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. Perspective

    A pilgrimage is a term primarily used in religion and spirituality of a long journey or search of great moral significance. Sometimes, it is a journey to a sacred place or shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. Members of every religion participate in pilgrimages. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim.

    World Youth Day is a major Catholic Pilgrimage, specifically for people aged 16-35. It is held internationally every 2-3 years. In 2005, young Roman Catholics visited Cologne, Germany. In 1995, the largest gathering of all time was to World Youth Day in Manila, Philippines, where four million (thats 4,000,000) people from all over the world attended to see the recently beatified Pope John Paul II
    The last youth day in Germany Media estimated the event's attendance as over a million[2] or 1.5 million.
    So, the Muslims do not have the claim to fame for which the can boast of the largest gathering of humanity.
    A thorough perspective, humble honesty is nice.
    Again World youth day mainly brings Youth from 16 to 35 years old.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • SayWhaa!!

      Ok you win.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • DK

      The Kumbha Mela held in India in 2001 had 60 million people. So the author is this article has not checked his facts ; period!

      November 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  2. max

    article says:

    "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.

    It is hilarious that a muslim country would reduce the number of people it allowed to go to mecca because it was afraid of the influence of the hajj.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  3. Cheyenne

    I am so disgusted by so many of these comments. So many are so hateful, and ignorant. So disappointing as an American to hear other Americans talking like this. Some of you people who want to turn the Hajj into a crater, or eliminate "a lot of problems" by wiping it out don't realize that there will be Americans there too, in addition to millions of Muslims who are just carrying out their religious beliefs. So disappointing and disgusting...

    November 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • KC

      Well, as Americans, we have the right to say hateful things if we want, a right THEY would take from us in an instant if they could. It might do you some good to remember that.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • huh

      KC.. so that gives you the right to badmouth others? "Oh I have to say this.. coz if I don't they will take it away" Well then what is the difference between them and you?

      Fools like you start off on a high horse.. then open their mouth and prove that they are even lower life than the one they talk about..

      November 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • zeke

      @Huh, RIGHT ON!, HUH!!!!!

      November 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  4. Caliban

    2011 and we still have people going on a pilgrimage, for a god's favor. Really? And what has their god done for them? Zero, zip, nada, zilch, why, because super-being overlords don't exist. That is a lot of obtuse sheep all in one place. You know that place is unsanitary, no way there would be enough outhouses to support that crowd. I am so happy my parents didn't force their faith on me.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  5. lagarto

    Why this propaganda for Islam? The Hajj is not the largest human gathering on the planet. The Hindu Kumbh Mela is far larger. The Ardh Kumbh Mela in 2007 at Allahabad drew 70 million participants.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Justin Case

      You want to see a big crowd.... try getting into Best Buy at 4 am on Black Friday.... THAT is a crowd.

      Blessed are the flat screen TVS.... for there are only five at the advertised price.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  6. HisNoodlyAppendage

    True human progress and freedom will one day have been achieved when ALL world religions have been relegated to the dustbin of history! When will all delusionary religious zealots realize that it was HUMANS (as in mortal men) who wrote ALL religious books, tomes, and manuscripts?! Not some unseen, unproven, mythical, fantasy 'god'! It truly boggles the mind at how so many of my fellow human beings can be so utterly stupid and infantile in thought!

    November 4, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Mujeeb

      I see alot of your hatred of religion here, and it is truly those who do not know who their creator is, who have small minds and in the end will be doomed. If someone asked you where did you come from how were you born? will you respond i was planted in the ground by something and i grew in a field somewhere ? they will think your mad. But no you were created from another human which was created by another human being etc and it all goes back to the creator which created this whole unverse and give it, its perfect order and balance. But suppose youre right and religion is false and creation happened by chance, then that means it would have happened once or twice correct? not males and females of land, sea and air creatures, that cannot all happen by chance and if it did why doesnt it happen anymore? So if you believe there is a creator, then you have to think with all these people claiming there God is the true God which one is right? God left his guidance and law for us to be clear on the purpose in life, He is not a God of confusion and his guidance is pure truthful, clear and straight. And that is where Islam comes in, in that offers proofs and evidences of God's true way of life and explains all things. Messengers came before Muhammad (pbuh) and they preached the message of islam and they were messenger only for their time period, and prophet Muhammad (pbuh) came as the last and final messenger for all humanity. Save yourself before its too late God sees and hears all that you do. this life is a test that will prepare for our permanent fate in the next life. I Hope you will be guided.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Justin Case

      True human progress and freedom will one day have been achieved..... when all human beings understand and accept the frailties of our own collective existence... and respect the emotions and imaginations that find flight and power within even the most illusionary of perceptions.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  7. Justin Case

    When in doubt.... remember the wise words of the Bible.... and bumper stickers everywhere:

    "What would Jesus do.... if he stepped in doggie-doo?"

