Thai haj pilgrims find airport chaos a test of faith

(Photo:Anti-government protesters at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, 21 Nov 2008Kerek Wongsa)

David Fox of our Asia Desk in Singapore found this interesting faith story amid the protests at Bangkok’s international airport:

BANGKOK – Hundreds of Thai Muslims on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca were spending a third night sleeping rough at Bangkok’s international airport on Thursday, victims of anti-government protests that have paralysed air travel.

Around 700 haj pilgrims, many elderly and frail but hoping to complete one of Islam’s most important pillars of faith before they die, prepared to camp out for a third night in the terminal building at Suvarnabhumi airport.

“Some of them have saved all their lives for this,” said Muhammed Yusouf, a haj tour guide accompanying the pilgrims, many of whom would be travelling by plane for the first time.

After long delay, French Muslim council may get down to work

Things seem to be looking up at the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The first round of elections for its new national leadership went off well on Sunday — the second round is due on June 22 — and several leaders of member groups expressed confidencethe council can finally get down to work. This will be a revolution in itself. Since it was created in 2003 under heavy pressure from the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now M. le Président), the CFCM has been almost completely paralysed by internal rivalries. Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanThe reason for hope this time around is that the government didn’t choose winner in advance, as it did in the 2003 and 2005 elections. Instead of naming Paris Grand MosqueRector Dalil Boubakeur the next CFCM president before the vote no matter what his mosque network’s result was, the government let the Muslims decide for themselves who should run the council. The Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims (RMF) mosque network came out clearly ahead and its candidate for CFCM president, Mohammed Moussaoui, looks set to win the top job on June 22. Here’s a post-election interviewwith Moussaoui (in French) where he lists his priorities as religious training for imams and chaplains, mosque construction, consumer protection for hajis, better conditions for Eid slaughterhouses and Muslim sections in cemeteries. Without ever mentioning the record of the CFCM to date, he shows all that has to be done. The back story to the CFCM election is fascinating. Back in 2003, Sarkozy insisted that Boubakeur be president in order to:- Ensure a moderate head of a prestigious mosque headed the CFCM rather than the supposed “radicals” of the Union of French Muslim Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Work closely with Algeria, which supports the Grand Mosque and its network, the main mosque network for Algerian Muslims in France.

The Grand Mosque network came in third in the 2003 and 2005 elections, so the UOIF and the Moroccan mosques — first represented by the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF) and now the RMF — had serious problems with this interference. Although Sarkozy is now president, it seems he did not bring the same priorities into the Elysée Palace. The current approach shows less worry about the UOIF, which is not really all that “radical” after all, and a tilt towards Morocco. Press reports say Rabat has also become more interested in influencing its emigrants in Europe after Moroccans were implicated in the Theo van Gogh murder and the Madrid train bombings. Anyway, back to the CFCM elections. Once Boubakeur pulled out of the race in supposed protest against the voting mechanism accepted in the two earlier elections, the vote was free for the winners to be the group that actually won the most votes. The Moroccans came in a strong first at 43.2 percent, far ahead of the UOIF at 30.2 percent. This satisfied the Moroccans and smaller groups that will probably ally with them, but left the UOIF very dissatisfied. Now it is clear they are stuck in second place and they don’t like that. So they’re calling for a rotating presidency to let them get the top job some day. Rhone-Alpes CRCM chairman Azzedine GaciJudging from what RMF President Anouar Kbibech said after the results were in (RFI audio here in French), the RMF plans to actually tackle practical problems for Muslims in France. The regional council (CRCM) in Rhône-Alpes, the region in and around Lyon, showed up the national council by producing a 74-page report on its progresson such practical issues over the past three years. The pragmatic regional leader there, Azzedine Gaci (picture at left), has set a high standard for the new boys in Paris to meet. One of the first would be to set up their own website … One fly in the ointment is that the election confirmed the influence of what the French call “consular Islam” — the influence that the so-called countries of origin have on French Muslims. The switch in leadership from the Paris Grand Mosque to the RMF also means a shift in influence from Algeria to Morocco. Turkey has a similar link to ethnic Turks in France, but they are a smaller group (12.7 percent in the election). For all the government’s talk of creating an Islam de France, it persists in fostering this consular Islam.When it was launched, the CFCM aroused interest around Europe because it seemed to be the most developed form of official representation for Islam in a European country. It looked like some kind of answer to the question ‘who speaks for Islam?’ But its immobility over the years made it drop off the radar screen.Representatives attend the ‘Conference on Islam’ in Berlin, 2 May 2007/Tobias SchwarzThere are a mixed bag of efforts to create or maintain Muslim councils in other countries, such as the “Islam Conference” in Berlin pictured at right. Here’s a roundup of them by H. A. Hellyer. Each country has a different approach and there doesn’t seem to be any one-size-fits-all solution.How do you think a Muslim council in a European country should be organised?

Harvard haj study examines Mecca’s effect on Muslims

The Kaaba as seen from the first floor of the Grand Mosque sanctuary, 20 Dec 2007Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has just published a study called “Estimating the Impact of the Haj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering.” The pilgrimage is often described as the highpoint of a Muslim’s religious life. Media reporting usually stresses the experiences of the people taking part in it. But what is the longer-term effect of participating in such a massive and moving pilgrimage? This study, based on data from over 1,600 applicants to Pakistan’s haj visa allocation lottery in 2006, had some interesting conclusions:

Our findings show that … the Haj has quite a remarkable effect in shaping the views of Pakistani pilgrims. It induces a shift from localized beliefs and practices towards global Islamic practice, increases tolerance, and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women. We find no evidence that by raising cohesion within the Muslim community, the Haj threatens non-Muslims. On the contrary, the Haj makes pilgrims more peacefully inclined, and increased tolerance extends to adherents of other religions.

