Hajj Stampede Mismanagement or Crowd Flow? -By Md. Hasanuzzaman
The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. is a religious pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in what is today Saudi Arabia, in the area around the city of Mecca. Meant to trace the original founding moments of Islam and parts of the life of the Prophet Mohammed (sm), the pilgrimage is a religious duty that all Muslims are in theory required to do at least once in their lives; as Allah (SWT) said, ‘And pilgrimage to the House is a duty of mankind towards Allah, for him who is able to make his way to it. As for him who disbelieves, (let him know that) surely Allah is independent of the worlds.” (Holy Quran Al-Imran, 3:97)
This year the entire Muslim Ummah is in deep grief over the tragedy of Mina stampede that left over 1,000 Hajj pilgrims killed. The victims came from some more than 30 countries around the world, among which Iran with highest total number of dead. It is still not possible to give a definitive figure for the total number of those who perished. The crush took place on September 24 after two large masses of pilgrims fused at a crossroads in Mina, a few kilometers east of the holy city of Mecca, on their way to participate in the symbolic stoning of Satan in Jamarat. Saudi Arabia claims nearly 770 people were killed in the incident, but officials with Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization say about 4,700 people, including 464 Iranians, lost their lives in the tragedy. This is the worst disaster at the hajj in a quarter-century.
The tragedy came as Muslims around the world marked the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday, a traditionally festive time in which livestock is slaughtered and its meat distributed to the poor. The mood in Mina was somber, however, and many were stunned by the tragedy instead of jubilant at completing the pilgrimage.
How it occurred : Playing blame-game
Saudi officials initially attributed the recent tragedy to such factors as, “high temperatures and fatigue” that may have played a large role; the Saudi health minister, Mr. Khaled al-Falih, said “the crush occurred because many pilgrims moved ‘without respecting the timetables’ established by authorities”; and the head of the central Hajj committee, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, has blamed the stampede on “some pilgrims with African nationalities.” The Saudi civil defence said the stampede occurred when two groups of pilgrims walking towards the Jamarat pillars met at the junction of Street 204 and Street 223 in the Mina tent city. In a statement they said there was a sudden increase in the number of people at the junction, “resulting in a stampede among the pilgrims and the collapse of a large number of them”.
The Saudi government blamed the pilgrims saying they had failed to follow guidelines and the instructions of authorities. An official from Iran’s Hajj mission has revealed that the accident occurred after a group of around 300 Iranian pilgrims failed to follow orders requiring them to wait for clearance to leave Jamarat—the site where pilgrims perform the “stoning the devil” ritual. Instead, the group went back to their mission’s headquarters as other groups were on their way to the site as scheduled.
Iranian officials believe, however, that the incident was due to what they described as the incompetence of the Saudi government in managing the Hajj. At the same time, Iran’s state TV broadcast a video clip showing a convoy of cars carrying the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia going through the mass in Mina, suggesting that this may have contributed to the breakout of a stampede. Plus, some Iranian pilgrims interviewed by news outlets pointed their fingers at Saudi officials.
Ali Zia, a famous Iranian TV anchor, who was an eyewitness to the disaster, told a local news agency: “The incident happened because they blocked one of the roads. But everyone here says the Crown Prince and the son of King Salman [Mohammed bin Salman], flanked by 200 people, went through the road. Of course I sensed this happening and many of my friends, who had been here before, said that the atmosphere was as if one of their senior figures was crossing.” Now people in Iran are angry with Saudi Arabia’s government, as many presume this incident was caused deliberately.
Many analysts suggested causes: pilgrims rushing to complete the rituals, heat, masses of faithful pushing against each other in opposite directions, even confusion among the many first-timers on the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Mina.
Too many people, too little time
Extreme heat and exhaustion: The journey is physically grueling enough on its own. But with temperatures soaring over 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit), anyone who succumbs to the elements might collapse and never recover
Inexperience and confusion: many of the pilgrims are making the journey for the first time and might not be prepared to follow all directions or handle the chaos.
Question of management
Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the caretaker of Islam’s holiest sites and host to millions of Muslims. Signs posted around Mecca tell pilgrims that Saudi Arabia is honored to serve them, and the Saudi king takes the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in reference to the sites in Mecca and Medina.
