Radicals and moderates alike will press flesh and embrace as brothers and sisters of one family when Muslims from around the world travel to Saudi Arabia next month to begin their annual pilgrimage of Haj. It is Islam’s most heralded custom at its holiest site without which a free pass to heaven — and a hobnob with those virgins — is not guaranteed.
Millions of believers — so many that governments set quotas — will swarm Mecca and Medina on a complex, back-breaking, emotional and violent journey to reflect and retrace the steps of the Prophet Muhammad, whose revelations there form the teachings of the world’s second largest religion — a distinction hijacked in recent years by its unchecked extremists.
After completing Haj, men and women refer to themselves as “haji” and “haja,” emblems of their piety which carry much clout in their communities.
First though, believers must perform an important task: beg forgiveness from people who they feel they have wronged.
Surely, that should include the close to 3,000 victims of 9-11 and their heartbroken families, whose suffering continues with the raging debate over to-mosque-or-not-to-mosque near Ground Zero. That debacle has spotlighted the character of the Muslim leadership, and it is not a pretty portrait for it reveals the mind-set of a community which handily cries victim and is not concerned with the moral illegitimacy of the project, nor with the heartache of New Yorkers to which it has paid only lukewarm lip service since 9-11.
Blind faith helps no one unless it is for the greater good of all humankind. As they prepare for Haj, Muslims everywhere bear a responsibility to reflect on a world in crisis, and which their fellow faithful have pushed to the limits of destruction and despair. What better place to set the ball of consciousness rolling than at Haj?
Nor is it enough for organizations, such as the Council on Islamic-American Relations or the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which touts itself as the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations with a membership of 57 states in four continents, to dismiss radical Islam as the handiwork of a handful of renegades. The reality shows the opposite, and is grimly illustrated by hajis who are virulently anti-American, anti-Semitic and proud terrorists. Such as al Qaeda mastermind Haji Ayman al-Zawahiri who helped hatch and fine-tune the 9-11 attacks. Such as Pakistani Taliban lord Haji Muslim Khan, whose blood lust for beheading, logging, plus digging up and hanging the dead is on the public record. Such as Iranian President Haji Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who blames the United States for 9-11, denies the Holocaust and wants Israel wiped “off the map.” These are the types of miscreants whose poisonous biases and actions are reconciled — even forgiven — by the Muslim brotherhood simply because of their Haj bragging rights.
Is it any coincidence, too, that Haj boasts a history of violence? In 2007, the Saudis rounded up more than 200 suspected al Qaeda militants in an embarrassing anti-terrorism sweep. In 2006, 362 pilgrims died as a result of barbaric tramplings by fellow pilgrims. And in 1979, hundreds of armed extremists seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, taking several hundred pilgrims hostage for a two-week siege that resulted in the deaths of hundreds.
Ultimately, a religion is dictated by its followers and Islam is being navigated off-course by its zealots — with its moderates paving the way.