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. andrew

    The writer, Dan Gilgoff , has his facts wrong. The largest gatherings in the world happen annually in India:
    Pilgrimage to Sabarimala Hindu temple in Kerala, India is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world with an estimated 45–50 million devotees visiting every year.[1][2][3]
    An estimated 40 million people gathered over 41 days in Sabarimala, India between 15 November and 26 December 2008.[4]
    An estimated 34 million people gathered over 11 days in Rajahmundry, India for Godavari pushkaram between 31 July and 10 August 2003.[citation needed]
    An estimated 15 million people attended the funeral of C. N. Annadurai in Tamil Nadu, India in 1969.[5]

    November 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Rob P

      Thank you! I agree! The Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 on record has attracted 60 million pilgrims. We must educate the masses!

      November 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      Andrew you're wrong. In one day, you don't have 40 million there all doing the SAME EXACT thing.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Rob P

      They are doing the EXACT SAME thing – taking a dip in the sacred holy rivers, called the 'Triveni Sangam' of Jamuna, Ganga and Saraswati

      November 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      @Rob its 41 day event. 41 Million don't all dip in the water together. Get real. It would cause the water to divert and cause flooding.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Nick

      @Dhulfiqr, You are still wrong. Its over five days. Though, many of them stay together and follow scheduled visits. But, I kinda agree, Kumbha Mela is probably the largest religious crowd.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  2. Optimistic

    All the negative and profane comments only hurts your relegion and makes muslims to be even more proud. For all those writing negatively unfounded and profane comments; I don't want to follow your relegion whatever it is if it calls for this.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Optimistic

      ktown8: That is why I don't want to belong to your religion. It is your lack of knowledge and your hatred. Thanks, but no thanks.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • jtnc85

      Most people who are saying these comments probably aren't even that religious, definitely not spiritual people. They're probably just ignorant people who believe all muslims supported 9/11 so they think they are the enemy.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • ktown8

      I don't recall asking you to follow my religion or believe what I believe. That's why we're different. You and your religion hate the infidels who refuse to convert to Islam or follow your religion, while my religion feels it's your right to believe in whatever you want as long as it doesn't intrude on anyone else's rights or life.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  3. Willie

    How come the terrorists never bomb this event? So many soft targets the body count would be staggering.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      Security for this even is actually really good. Not to mention it is hard for a lot of people from other countries that are not USA to get here. Hard to plan for an attack if you can't make it to the venue lol

      November 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  4. Rob P

    To the writers of this article,

    Please note that this is not the largest pilgrimage in the history of Humanity. The Maha Kumbh Mela in India is. It attracts predominantly Hindus, but also people from other faiths as well. It is sad to see that the media doesn't do their research on these 'foreign' religions as well. Hinduism is the 3rd largest (and growing) religion in the world. It was estimated that 60 million pilgrims made the visit to this to the last Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001.


    November 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Dhulfiqar

      Hajj is the largest ANNUAL gathering, it all happens on ONE DAY.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • KKhan

      been to Hajj? @Dhulfiqr, You are still wrong. Its over five days. Though, many of them stay together and follow scheduled visits. But, I kinda agree, Kumbha Mela is probably the largest religious crowd.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  5. David Marx

    For an shocking dose of reality, just read the Saudi online edition called The Arab News. Nobody hates America like the Saudis and they make no secret of their comtempt. Some day the Saudis will understand that their true nemesis is just to the east of them, across the Persian gulf.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      Even funnier is how rich Saudis have an ownership stake in Fox News as well. So between those two sources, I guess it's not hard to collaborate and generate hatred lol. The war machine, gotta love it.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  6. IronRider

    If any regimes should be worried this day and age its the establishment of the United States Government who has for the past decade removed freedom more and more and inprisioned more people than any country in the world.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Brad

      USA lost its freedom and greatness after the WW when the Federal Gov got bloated and stole all the power from the states. Countries like Canada, England, well, most of Europe, now have more freedoms then USA. Which is why I will never have respect for our illegal tiranicle federal gov.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  7. Rawn Mashburn

    Only the ingnorant would encourage the use of nuclear weapons. The radiation will eventually make its way to every nation on the planet.

    The Saudi Arabian government provides all of the logistics for the Hajj once the pilgrims arrive free of charge. The pilgrims purchase travel packages that include air fare and hotel accomodations from travel agencies.

    For the record, Muslims fast during the Month of Ramadan a minimum of 29 days but no more than 30 from just before sun rise to sun set. Prior to the fast Muslims have a pre dawn meal. Starvation or hallucination is not the goal of the Ramadan fast. It is self restraint. Recommend everyone fast to put greed in check.

    Hallucination is accomplished by injesting drugs. We here in the USA know first hand because the majority of drug users live here.