    November 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  8. OhMan!

    QUICK! While we have them all in one place!

    November 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Omen

    Yet this idiots are always provoking wars and death since the yrs of the 1200s.the only religion that loves blood.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Edwin

      Remember when the protestants left catholicism, and christians went to war with each other over differences in interpretation? More recently, what about the executions in Africa of children by priests in the last few years (because the children were supposedly witches)? Christianity since 1200 has a pretty blood-stained history, too. So do most religions (and non-religious philosophies, for that matter).

      November 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  10. Jonathan

    Religious people suck. Religious = Idiot
    Save our planet please!

    November 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  11. LuvGlassFloors

    Mecca during hajj should be a self lighting glassed floored parking lot. 🙂

    November 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  12. Reality

    tens of thousands??? Estimates put the number at over 3 million attending this years Hajj. Over a span of 7 days.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • gedi

      Allaaaaaaaahu Akbar! Translation: GOD S GREAT. ........................WONDERFULL

      November 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  13. eastwood1379@gmail.com

    "He was Caesar and Pope in one; but he was Pope without Pope's pretensions,
    Caesar without the legions of Caesar: without a standing army, without a bodyguard, without a palace, without a fixed revenue; if ever any man had the right to say that he ruled by the right divine, it was Mohammed, for he had all the power without its instruments and without its supports."

    –Bosworth Smith, MOHAMMAD AND MOHAMMADANISM, London, 1874, p. 92.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  14. Ray

    Can someone tell me where the bathroom is?

    November 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Justin Case


      Can you IMAGINE being in the center of that crowd.... when nature calls???

      The need to make the pilgrimage to Mecca may be strong.... but as humans... there are other *calls*... that are more immediate.

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

    Hajj is a perfect time for the terrorists to stage an attack.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Edwin

      You mean, like described in the article?

      November 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  16. dave254usa

    Man, one cruise missile could eliminate a LOT of our problems in one strike!

    November 4, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • MattyManatl

      Why would you waste a cruise missle? If you wee gonna do that, might as well make it count. Use a MOAB and leave a crater. You know what the funny part is? America COULD actually do it but we won't and actually shouldn't. But think about that.......we COULD lay this entire event to rubble if we chose too. That is real power.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Cheyenne

      I would say people who say things like that are the bigger problem....

      November 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Edwin


      you must know by now that most Americans hate muslims, but don't really know anything about muslims except that they're bad. Ignorant hatred of others is one of the things Americans do best.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Pecos

      A couple of daisy-cutters would work wonders, if I actually felt that way.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Mujeeb

      I hope one of em lands in your neighborhood,

      November 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  17. War Strategist

    To the person who said that if all muslims (1-1.2 billion) wanted the the non-muslim world dead. The muslims wouldve achieve this already. But, be realistic...you won't get every muslim to literally fight since there's many women and children who "aren't" capable. Then any person capable of fighting might not believe in the cause and simply not take up arms. Then you have the situation of fiancing the cause, logistically having the means. And most importantly have the people be properly armed and moreso, Trained. Now you put these ordinary muslim against well trained fighting forces and the muslim people no matter how many would still fail. If you researched a bit better. When it comes to war and fighting, it isn't the numbers a fighting force that matters. It's the how well a fighting force is prepared and trained. History, even recent history has revealed that numbers of the fighting force doesnt equate to victory. If most of the muslims united to fight they would be decimated quite easily. Even if the organized muslims armies of various nations where involved, they're still no match for the western armies. Take for example if the muslims took on only the American armed forces. Sure they would be out numbered and even overwhelmed to a degree. But add into the mix American civilians helping the USA armed forces...it still would be a mess for the muslim fighting forces. Since, 2/3's of all the guns in the world are in America and mostly amongst the American civilian populance. And many are well versed in weaponary, tactics and strategic planning. As well as, we have the logistical means to be most proficient in our endeavors. So again, I reiterate that numbers essentially mean nothing in todays way of how combat fighting is conducted. Next time you make a comment like the one above. I highly suggest you apply abstract and/or critical thought process.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • HAMMR

      ya...no they would get their @$$ kicked, your correct.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Justin Case

      The western world has proven again and again how capable it is of destruction on a world wide scale....

      BOTH sides should realize by now, neither side is on a mission to exterminate the other.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  18. Research Islam

    Nobody has time for worldly issues during the Hajj... Here is the link for live telecast of the Ongoing Hajj...


    November 4, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  19. Drakenstein

    Cool Hwip.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  20. Karthik Iyer

    Check your basics, CNN – the larest gathering of humanity is the Kumbh Mela, India ,which occurs every six or twelve years

    November 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Adel

      the article says the biggest "ANNUAL" gathering

      November 4, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • RobertC

      The story said ANNUAL gathering. Kumbh Mela does not happen every year, as you said yourself.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:48 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.