Opinion: We Need to Talk About Saudi and Hajj

“Years later when I tried to visit again the Saudis had filled the cave with concrete. It was truly heartbreaking to see that, but despite this madness, that same scent of that oud lingered in the air.”

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“Years later when I tried to visit again the Saudis had filled the cave with concrete. It was truly heartbreaking to see that, but despite this madness, that same scent of that oud lingered in the air.”

Alhamdullilah this is my 20th year as a Muslim, and it’s been a year of beauty and trials just like every year on this path. When you convert to Islam, no one really explains to you all the layers of what you are taking on.

The faith, the practices, and the daily lived reality of being a Muslim, dealing constantly with your nafs and self-critique and doubts in a world where most people never deal with themselves at all. The layers of complexity within our communities, the civilizational reality of Islam, the competing cultural interpretations of everything, global geopolitics, competing post-colonial traumas at the mosque, and on and on.

I mean think about it, as a convert you are almost relearning everything, you even learn how to wash yourself in the bathroom, as if you were a child. All of that plus the sacrifices we make within our own families, and the battles and questions that go on there for years. 

Despite all the difficulties, the blessings are far greater and can never truly be articulated. All of these things I mentioned above slowly unveil themselves to you piece by piece, and you either figure them out and focus on the important aspects of spiritual growth in our faith and your relationship with Allah, or like so many converts you isolate yourself because you don’t want to deal with all the nonsense. This is a lifelong process of spiritual cleansing, chipping away at our past pain, addictions, and trauma takes years.

When I first converted to Islam I remember having a very serious intention that my conversion would, inshallah, change the entire trajectory and history of my family. Despite that intention, the conservatism of the community I converted into in Boulder, Colorado where they were trying to build a Salafi university at the time was almost too much for me to handle.

Within six months of my shahada, like many, I quit going to the mosque because of the way an Imam spoke so flippantly about “the kuffar.” Making blanket statements about everyone else in our society, which obviously included my family. It sure sounded a lot like the fire and brimstone preaching I had left as a Christian in the Methodist Church and sure wasn’t the faith of peace and mercy I had entered.

After all these years, most of the mosques have become difficult for me again, but for a different reason. The reality is, that so many of these mosques in the United States are built as safe spaces for the ethnic, gendered, class group who builds them, and good luck to everyone else. Some of these mosques have all-male boards who are the founders of the mosque forty years later, who pass down board membership to their children like this is their own personal fiefdom.

There is a reason why we still see weekly conversions at mosques that take converts seriously, like ISLAH in Los Angeles or Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland, and at the mosques mentioned above it’s a very rare occurrence. Even if someone comes to take their shahada, the mosque generally speaking has almost nothing to do with that person’s journey before or after they become Muslim.

One of the main things that most born Muslims don’t understand is the set of competing ideologies that play out within our communities and in these buildings. These ideologies or interpretations of Islam are usually funded by global movements, and sometimes by individual countries.

Whether these are the Muslim brotherhood, Sufi tariqas, Salafism and Wahhabism, different interpretations of Shism, Deobandi movements, these are the ideologies at play within our communities.

Of course, there has always been ideological diversity amongst Muslims, and these debates will always be with us but the neocolonial response to globalized white supremacy has been to imagine Islam as one reality for the sake of political power. This tied to the United States’ “special relationship,” with Saudi Arabia and you see how Saudi Wahabi petrol-funded Islam has been spread all over the world.

Saudi Arabia Decides Western Pilgrims Can No Longer Book Hajj Through Travel Agencies

See Adam Curtis’s film, The Power of Nightmares, for a good overview of this relationship and its political implications. Of course, this relationship was taken to another level with MBS, Trump, and Jared Kushner who just closed a $2 billion dollar investment from Saudi for his venture capital fund.

I was blessed to go on Umrah for the first time on 7/7/2007, before the construction of the clock tower was complete. Before the hills of Mecca around the Masjid had been blown up, and before the library on the land where the Prophet ﷺ was born, was destroyed. On that trip, we traveled across the country with one of the great historians of the Hijaz (the region between Mecca and Medina) and we stopped at the historical sites of the Hijra route of our beloved Prophet ﷺ, maintained if at all by individuals, but mostly covered in trash.

