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. myklds

    May God Bless all the atheists.

    November 5, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  2. RAWoD

    It would thrill much of the world if an Arab Spring broke out in Saudi. Sadly, I doubt it will.

    November 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  3. Rainer Braendlein

    Passage from the historical doc-ument "The Teaching of Jacob", which was drafted between 634 and 640 a. D. shortly after Muhammad's death and at the time when the Muslim conquests began:

    When the candidatus (a confidant of the Roman Emperor) was killed by the Saracens (Saracen means Arab), I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying "the candidatus has been killed," and we Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures (Bible), and I said to him: "What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?" He replied, groaning deeply: "He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly they are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared." So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men's blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise,

    November 5, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    Shortly after 634 A. D. in Jerusalem the Christian bishop Sophronius gave the following sermon:

    Why are so many wars fought among us? Why are the barbarian raids
    multiplying? How come so many Arab troops are attacking us? For what reason
    does all this ra-pe and pillage take place? Why is human blood being ceaselessly
    shed? Why are the birds of the heaven devouring bodies of men? Why are
    churches torn down, why is the Cross debased? (…) The God-hating Arabs and
    destructors, the terror from the desert which has been clearly foretold by the
    Prophets, are coming over places where they do not belong, plundering the cities,
    destroying the fields, setting fire to the villages, burning the holy churches and
    deluging the sacred monasteries; they resist Roman troops, waving their trophies
    of war and lay victory to victory (…) But these villains would not have been able
    to do this, they would not have attained the power to do or say such godless
    things, if we had not first debased our dowers and defiled our purity, thus
    angering Christ, the giver of all things (…) We are the reason for all this.

    November 5, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  5. Mounaf

    I cant wait unti l go to the pilgrimage to Mecca, Mecca was built by Ibrahim and his sun Ismael to be the first place or worship on earth
    I am a muslim american doctor and I love to go over there some time
    Thanks for reading my comment

    November 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • meghan

      subhan'allah. you are a doctor and can't even write a full, properly spelled sentence? insh'allah you will make hajj – but please – if you are going to say that you are educated with (at least) 2 degrees (under-grad and med) – then do so in an educated manner.

      November 5, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    Muslims are forbidden to be friends of Jews and Christians.

    Sura 5: Verse 51 of the unholy Koran:

    O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk.

    ( سورة المائدة , Al-Maeda, Chapter #5, Verse #51)

    Note: “O ye who believe” are Muslims.

    November 5, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Joe

      That is an inaccurate reading of the verse and runs counter to the teachings of the religion. Muslims are not allowed to take Jews and Christians as Allies, in a military type practice, to be friends is ok and encouraged for means of Dawah.

      November 5, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  7. Abeer

    what do you know about Islam ?????

    I encourage you to watch this

    than come to talk with me about it .

    November 5, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Christopher P

      Thank you my friend for sharing this video. I may not find Islam with one video but it has opened my spectrum of the "Word" Thank you very much brother or sister. My ignorance towards Islam has been washed away. Not ignorance of hater that western society has taught us to believe, but ignorance that I didn't understand. God be with you.

      November 5, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Jarod47

      Well, well, the pinnacle of human achievement: They can recite many words from a book !!
      Too bad, they don't understand those words. Ancient ramblings from the desert.
      I like the beard though.

      November 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  8. Shahid

    People go there to perform Hajj, who writes these things

    November 5, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  9. Well PLEASED

    I can't imagine if US was based on Islam at WWII. Maybe it would strikes every country because they are infidels. Luckily that US are freedom based system.

    November 5, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Son of Adam

      Name the countries America hasn't invaded? Freedom my a...

      November 5, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • al-shamaqmaq



      November 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  10. Voice of Reason

    For a muslim, the Hajj is THE journey of a lifetime. The focus of Hajj is spiritual cleansing and not to instigate political revelation. Most people who go for Hajj have much more important things to do, rituals to complete, rather than sitting around a Hookah and talk politics.

