Muslims Call to #Boycotthajj in Protest of Saudi Human Rights Violations

Online movement urging believers to opt out of annual pilgrimage slammed by Saudi officials as 'unwise' and 'malicious'

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 8, 2019.
Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 8, 2019. Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

As millions of Muslims don robes and flock to Mecca for hajj, a small counter movement to boycott the pilgrimage in protest at Saudi Arabia's politics has won limited support online.

Although the numbers are dwarfed by the 1.8 million who have arrived in Mecca for Friday's hajj, more than 100 Muslims from Australia to Tanzania are contributing to a Twitter hashtag #boycotthajj in response to Saudi Arabia's political record.

They cite its role in the war in Yemen, stance on human rights and unequal treatment of women among top concerns.

>> Read more: As hundreds of thousands descend on Mecca, Saudis warn against politicizing hajjIn Saudi Arabia, women's rights are used to sweep murder under the rug | Analysis

"#BoycottHajj is an important discussion for Muslims to have. It is about being critical and recognizing the atrocities that the Saudi regime commits against fellow Muslims," Mariam Parwaiz, a public health doctor in New Zealand, said on Twitter.

For Ella, attending hajj now would be incompatible with Islam's wider obligations to stand up to injustice.

"It's Saudi foreign policy and the oppressive nature of Saudi society that's stopping me," the 28-year-old British academic told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A Moroccan pilgrim runs as pigeons fly outside the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 4, 2019.Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

"It's not me saying I don't want to go - I would love to be able to fulfil my religious obligation. But for as long as that would mean being complicit in violence, I won't do it."

A Saudi-backed coalition has waged war in Yemen since 2015 and aid workers say some 24 million people - almost 80% of the population - will likely need humanitarian assistance in 2019.

The Gulf kingdom also faces heightened scrutiny over its human rights record after last year's murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

And women - who have won some high-profile rights - face a barrage of male controls in this socially conservative kingdom.

Riyadh has urged Muslims to focus on worship, not politics.

A Saudi official dismissed the boycott as "unwise" and said its small number of backers stood in sharp contrast to the fact that more pilgrims chose to visit Mecca each year, with countries seeking ever larger hajj quotas.

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 8, 2019.Credit: Waleed Ali / Reuters

"Those people are trying to politicize hajj," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Hajj is separate. Hajj has nothing to do with all this - this is a spiritual trip."

Riyadh was seeking "political solutions" in Yemen, he said, and "witnessing considerable change" on women's rights.

Holy guardian

Every able-bodied Muslim who can is supposed to go on hajj at least once in their lifetime and Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the guardian of Islam's holiest sites.

It also sees hajj as key to expanding tourism and moving away from an economic dependence on oil, with hajj generating billions of dollars in revenue for the kingdom.

Some boycott supporters said they do not want their money to go toward a government whose policies they abhor.

Muslim pilgrims gather around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 8, 2019.Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

Ella, who preferred not to use her full name, said she had noticed a "real shift" in her generation, which refuses to divorce Saudi politics from faith.

"We're asked much more strongly to behave ethically and to stand against oppression...than to go on hajj."

De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was praised after taking power in 2017 for loosening social restrictions.

The kingdom swept aside a ban on women driving and earlier this month made provisions to erode the male guardianship system, a key plank in restricting female autonomy.

The ministry in charge of the hajj said the number of international pilgrims had risen 5% this year compared to last and that Saudi Arabia did not "pay any attention to malicious calls or media campaigns seeking to disturb the hajj," the official said.

For Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic & Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, the boycott was unlikely to gain much traction, with the world's growing Muslim population now estimated at 1.8 billion people.

"First and foremost, hajj is a duty for all Muslims to perform at least once in their lives, if they have the physical and financial means to do so - whether one agrees with the policies of the Saudi regime is thus irrelevant."

Others take a different view.

"Muslims should boycott hajj, because to do so only feeds the regime," said Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization.

"(They) will only contribute to the devastation and starvation of the Yemeni people, empower the very regime that has imprisoned many women and human rights advocates."

For teacher Sohaib El-Nahla, speaking by phone from Mecca, "hajj is the journey of a lifetime" with no link to politics.

"In our understanding hajj is a divine invitation to the sacred precincts," El-Nahla told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Boycotting hajj to a Muslim would be the same as applying a boycott to their own religion and their own spirituality."

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

A Palestinian flag is taken down from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, Israel earlier this month

Israel-Palestine Confederation: A Response to Eric Yoffie