The disaster revived questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage the world’s largest annual migration, and the tragedy turned political as officials and diplomats began trading recriminations even before rescue operations had wound up. The Saudi monarch, King Salman, ordered a review of the kingdom’s plans for the hajj after the disaster.
The hajj, which drew 2 million people from over 180 countries this year, is a huge logistical challenge for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has spent billions of dollars to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims and maintain safety and security at Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the annual event. About 100,000 security forces were deployed to manage the crowds and provide security for this year’s hajj, with 5,000 CCTV cameras throughout Mecca and Medina.
Over the years, the Saudi government has expanded Mecca’s Grand Mosque that houses Islam’s most sacred site, the cube-shaped Kaaba. The government also uses sophisticated face-counting technology installed at a multistory structure in Mina known as the Jamarat Bridge, near where the tragedy occurred. The wide ramps and technology are designed to ease the pressure of the crowds and prevent pilgrims from being trampled.
But some of these developments are controversial. New infrastructure projects, as well commercial and amenity expansions, are changing the appearance and feel of some of the holy sites near Mecca, many feel adversely.
According to an analyst, ‘An overview of Mina geographically is essential to comprehend it. As you stand over the bridge you will notice the expanse of Mina from Jamarat to Muzdaliffah, so much so the tents are now inside Muzdalifah. On the mountain top you see the palaces of the royal family, from where they do their rituals, going by a separate route to Jamarat. Then there are multistory large grey colored buildings, making you think what is an apartment doing in a tent city? These are building reserved for the ultra-rich Muslims shelling out thousands of dollars per night. Even in the tents there are huge differences. The tents near the Jamarat have better facilities and usually booked for dignitaries and the farther the tents from Jamarat the poorer the accommodation.’
Unlike the wide ramps leading to Jamarat, the streets amid the tents in Mina are narrow. The street where the accident took place is about 36 feet wide, with tall gates to the left and right. Behind the gates are the tents of hajj tour groups, organized by nationality. So those who fall down, die an agonizing death in 40C blistering heat. Medically the time taken for death due to Stamped (Compression Asphyxia) is around 4-8 minutes. With the current Mina design, it is absolutely impossible for any help or ambulance, to come through the congested roads within 10 minutes to site. Reaching the spot from the Mina Hospital would easily take 15-25 minutes or even more. There are no raised platforms alongside the roads to pick up tripped people, nor do those trapped have any outlet to escape. The only option is to stamp on one another to reach the top, or die. Eventually the staff can only come and pick up the bodies later, with skin blistered and peeled. People are destined to die if there is a stampede in the current setup.
Lose Control over the crowd
As the world’s Muslim population has grown — it is now about 1.6 billion — more people are attending the hajj every year. Risks such as fires and stampedes are amplified by the fact that the hajj is a physically demanding journey, and a number of the pilgrims who undergo it are elderly or otherwise at increased risk in case of an accident. Over the past few decades, the numbers of people going on the hajj has grown rapidly, correlating with a growth in the global Muslim population as well as improving transportation infrastructure in the region and globally.
As of 1950, University of Kentucky’s Sven Müller writes, fewer than 100,000 people went on the hajj annually. By 1955, that number had doubled. By 1970, half a million pilgrims attended the event. The hajj crossed the 1 million threshold in 1983, and now averages roughly 2 million people per year.
But those are just official numbers. While Saudi Arabia has imposed strict controls on the number of people allowed to attend the hajj each year, in practice it can’t completely control the influx of pilgrims. Müller estimates that there are about a million non-registered pilgrims annually. High-density flows are said to be a proximal cause of crushing disasters at the Hajj.
According to Najmedin Meshkati, Professor of engineering and international relation at University of Southern California (USC), who served as member or technical advisor on several national panels in the United States investigating major accidents, ‘’Major anthropogenic (man-made) accidents, which are often characterized as ‘low probability, high consequence events’, are mostly caused by a multitude of factors that compromise barriers to the loss of control or breach defenses for safe functioning of intended ‘systems’. These stampede accidents were all caused by the internal characteristics, components. The components include pilgrims from many countries who spoke different languages with different mental models, risk perceptions and information process behaviors. Other components include Saudi operating and oversight agencies, their staff, procedures and protocols, as well as the physical facilities and equipment that were in use.’’
