Waeza Shamsia Afzal is a writer based in Toronto.
Last year, I attended a family gathering to see off an aunt who was preparing to depart for Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, that many Muslims make. With eyes twinkling and face aglow, my aunt talked about the personal significance of the trip to an audience of relatives. I quietly slipped away into the kitchen and scrolled through beige and ash images of hollowed children in Yemen that had popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. I felt sapped. I returned to the room and forced a smile.
This scene has become a recurring loop in my life. Every year, at around the time of the Hajj – which begins on August 9 this year – instead of feeling reverent, I find myself feeling disturbed. I have reflected on the ethics of performing the pilgrimage, and believe that until an independent body governs Mecca instead of the government of Saudi Arabia, people should boycott the pilgrimage.
Voicing my opinion on this topic has caused some awkward moments at some extended family gatherings, community events and among some friends. I feel increasingly frustrated at having to pander to the feelings of discomfort around me that prevent engagement on the awkward topic.
Performing the pilgrimage to Mecca is the fifth pillar of Islam, so suggesting a boycott is equivalent to encouraging direct disobedience of one of God’s commandments. It’s frustrating because I am pretending to be okay about choices that I strongly disagree with for the sake of being non-judgmental. But the truth is, I am judging.
A few weeks ago at a community event, my mention of a boycott was met with dead silence as those close to me scurried to veer the conversation in another direction. Although we can lament, ad infinitum, about the evils of the Saudi regime, the moment the idea of not going to Mecca is suggested, tensions ensue. I begin to feel like the drunk guy at the party that everyone dodges.
Some people have also labelled me as a progressive Muslim for my view; but to me, there is nothing progressive about boycotting the pilgrimage. In fact, it’s absurd not to boycott the pilgrimage, knowing full well what the Saudi regime is up to. A quick summary includes the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; an abysmal record on women’s, migrant workers’ and LGBTQ rights; abuses against political dissidents; spreading the extremist ideology of Wahhabism; encouraging sectarian violence; and most egregiously, being accused of committing war crimes in Yemen that have left as many as 13 million people to teeter on the brink of starvation.
The pilgrimage industry contributes an estimated US$12-billion to the regime’s GDP, and those journeying from Canada spend an average of $10,000-$15,000 for a single trip. It is one of Saudi Arabia’s largest industries, which means that pilgrims have significant power over the regime’s economy. How can I be okay knowing that the money I’ll be spending for a holy purpose will go toward the revenue of a state accused of committing war crimes, and carry on as if that’s normal?
Stowing away our discomfort is convenient and easy, but this willful ignorance has grave consequences. Performing the pilgrimage is a privilege; should my doing so be prioritized over people’s lives?
Some may worry that calling for a boycott of the pilgrimage plays into Islamophobic narratives, which blame Muslims and cast the responsibility on the community. This fear of betraying the community, while a legitimate concern, is not applicable in this case. The Saudi government does not represent the majority of Muslims and we are not a monolithic community. If anything, we should unabashedly speak out against the regime because their policies are responsible for tarnishing our religion.
Whether someone goes to the mosque every day, or has a drink every few days, Muslims of all stripes should agree that the actions of the Saudi regime are the opposite of the values of the religion, let alone a basic sense of ethics.
At one time I also grappled with the question, “How can I reconcile my duty to fulfill a fundamental pillar of my religion when it contradicts my better conscience?” But with each passing day, the numbers of children starving to death in Yemen rises. Yes, they are starving to death. Yes, it’s preventable. Yes, we are contributing if we go on the pilgrimage – the more I adamantly believe that it is not necessary to have all the answers to take action.
My opinion is not new. A quick Google search pulls up articles by bloggers and journalists and petitions calling for a boycott. Most recently, a prominent Tunisian religious official called on the country’s grand imam to issue a decree to discourage people from performing the Hajj. These calls, though, have not gained much momentum.
Enough. We must stand up to the actions of the Saudi regime. It’s in our power to do so.