Saturday, September 12, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Sept 13, 2015

Makkah tragedy The tragedy that struck the Grand Mosque housing the Ka’aba, Islam’s holiest site, on Friday, September 11, could have been much worse had it occurred during the peak Hajj season, due to commence two weeks from now. Apparently strong winds and a rainstorm are being blamed by the authorities for a crane crashing down onto the mosque, killing at least 87 worshippers and injuring more than 180. The mosque was full of people awaiting the call to prayers. The tragic scene after the crash showed rubble and pools of blood on the floor. Rescue efforts were mounted, but initially it seems as though the authorities were so taken by surprise that the response was slow and inefficient. It seems surprising too that a heavy crane could just come crashing down due to wind and rain. There may be some other factors at work, including some mechanical/structural fault that went undetected. An investigation into the accident has been ordered by the Governor of Makkah and only after it reports will it be clear what actually caused the crash. Although the nationalities of the victims are not yet known, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has instructed our ambassador in Saudi Arabia to facilitate the families of the dead and personally visit the injured in hospital. The Pakistani embassy is said to be trying to find out if any Pakistanis are among the dead or injured. The Hajj is the greatest gathering of Muslims and arguably the biggest religious event the world over. Last year, over two million Muslims from all over the world travelled to Makkah to carry out Hajj. Even now, two weeks before the Hajj proper begins, some 800,000m pilgrims are already in Makkah. In past years, this great conglomeration has seen accidents such as fires, stampedes and crushes. The Saudi authorities have therefore undertaken a massive expansion of the Grand Mosque to an area of 400,000 square metres, which will accommodate some 2.2 million people simultaneously. Hence the presence of cranes ringing the mosque, one of which unfortunately fell right on it. Although the Saudi authorities have been incrementally improving the facilities in and around the Hajj, including roads, transport infrastructure and other services to allow the smooth movement of such large numbers of people, it must also be acknowledged that the Saudis have allowed the development over the years of several hotels, high rises and commercial developments around and overlooking the mosque, no doubt with an eye to the earning potential of the site during the holy event. Known for their puritanical Wahabi interpretation of Islam, the Saudi ruling monarchy has not found the consideration of commerce contradictory to the preservation of the character and profile of the holiest of holy sites. Non-Wahabi purists have been appalled at this seeming surrender to Mammon in the House of God. Not to put too fine a point on it, there does seem to be a contradiction between the Saudi ruling monarchy’s Wahabi purism when it comes to keeping the grave of the Prophet (PBUH) and his mosque in Medina as simple and unostentatious as possible while allowing the pomp, show and glitter of commercial enterprise to intrude into the holy space around the Ka’aba. Of course what is done may not be possible to undo, but the Saudi monarchy should be more sensitive to the sentiments and deeply held beliefs of all Muslims as the keepers and guardians of the holy sites of Islam and not arrogate to themselves the right to do as they please, even if in contradictory fashion, irrespective of whether it seems appropriate or not. Ideally, an international Muslim forum such as the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) should have had a role in managing and maintaining the holy sites, but since the OIC has proved over time to be a toothless talking shop, the Muslim world could discuss the modalities of the upkeep and management of the holy sites on some other (perhaps new?) forum. However, that could only come about if the Saudi monarchy relinquishes its monopoly on the holy sites, a monopoly purely based on geographic location rather than any God-given or inherent right. That seems at present at least an unlikely hope at best.

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