    November 5, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • James


      November 5, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Jarod47

      Waht a wasted life then. Life is not a ritual, life is an adventure.

      November 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  11. Wajih Sani

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

    I am extremely upset to realize that The World's Biggest happening of the moment is unable to find a place on CNN's front page (website), its not a Top Story, No event Coverage both of Leading CNN and BBC.

    Even Above posted article is not a News Story but written in perspective of unrest in ARAB WORLD.
    I am sorry if its coverage was stopped due to any discrimination

    November 5, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  12. zaa

    Mashallah makkah is so beautiful

    November 5, 2011 at 5:43 am |
  13. PATEL

    nothing is going to happend and the main reason is the royal treatment of saudi government to the pilgimage (hajis), the management and facilities r so excelent that everyone say Kiingdom is best to runthis events as they know how corruption and ifrastructure in thieire countries. only problem some time comes in airport while going back to home same time which is normaly collaps and no good treatment to control the hajis who has taken good impression from makakh but lost in jeddah airport, but thats not a issue its management problem only. in all haji take good impression from saudi kingdom, yes they share about theire countries events but not a single haji talk against kingdom due to good facilities they provides and they afraid even they talk that if democratic govt comes to saudi theire will b corruption and they will do worst in management of hajj event. so 95% ahjis are happy with king and present government, its a ground zero facts.

    November 5, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  14. James

    Good Read About Islam: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Mohammed_and_Mohammedanism

    November 5, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Joe

      And if you want to know about Catholics there are some great writings by Muslims that will tell you everything, don't go to a church and ask that would be stupid.

      November 5, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  15. COOL MAN


    November 5, 2011 at 12:09 am |
    • COOL MAN


      November 5, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  16. JeffinIL

    This article makes as much sense as conjecturing that the New Year's celebration in Times Square could turn into a massive OWS protest.

    November 4, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  17. right guidance

    Islam is not a religion, but it is a 24 hrs. way of life, wheather you conduct your daily business, social life, dealings with your family or neighbors, and also how to eat, drink, sleep and more. Quran is cure for all disease wheather, spiritual or worldly problems. Quran can be means of guidance for who really want to be cured and can be very harmful, who approach it with the evil intention just like a medicine if you do not follow the guidelines.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • tready

      So ingrained is violence in the religion that Islam has never really stopped being at war, either with other religions or with itself.

      November 5, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Kebos

      Islam is the fine-tuning of a religion to control mankind even further that it has ever been controlled before by any religion.

      November 5, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Jarod47

      Have you noticed all those muslims killing their fellow-muslims in Syria, Egypt, Lybya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, .... Certainly a 24 hour way of life! All those brains, malformed by a religion. It is not a pretty sight.

      November 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  18. TheWriterHasNoClueWhatSoEver

    Apparently the writer has no clue what so ever of the purpose of Hajj and the state of mind of people during Hajj. It is a pilgrimage and thus people are more focused on spiritual aspects of themselves. They generally forget about anything else. In fact, one of the rules of Hajj is to avoid arguments and debates (heated debates I mean).
    And btw, who tought the writer that most of pilgrims come from Egypt? And what does the Egyptians Muslim brotherhood has to do with all that. I would estimate Egyptian pilrgims to be at best less than 30,000. How big is that compared to over 2.5 Million ppl in total?

    November 4, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Kebos

      Of course it is a rule to have no arguments or disagreements. Again, mind control of an evil religion. Controlled by Saudi Arabia who requires control, power and wealth over all it's citizens and all of mankind, if it could get it. If Saudia Arabia had no oil then it would be a much lesser power and Islam would gradually diminish. But until their oil runs out, the Saudia rulers will continue to propagate the twisted message of Islam for their own power, control and weath to a larger extended and controlled people.

      November 5, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  19. Sultan5



    November 4, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • COOL MAN


      November 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  20. Sultan5



    November 4, 2011 at 6:34 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.