Mecca and Medina present a conundrum for liberal democracies dedicated to equality of all citizens because those two cities are off-limits to non-Muslims (or to use the more colorful language of Islam, to kafirs, infidels). So, what happens when Western citizens travel to the Haramayn and demand consular services there? This weblog entry explores the contradictions.
Four French ministries have joined forces to issue a two-page document, Pèlerinage à la Mecque, décembre 2005 à janvier 2006: Conseils pratiques ("Pilgrimage to Mecca, December 2005-January 2006: Practical Advice") that counsels pilgrims on how to organize their hajj, dealing for example with contracts, tickets, and potential problems with both. Though the very existence of this advisory is surprising, and all the more its pious tone ("The pilgrimage to Mecca is a voyage every Muslim hopes for"), what really shocks it to learn the existence of a satellite French diplomatic office in Mecca. The document includes this information:
Vous pouvez contacter, à tout moment pendant votre séjour, l'antenne consulaire à La Mecque aux coordonnées suivantes :
• Adresse :
Hôtel MERCURE – 12e étage
Avenue Ibrahim Al Khalil
Mizfalah – La Mecque
Boîte postale 51 177
• Téléphone de l'hôtel :
En Arabie Saoudite, composez le 02 539 70 05 extensions 12.10 /12.11/12.12
À partir de la France ou d'un portable français, composez le 00 966 2 539 70 05
The first line, translated: "You can contact, at any time during your stay, the satellite consulate in Mecca at the following coordinates."
The British government also has a presence in Mecca, but at least it is unofficial, as explained on the "Hajj Pilgrimage 2006: Advice to British Hajjis" page at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
We hope that you have a trouble-free Hajj. If something does go wrong British pilgrims will be able to get assistance from either the Consular General in Jeddah or the British Hajj Delegation in Mecca. The 2006 Delegation headed by Lord Patel of Blackburn, is a team of volunteers from the British Muslim Community. They will be in Saudi Arabia throughout the Hajj to provide help and assistance to British Hajjs. The Delegation comprises a team of doctors and counsellors, who will offer initial support and advice. Muslim staff from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will accompany them, and working with the British Consulate General in Jeddah, the Delegation can provide you with a range of Consular services.
The Delegation will be located in the Al Hateem Tower Hotel, Al Misfala, Ibrahim Al Khalil Street, Makkah (Mecca).
Working with the British Consulate-General in Jeddah, the delegation will provide you with a full range of consular services.
The Delegation can
- Advise you on how to transfer money
- Provide contact details for local lawyers and hospitals
- Arrange for a next of kin to be told of an accident or a death and advise on procedures
- Offer initial medical advice and assistance
The Delegation cannot
- Rearrange travel bookings
- Get involved in lost baggage disputes
- Pay your hotel, legal, medical or travel bills
- Get you out of prison
- Give legal advice
- Intervene in court cases
- Investigate a crime
Comment: The Saudis permit only Muslims into Mecca, which implies that the French foreign ministry imposes a religious litmus test on employees who staff its Mecca office. So much for laïcité. The privileging of Islam proceeds apace. (December 15, 2005)
Sep. 14, 2009 update: The Globe and Mail reports that the Defense Ministry of France is providing its Muslim soldiers and sailors a plane to fly them to Saudi Arabia and then is organizing their pilgrimage to Mecca.
For any western government to arrange a hajj trip would be unusual. It is especially so here, in a country so protective of its secularism that it regulates what Muslim girls can wear in school and is considering a blanket ban on the face-covering Islamic niqab. But for Mohamed-Ali Bouharb, a spit-and-polish gendarmerie captain who put together the final pieces for the pilgrimage last week, it is one step toward making Islam as "banal" in France as any other religion. "The army is always in advance of society," said Capt. Bouharb, one of the 30 Muslim chaplains recently recruited by the armed forces. "And it is anaesthetized from all the social questions and debate outside."
Feb. 25, 2013 update: "We hope that you will have a trouble-free Hajj like thousands of other pilgrims from the United States. However, if something does go wrong, the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah can provide you appropriate consular services." As this passage from the 2012 edition of the "Hajj Fact Sheet" on the Department of State website suggests, the U.S. government does not have any sort of presence in Mecca (which it spells Makkah, the preferred Saudi way; Medina it spells Madinah).
The fact sheet contains a number of interesting tidbits, starting with its wildly inaccurate claim that the hajj is "the largest mass gathering in the world" (the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela counts about 80 million pilgrims, or 25 times more than the hajj, with about 3.4 million pilgrims in 2012). A few quotes from the official document:
Pilgrims who arrive in Saudi Arabia with no accommodation or transportation arrangements may face difficulties with Saudi immigration. The U.S. Embassy and our Consulates General in Jeddah and Dhahran are unable to help in these situations.
Non-Muslims are forbidden to travel to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
A recent statement from the Saudi Hajj Ministry reiterated the long-standing requirement for women below the age of 45 to be accompanied by a "mahram" (e.g. close adult, male relative such as a husband, son, father or brother) for Hajj.
It is mandatory for Hajj visitors to relinquish all passports to "United Agents Office" representatives to enable the latter to complete all travel formalities to Makkah and Madinah. Pilgrims are issued an identification card and wristband that must be carried at all times.
Although a requirement for polio vaccine does not include pilgrims from the U.S., it is best to ensure full vaccination against polio before travel.
