Fervor and Fears as Millions Make the Hajj

ByABC News
February 7, 2003, 11:48 AM

Feb. 11 -- At sundown on Monday, they began their descent from the rocky slopes of Mount Arafat in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia a vast sea of humanity in pristine white robes collectively cleansed of its sins after completing a central ritual of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Down from the holy mount, in the Mina Valley today, millions of Muslim pilgrims celebrate Eid ul-Adha the feast marking Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's request slaughtering sheep in a symbolic commemoration of man's ultimate accedence to God's will.

It's just one in a detailed list of prescribed rituals that make up the hajj, an awesome display of faith that sees millions of Muslims of different racial, linguistic and cultural backgrounds from more than 70 countries gather together in an essentially egalitarian community, where all Muslims are brothers and sisters.

For the Saudi authorities, guardians of Islam's holiest sites, the hajj is at once a gala public relations event and a massive logistical headache.

In a conservative country, where at normal times a potential influx of outsiders is kept firmly in check by a strict entry visa policy, the hajj sees an estimated 1.3 million non-Saudi citizens make their way into the oil-rich kingdom.

A little over a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with the threat of a widely unpopular attack on Iraq looming, the fear this year is that a mammoth gathering of Muslims could serve as a recruiting ground for al Qaeda sympathizers. In a world where the U.S.-led war on terror has dominated the global agenda, security has been a major concern during the hajj.

The anxiety was highlighted on Friday, when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the government had elevated the national terror alert to "high" amid an "increased likelihood that al Qaeda may attempt to attack Americans in the United States and/or abroad in or around the end of the hajj, a Muslim religious period ending mid-February 2003."

"It's a real organizational challenge," says Sandra Mackey, Middle East expert and author of the book The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. "Millions of people enter the country during a short period of time and millions of people have to be in the same place at the same time."

Logistical issues such as crowd control, sanitation and security during the hajj have dogged the ruling House of Saud ever since the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in the early 1930s. But every decade seems to throw up a different set of challenges for the authorities.

Linking the Hajj to Terrorism

Aschroft's association of the hajj with terrorism promptly raised alarm bells in the American Muslim community. In a statement released over the weekend, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent national Islamic civil rights group, condemned what it called an "unnecessary linkage."