    One last point. I respect Thomas Jefferson. Because of him we have freedom of religion in the USA. In case you did not know he owned a Quran. The same Quran was used by Congressman Ellis from Minnesota to swear in.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • jtnc85

      Yeah that's it guys, let's drop a bomb on innocent muslims who are going to a peaceful prayer event.

      I'm sure most of those men aren't even radical islamist who probably don't condone any type of violence, yet people here are so brainwashed they see Muslims = 9/11.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • ktown8

      the weird thing is, I never hear from any of the so-called peaceful, non-radical Muslims who speak out and condemn suicide attacks and hatred against other religions. Please do share where these tolerant Muslims are?

      November 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • FMEN

      Well, I suspect you havn't actually seen any muslims? (excluding the "muslims" on FOXNEWS)

      November 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  8. Jack Mihov

    Reminder to those bozos in Washington : these Mahommedans have nothing to do with us.

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

    I fully acknowledge we live on stolen land. Guess what? They lost, we won. get over it. One day the slags will win because we lost our ability to just accept the fact we love a good fight, and will do anything to win. not anomore however.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Justin Case

      Pretty much everyone in this world lives on *conquered* land.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  10. jtnc85

    What's funny is most of these comments are probably from people at work in their cubicles or offices

    November 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  11. Pedro

    LOL I must be clarvoient. The fat pudgy well fed CNN troll strikes again.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  12. Me

    "largest gathering of humanity"...?? Yeah, it's a gathering of people who know nothing about a good life. These are individuals who hide their faces, think killing themselves is a good thing, covet sand, and are incapable of acquiring common sense.
    Do not respect those who don't fight for a better life PERIOD.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • chris

      You are easily the most ignorant person I have run across in quite some time. I hope the worst for you.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  13. Father O'blivion

    Well I must say, this is the dumbest blog I have ever seen. Or the dumbest people. Both. Bless ya all then.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  14. NotSoFast

    @HAMMR You say 'christians don't use it as a reason to do what they want against "infidels"'. The Christians have been doing this ever since the religion was legalized by the Emperor Constantine. Have you ever heard of the Crusades? HUNDREDS OF YEARS of Christians killing Muslims for being "infidels". Ever heard of the Roman Catholic Inquisition? (The Spanish Inquisition was just one part of it.) HUNDREDS OF YEARS of torturing people and burning them at the stake because of their religion or lack of it. Every good lynch mob in the old South had a Baptist preacher heading it up. Don't pretend that Christianity is a religion of LOVE. It's not. It's just as much a religion of hate as any other religion.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Ray

      and you think Islam was spread peacefully??? READ YOUR history!

      November 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • me

      Jesus said ": 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself."
      Christianity is not a religion is a relationship with Christ who died crucified on the cross and rose again proving that he is God.
      The most religious people of His time crucified him on the cross because He said "I am" and distroy this temple (his body) and I will rebuild it in 3 days...
      Corrupted people use anything to advance themselves – religion is one of the best thing to control people that don't think about themselves.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  15. novation

    Why are Muslims religious and ritualistic?

    November 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • godhatesmuslims

      Its a cult not a religion,

      November 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • driranek

      Catholics aren't?

      November 4, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  16. zoman

    you don't need to go for Hajj to hear about Arab spring , it is every where you go??
    Hajj is ones in life time , pilgrims want to accomplish 5th pillar of Islam successfully ,not to busy with politics .
    End and the other life is what really matters .

    November 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  17. BVN

    I've never been so afraid of sheep before.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  18. Zack

    What a beautiful pic! It must be awesome to be there and meet people from all over the world. Sucks that the haters don't dig it:))

    November 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Jack W

      Zack – it's the haters that make the Hajj. Islam is all about hatred and intollerance of other beliefs and cultures.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Claustro

      Fun. Like a five-times overcrowd in a stadium. And EVERYone believes the SAAAAME thing. Cool.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Justin Case

      It would be awesome to meet people from all over the world who all share the same religion...

      November 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Wulgur

      @ Jack W Funny, so does christianity.

      November 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • me

      Got to show your Muslim ID before you go there (if not you might be killed – like an infidel/class mate)

      November 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  19. Andre Daie

    The author missed a very important point which makes his argument rather moot. A pilgrim to Mecca should be well off enough to support his or her family for one year before embarking with the pilgrimage. Thus great many of these people gathering in Mecca are well off conservative people who may not have much interest in the arab spring.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  20. NotSoFast

    @Bofusabode: Describing Islam as "those who want to destroy this great country and the Jewish State" is about like descibing Christians as "those who massacred tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims" and descibing the Israelis as "those who stole Palestine from people who have been living there for 1300 years". This is the first Hajj since the Arab Spring. THAT makes it newsworthy. "For God and Country" is a VERY old idea. The Nazis expressed it as "Gott mit uns", and it is just as wrong now as it was then.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
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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.