmerboy

    I took my father to Hajj and it was an absolutely beautiful experience. No other venue in the world can compare to the experience of nearly 3 million people from all over the world in one place behaving with so much piece and civility.
    It's impossible to find perfection within a huge gathering of human beings, but this is the next best thing.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  18. omar


    November 4, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Booboo

      Great. Who made god? Nobody? Then, creation doesn't need a creator.

      Thank you and goodnight.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Jarod47

      Omar, the prophet muhammed (sbuh) had a lively fantasy. That is what prophets do. Ignore 99% of what he said, and question the remainder.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  19. Statesrule

    Notice how the liberals, democrats. and socialists are trying buddy up with the Islam faith...do they not understand that the Koran teaches how to subdue individuals..it is slave religion and it is unfortunate so many have fallen for Islam and now a feeble political ideology is at work trying to integrate another submissive philosophy like socialism, it takes away individualism and personal accountability to respect others as equals through humanity but allowing merit to flourish and grow each of us as separate individuals with unique traits and attributes..this is where beauty abounds...walk away from the ugliness of slavery.

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

      Is that why it was the Christians, or those who professed to be Christians, who had a monopoly on the slave trade for centuries?

      November 4, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  20. Melanika58

    We kind of have our own marches by the thousands going on in America. The luxury of wishing for an uprising in the Arab world, which has become habit with America no longer applies. We need to deal with with our own issues here at home. We can no longer point the finger at everyone else. These tricks have worked in the past but the American people are questioning their own leaders at home and the game of trying to distract by focusing on "them" versus "us" is no longer fooling anyone.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:51 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.