As someone who grew up in the United States where all kinds of historical buildings are preserved for almost any reason, this was shocking to me. One of the highlights of that trip was visiting the cave where the Prophet ﷺ bled on the mountain of Uhud, which the Prophet ﷺ called a mountain of paradise.

As you entered the cave the strongest scent of other worldly oud filled the cave, subhanallah. Years later when I tried to visit again the Saudis had filled the cave with concrete. It was truly heartbreaking to see that, but despite this madness, that same scent of that oud lingered in the air. 

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In reality, destroying our tradition is only part of what the Saudi royal family has done. They have destroyed our history, they have paved over Mecca and Medina. They literally put bathrooms on top of sacred sites that will never be recovered. They have turned Mecca into a city now filled with the new idols of global capitalism and materialism around the Kaba.

Of course, this is only part of what they do, the war in Yemen is almost too painful to bear as a proxy war between Saudi and Iran who care nothing for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost already. I realize in writing these words that I may never be able to go on Hajj, but you want to talk about what they will do to their critics?

Have you seen the film The Dissident about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? You should have, but Saudi paid to have the film repressed and it received almost zero press coverage. The director, Bryan Fogel, had his previous film Icarus distributed by Netflix, and it won an academy award for best documentary. For his follow-up film he made The Dissident.

Tell me if you can think of a filmmaker who wins an academy award with a studio like Netflix, who then has a hard time getting a distribution deal for his second film? It doesn’t happen, but in this case with lobbying behind the scenes of Saudi’s Hollywood financiers, the film had almost zero distribution.

The great difficulty I have seen in my years as a Muslim and the whole point of this story is that we live as reflections against the monoculture of the West that says we have to fit within the boxes made for us in a process that has destroyed many of our families. As a response to this globalized White supremacy, many Muslim governments have destroyed our traditions and constructed ideologies that say we have to fit within their pre-constructed modernist understandings of Islam.

So we bounce between these two extremes while we all look for a sense of belonging and a spiritual home for our hearts amidst this world of chaos. Of course one of the primary places we look for to save our hearts in these painful times is on Hajj.

This is why the recent changes to Hajj for Western Muslims have been especially difficult to see. Not to say the previous system was a good one – Hajj has been so price prohibitive that the majority of the world’s Muslims have to save until the end of their life to go on this journey if they can go at all. But at least we could go before with our local leaders, Imams, Shaykhs, and Shaykhas of our choosing, of our own diverse ideologies.

Now just weeks before Hajj, Saudi Arabia stopped a visa process working with local tour operators that had been in place for decades and instead replaced it with one website that was spit out of a startup lab somewhere in Dubai. It’s impossible to summarize everything that’s happened since they put this company, Motawif, in charge of the Hajj system for all Western Muslims.

I’ve been browsing a Facebook group, Motawif Hajj and Umrah, for the last week and it is just horror story after horror story. People’s parents slept on hotel floors with no rooms, people signed up for one package and they didn’t get anything. People being shown package deals for $8000 then they go to check out and the price is $20,000. People arriving at Mina to rat-infested empty tents with no water.

I started writing this when the changes in Hajj were made a few weeks ago, now that Hajj is actually happening what it sounds like more than anything is people are just being sent on Hajj without any guides at all. As if everyone knows what to do in a ritual practice they have never performed in their lives. Motawif held a webinar for people to understand their Hajj, tens of thousands of dollars spent and you don’t have a guide with you, you don’t have anyone to ask questions too? Do you have a webinar while you’re in Mecca?

Middle East Eye has had the most in-depth reporting on this.

On that first Umrah trip years ago I mentioned above, one of the mayors of one of the sacred cities wanted to meet with a group of converts and I was invited to go. In that meeting the leader of the group who has deep foresight and intuition told the mayor, we know that what comes after you will be much worse.

Of course, that’s what this is, as bad as the previous regime was who spread Wahhabism all over the earth, there was regime change in Saudi when MBS locked up his family members and the richest Saudis in the Ritz Carlton starting in November of 2017. This is a Saudi that will kill its critics without question, will kill hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Yemen, and who will sell the rights to Hajj to a company run by Hindu Nationalists.

So who then are the protectors of the haramain?

May Allah protect us all, May Allah bless you and your family on the day of Arafah, may He heal our hearts, and bring together this broken Ummah, ameen.

Finally, here is a beautiful duaa from Arafah.

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