Blame game after Mecca hajj stampede tragedy

Blame game after Mecca hajj stampede tragedy
Saudi officials have gone on the defensive after receiving criticism for their handling of this year's hajj, when 717 people died in a stampede.
4 min read
25 September, 2015
The tragedy was the biggest loss of life at the hajj since 1990 [AFP].
Yesterday's stampede at Islam's annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, which killed at least 717 people from across the world, has led to blame being levelled at the different parties involved in the tragedy.

Fingers have been pointed at the Saudi authorities, who are solely responsible for the organisation of the hajj.

Critics pointed out that the disaster took place at an intersection in the tent city of Mina, five kilometres (three miles) from Mecca, and was not the first of its kind. 

With the stampede and the collapse of a plane onto pilgrams, the number of deaths at this year's hajj is the worst since the 1,426 people lost their lives in 1990. 

Tragedies that have resulted in 100 dead have occurred in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2004 and 2006.

The crane disaster at Mecca's Grand Mosque less than two weeks ago left over one hundred people dead, and has resulted in a general polarisation of views towards Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world.

Some of the pilgrims who survived the crush blamed the Saudi authorities.

"I can blame the Saudi government because they did not control (the situation). I was there, I survived," a tearful Isaac Saleh, from Kenya, told AFP.

Iran - Riyadh's traditional foe in the region - were quick to claim that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the deaths, which included 131 Iranians.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Saudi "mismanagement" for the disaster. 

He said that the country must accept "the huge responsibility for [the] catastrophe". Iranians held a state-organised protest in Tehran after Friday prayers.

"Saudi Arabia is incapable of organising the pilgrimage," said Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, leading the main weekly Muslim prayers in Iran's capital.

"The running of the hajj must be handed over to Islamic states."

The criticism of Saudi Arabia also came from outside Iran.

Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Sunni Muslim thinker and a professor at Oxford University, said that Saudi Arabia had gotten its priorities wrong.

"The Saudi government would rather do better if, instead of spending millions in luxurious Malls [sic] and apartments, it would invest in the security of ordinary Muslims," he wrote on Facebook.

"These catastrophes are not accidents, but the direct result of mismanagement due to wrong political priorities," Ramadan added.

However, this criticism has not been accepted by some.

During Friday prayers at Mecca's Grand Mosque, Sheikh Saleh al-Taleb defended the kingdom which, he said, "is capable of managing hajj affairs" without outsiders suggesting they can do better.

"It is unacceptable to ignore all the efforts the kingdom has made to improve infrastructure at the holy sites," he said.

Khaled al-Falih, the Saudi health minister, whose country has spent billion of dollars on safety measures at the hajj, blamed worshippers themselves for the tragedy.

He told al-Ikhbariya television that if "the pilgrims had followed instruction, this type of accident could have been avoided".
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The stampede began at around 9am (6am GMT) on Thursday.

Pilgrims were converging on Mina's Jamarat Bridge to throw pebbles, on the first day of the last major ritual of the hajj which officially ends on Saturday.

The bridge was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion and intended to improve safety after past disasters.

Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turku said "a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time" at an intersection of two streets in Mina.

"The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims," he said.

The sheer number of people attending the hajj, at almost two million people according to Saudi authorities, their diversity and the number of chokepoints that exist on the pilgrimage route mean that accidents like Thursday's may simply be unavoidable.

"Every system has a finite limit, the number of people who can get through it," Keith Still, professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University, told AP.

"When you get above that number, the risks increase exponentially... It just looks like the system has gone beyond its safe capacity," he added.