Political implications of the Tragedy
The terrible tragedy in Mecca during the Hajj today is a challenge to King Salman’s prestige. Coming soon after the September 11 collapse of a crane in the grand mosque in Mecca during a dust storm which killed 109, the two incidents will raise questions about whether the House of Saud is meeting its responsibilities and competently performing its duties as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
The Mina tragedy has inflamed tensions between regional rivals the Sunni House Saudi Arabia and Shiite leaders Iran, which were already raised due to the wider turmoil in the Middle East, such as the Syrian Civil War and Yemen Civil War. The Saudi monarch, King Salman, ordered a review of the kingdom’s plans for the hajj after the disaster.
In a press conference held on the day of the incident, spokesman of the Ministry of Interior Mansour Al-Turki attempted to address most issues regarding the incident. He said that an investigation was ongoing and that the exact cause of the overcrowding that led to the deadly stampede on Mina Street 204 is yet to be ascertained.
The Iranian propaganda of the Crown Prince Motorcade causing the stampede have no basis, primarily because the routes are entirely different. This has been clarified by Saudi Arabia in a press release.
Iranian claims of Saudis being incapable of managing Haj sounds more than hollow, as Iran itself has not been able to provide protection to various important Shia Shrines themselves. It is such exaggerated & unfair criticism of Saudi Arabia that Turkish President, Erdogan refuted this saying “it would be wrong to point a finger at Saudi Arabia which does its best to make the annual Haj pilgrimage possible. You have to see the glass as half full,” he said, adding that each country suffers failures.
Saudi Arabia deserves gratitude from the Muslim Ummah for improving safety measures for Hajj. It has upgraded infrastructure and put in place regulations for a safe journey to Islam’s holiest sites. More than $300 billion was spent from 1992 to improve facilities in the area.
Saudi Arabia not only spends billions but also earns billions in revenue through Haj. Hajj is already their second major source of income, after oil.
A senior Iranian cleric has called for the dispossession of Saudi Arabia of the privilege of running the annual Hajj pilgrimage following the recent tragic crush in Mina and Riyadh’s poor handling of its aftermath. He said, “The Al Saud must be stripped of the management of the Hajj. Muslim countries and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) must be mobilized and handle the management of the Hajj from next year because Saudi Arabia has shown its incompetence in managing such important rituals. Saudi Arabia’s king has rejected suggestions his country should give up its role as organizer of the Hajj pilgrimage
King Salman said he would not allow any “hidden hands” to politicize the tragedy and divide Muslims. He said, ‘The irresponsible statements aiming for political exploitation of the incident… shall not affect the role of Saudi Arabia, its duty and responsibilities in serving the guests of God.’
Now what to do?
An American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) stated that “great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.’ This moment of great sadness and mourning also provides a moment of truth to learn lessons from the past and to consider the greater factors and human ingenuity, scientific methods, and technological resources that we have to prevent the next stampede during the Hajj and otherwise.
Saudi Arabia needs a total paradigm change and analysis of the entirety of its Hajj operations and oversight, including all engineered and administrative control mechanisms. Now, The Saudi government should embark on the immediate creation of an independent investigation commission/panel. This interdisciplinary commission/panel should be chaired by a nationally renowned and prominent Saudi statesman or scholar, with members selected from Saudi Arabia and affected countries based on their technical expertise and to include responsible governmental entities, first responder agencies, and academics of requisite disciplines for accident investigation. After all an open, independent, non-partial, honest investigation is needed. If they really did close those roads to allow for Royals to pass through then it’s inexplicable.
Strategically, The Saudi Authority can bare Hajj for more than once in one’s lifetime which will significantly reduce the number. A multinational Muslim security force, skilled in crowd management and headed by Saudi Arabia, needs to be constituted with experts from the member-states of the Organization of Islamic Conference in the advisory board only for three months.
However, Allah (SWT) said, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you” (Al-Hujurat: 13). Hajj is a great celebration of the differences and at the same time unity of all of humanity. As pilgrims of diverse races and tongues return to their homes, they carry with them cherished memories of Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar, and Muhammad. They will always remember that universal concourse, where poor and rich, black and white, young and old, met on equal footing.
The result of a successful Hajj is a rich inner peace, which is manifested outwardly in the values of justice, honesty, respect, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, mercy and empathy to others. So it should not be politicized for any worldly interest.