The evidence suggests that these changes are more a result of exposure to and interaction with Hajis from around the world, rather than religious instruction or a changed social role of pilgrims upon return.

What were they thinking on the haj?

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007So what exactly were more than two million Muslim pilgrims doing on the plain of Arafat outside Mecca on the afternoon of December 18, also known as the 9th of Dhul Hijja? I was there too, among them, so I should know, shouldn’t I? I must have seen many thousands of them close up on the haj this year, looked into their faces and tried to guess what they were thinking.

The conventional wisdom is that they were praying, at least the ones who were staying still and not engaged in the more mundane tasks of life, such as setting up tents, fetching water for their families, or waiting to get a free breakfast from the charity container truck. Activities of that kind accounted for quite a proportion of the total, especially people walking, walking by the tens of thousands, walking to explore, walking to find better places to sit, walking to find lost friends and relatives or just walking because it was a change from sitting, where they might be buffeted by the feet and bags of passing pedestrians, or asphyxiated by the exhaust of giant buses, or Pilgrims sit at Jabal al-Rahman, the Mount of Mercy, at the centre of the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007troubled by the accumulating piles of rubbish as people threw down orange peel, biscuit wrappers, milk cartons and discarded flipflops. Of those who were sitting, quite a number were chatting with their friends and neighbours and, judging by the snippets of conversation I overheard, much of the talk was of the basic logistics of surviving the day. How far is it to Mohamed’s tent? Which lavatories do you think are the best? How much are the bananas?

Now there were some people praying, or at least going through the motions of praying. Maybe their eyes were closed or their hands were cupped in that distinctive manner, or their lips were moving silently, or they were rocking rhythmically from side to side. If you found someone with the time to talk, they would invariably tell you that they had prayed and that this was one of their reasons for being there. I might add that they were talking about personal prayers, to Muslims something quite distinct from the formal prayers which they say five times a day at set times. In the formal prayers you can’t slip inMuslim pilgrims pray on the plain of Arafat near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007 one for your sick grandmother. That’s a separate operation, with distinct rules. Most of the pilgrims spent at least five hours on the plain, about the minimum to qualify as a certified haji. But interestingly, prayer on the plain is not obligatory. The best explanation I heard came from a Sudanese carpenter who had performed the pilgrimage many times. He said that prayer on the plain on that particular day was especially effective, so it was wise to take advantage of the opportunity. That seems to be a view close to the traditional consensus.

On the haj, be fit and bring sturdy sandals

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the Plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007If you’re going on the haj pilgrimage, be fit and bring a sturdy pair of sandals. As with any pilgrimage, walking long distances is hard to avoid. The alternative is to sit in endless traffic jams inhaling diesel fumes. I didn’t walk as much as the real pilgrims did on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but when I fell asleep at 7 a.m. in a resthouse, I had been walking since 1.30 a.m.

The journey began at sunset on Tuesday, the peak of the pilgrimage. Pilgrims have to spend the afternoon in a confined area on the Plain of Arafat. ‘Being there’ is what counts. Clerics say private prayers said during this period are particularly effective . Some people slept in tents or just walked around, in as much as that was possible amid more than two million people, the heat and the rapidly accumulating rubbish.

As the sun went down, pilgrims dressed in loose white cloth pressed against the western limits of the confined area. Once it disappeared behind the rocky hills, they surged forward towards Mecca, like a liquid boiling over. We journalists took cars this time. As we approached Muzdalifa, the first station on the way back to Mecca, I could see that people had trekked into the rocky hills and were settling down to sleep a few hours in the rough. Our car took us to another guesthouse, where we had dinner, the usual boiled sheep and rice that Saudis seem to live on. Apart from breakfast, it’s the only dish we’ve eaten since our journey began on Monday.

On the haj: circling the Kaaba in Mecca

The Kabaa, 24 Dec 2007“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.

The overwhelming impression was of dazzling white marble and of arches with white plaster crenellations receding into the distance. The Saudi government has spared no expense in making this mosque, built around the focal point of daily worship for hundreds of millions of Muslims, into a monument inspiring awe and wonder among the millions who visit every year — especially those here for the first time. But the austere simplicity of the Kaaba itself, a plain stone cubic building covered in black cloth and wrapped in Arabic writing in golden silk, makes an even greater impression on visitors. Many raise their arms as it looms into sight from the edge of the inner courtyard, as if to protect themselves from some mysterious power, or perhaps to absorb some of the blessings they think it radiates.

Muslim pilgrims wait for a bus outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 14 Dec. 2007We skipped down the marble steps into the courtyard and made our way towards the Kaaba, joining a crowd of several thousand performing the tawaf ritual – the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, the first part of the umra ceremony which pilgrims usually perform on arrival in Mecca. The tawaf ritual predates Islam, possibly by many hundreds of years, and its origins may be lost in the mists of time. Muslims associate the Kaaba with the prophet Ibrahim, the biblical Abraham, seen as the founder of a pure monotheism which slowly declined until revived in the 7th century by the prophet of Islam.