Shias in Mecca: Unwelcome pilgrims

Shias in Mecca: Unwelcome pilgrims August 23, 2007
The royal treatment?

For Shia pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, few can forget the that occurred in 1987. Each year prior to that, a group of Iranians, Saudis, and other nationals held a peaceful, Saudi government-approved demonstration to denounce internal hypocrisy in Islam (even though it was a not-so subtle jab at the Saudi monarchy). It was a tradition started by Imam Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution and one that continued with barely a scuffle for years.

In 1987, however, an argument broke out between demonstrators and Saudi police in which the police opened fire, forcing the demonstrators to flee in a stampede-inducing frenzy. Over four hundred people were killed with another 649 injured, an event described in vivid detail in the book Iran’s Persian Gulf Policy: From Khomeini to Khatami. While discrimination in Mecca and Medina continued afterwards against anyone the Saudi government deemed outside its definition of Islam, actual violence against worshippers rarely did.

That uneasy but stable status quo was broken on August 5th when a group of Shia pilgrims from the US and the UK were physically harassed, verbally insulted, and then detained by Saudi authorities. In a letter now widely circulated on the Internet, one participant, Syed Jawad Qazwini, an Islamic scholar and community leader based in Florida, extensively documents the abuses he saw committed against himself and his group.

According to his account, his umrah delegation was praying inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca and were within earshot of a Saudi appointed religious scholar lecturing on Islam.The speaker allegedly repeated familiar anti-Shia canards — Shia Muslims worship the dead, are hypocrites, and gave Muslim lands away to the enemy (a reference to the support many Shia leaders gave to the overthrow of Saddam Hussain).

A young man then approached the religious police and told them that they should not disrespect Shia Muslims. Qazwini, a 25-year-old Iraqi American, urged the young man to ignore the incident but tension ensued and the police became physical. “They began to hit us with chairs, bats, radio communication devices, their fists, kicks, and punches continually,” recounted Qazwini. “They were hitting us with so many blows that I could not hold them back,” added another pilgrim, Mustafa Field.

The Saudi police responded with a barrage of insults, reportedly telling the worshippers that they were “all cowards and we will purify the holy mosque from the Shia,” according to Qazwini’s account. Qazwini then told the police that they were “guests of Allah” and that they were “in no position to go against Allah and the government of your king.”

The police officer then pushed Qazwini aside and arrested him, reportedly dragging him to a detention center within the mosque with several members of his group trailing behind. While the detention center was cleared of others, Qaswini claimed that a Saudi official boasted to other officers that he had caught an “Iraqi Shia causing problems”.

With the room now empty, a police officer then threw his boot at Qazwini, hitting his forehead. “I was in more pain and I could barely see,” wrote Qazwini. “I had a severe headache. He then proceeded to beat me and he was laughing with amusement, telling the rest on the police in the room how good it felt to hit a Shia.”

Qazwini recalled crying for help while some members of his group tried to approach the detention center to help him. Chaos ensued as over 30 police officers were dispatched to quell the trouble. Members of Qazwini’s umrah delegation were then beaten by Saudi police, some reportedly hit in their genitalia. “Take this message back to America,” a Saudi officer allegedly told to the group. Seven Britons and one American was detained for 12 hours until their eventual release, according to the BBC.

The story has yet to be corroborated by any eyewitnesses outside Qazwini’s group, and groups like Amnesty International are still waiting for more information before any statement (or action) can be made. Images of some the victims are now circulating on the internet and many of the pilgrims said they plan legal action. Syed Hasan Qazwini, an Islamic scholar and the head of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, said the attack was not surprising and part of a very familiar pattern of abuse. Said Qazwini, “This event (is) another episode in a long standing culture of policies which discriminated against Shias living in Saudi Arabia or those on pilgrimage.”

In a statement released to reporters, Ghazi al-Usaimi, deputy police chief at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, decried these allegations, saying “What the media said is baseless; no assaults took place in the shrine.” Repeated calls for comment to the press office at the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC were unanswered.

Interestingly, victims reported that Saudi officials further escalated their assault when they learned of the victims nationality. “They were calling us infidels. When we said we were British and American citizens and wanted to speak to our embassies the beating got even worse,” Amir Taki, a civil-servant from London noted in a London press conference. One of those beaten was a 16-year-old British Shia Muslim who was assaulted even further when Saudi authorities learned that his mother was an Englishwoman. Qazwini told reporters, “I think they wanted to send a message to the West, and unfortunately we were the means they used to do so. We were targets for two reasons, because we held American passports and because we are Shias.”

Prior to this incident, there were indications that conditions were improving for Shia pilgrims. In October 2006, Saudi Arabia played host to a conference of prominent Muslim leaders calling for an end to sectarian strife between Muslims. But for many, the attack on the pilgrims recalls a painful history of abuse in Mecca and shatters hopes for a more inclusive and tolerant hajj and umrah experience.

Zahir Janmohamed is an associate editor of and co-founder of the Qunoot Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.

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