King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah is large and modern, with special terminal facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. However, due to the extremely large number of people arriving, waiting time at the airport upon arrival during the Hajj may be as long as twelve hours or longer. Pilgrims should plan on a lengthy wait in hot and humid conditions before leaving the airport on their way to Makkah or Madinah. Travelers with only carry-on bags will find baggage transfer at the airport much easier than will those with checked baggage. Some Hajj pilgrims now fly directly to Madinah and proceed to Makkah by road. There is no airport in Makkah.
The Saudi authorities may not permit travelers to leave the Hajj terminal individually, only with their Hajj travel groups. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and Consulates General in Jeddah and Dhahran are unable to assist with this issue.
Travelers should expect crowded conditions during the Hajj. Historically, temperatures in Makkah have ranged between 64 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. There are facilities providing water, public accommodations, and other amenities. However, due to the large crowds, travelers should expect long wait times for basic amenities especially in Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat.
While in Saudi Arabia, individuals with disabilities should be prepared to find accessibility and accommodation very different from what is generally found in the U.S.
The Hajj has been an attractive target for defrauding unsuspecting tourists. Travelers should be aware and vigilant of unscrupulous tour operators who abandon tourists, leaving them with unpaid bills, and hoteliers who demand the payment of exorbitant "hidden charges" for the return of passports.
There has been an increase in the number of reported cases of pick-pocketing and other forms of theft in Makkah, particularly in the region of the Grand Mosque, and in Madinah. Pilgrims should take additional care with valuables while visiting these two areas and may consider using a money belt or under-garment pouch as a means to carry valuables.
The Saudi authorities have issued instructions forbidding the taking of photographs (still or video, including mobile telephone photographs) at the Holy Mosque at Makkah or at the Prophet's Mosque at Madinah. This restriction also includes the courtyards surrounding these two holy sites. Any violation of these instructions is likely to lead to the confiscation of either film and/or camera. Pilgrims' bags are regularly checked upon entering the Prophet's Mosque and the Holy Mosque in Makkah.
Oct. 1, 2013 update: In a variant on this theme, the Transportation Security Agency, better known as TSA, has issued a document titled "Hajj Traveler Awareness: Know Before You Go" that concerns itself with toing and froing, not residence in the Arabian cities. Still, it contains points of interest, including the fact that over ten thousand Americans go on hajj. But what really got my attention is the section "Addressing Travel Issues or Concerns," which practically invites filing complaints against the government:
Travelers experiencing difficulties, such as denied or delayed airline boarding, or denied or delayed entry into and exit from the U.S. at a port of entry or border checkpoint may seek redress through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP). Complete information on filing a TRIP complaint can be found on the TSA website at: http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/customer/redress/index.shtm.
Travelers who believe they have experienced rude or unprofessional conduct at a security checkpoint or have questions about the security screening process are encouraged to request a supervisor at the checkpoint to discuss the matter or to submit a concern to TSA's Contact Center at: TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov.
Travelers who believe they have experienced discriminatory conduct because of a protected basis may file a concern with TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties. Complete information on the protected bases and the complaint process can be found on the TSA website at: http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/civilrights/travelers.shtm.
Travelers may also file discrimination concerns with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Complete information on the complaint process can be found on the DHS website at: http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/structure/editorial_0373.shtm.
Aug. 26, 2014 update: The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the 25 minor Muslim organizations that make up Muslim Advocates wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that must be among the most surprising ever received on the 7th floor of Foggy Bottom. In brief, they complained about Australian Sunnis attacking American Shi'is and demanded U.S. government involvement.
Dear Secretary Kerry:
We, the undersigned American Muslim organizations, write to express our deep concern regarding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's failure to ensure the safety and security of American citizens performing religious pilgrimage and the implications this has on religious freedom. We urge you to take immediate action to protect American citizens who travel overseas to perform one of the five mandatory acts of their faith and ensure that Saudi Arabia addresses this urgent security matter in preparation for the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage in early October.
The right to freely practice one's faith without fear of harassment, intimidation, or violence is a constitutional guarantee, as well as an international human rights norm. For Muslims, the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, is a mandatory religious act that must be carried out at least once in his or her lifetime. Any interference with this pilgrimage is a direct violation of that individual's religious liberty.
In 2013, a group of American Muslims from Dearborn, Michigan, was attacked during the Hajj by a group of Australian pilgrims because they are Shias, a minority denomination within Islam. The Americans were physically and verbally assaulted—including men being strangled and women threatened with rape—and alleged that though Saudi authorities were present, these authorities did not intervene or take their complaints seriously. Further, the victims allege that Saudi authorities deleted cell phone video recordings of the attack. The victims sought assistance from the U.S. Embassy, but disturbingly their phone calls were not returned.
The attack during 2013 is not the first time Saudi officials have neglected to protect American pilgrims. In 2007, an American Muslim was among eight people who were beaten, detained, and denied access to their embassies or relatives by the Saudi religious police for participating in Shia-style prayers.
Every American citizen traveling or living abroad should have full assurance that the U.S. government will come vigorously to his or her defense if they are unjustly detained, attacked, or harassed by local authorities. These protections, including but not limited to meaningful access to full consular services, must be afforded to all American citizens visiting Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj.
We respectfully request that you take steps necessary to ensure that all American Muslims will be fully protected during the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage, scheduled to begin in October.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.
[Followed by an alphabetical listing of the 27 organizations]
(1) Since when do CAIR and MPAC worry about the Shi'a and why do they now? Perhaps they are feeling the heat and are seeking more support from Muslims.
(2) No less noteworthy, CAIR and MPAC are calling on the U.S. government to protect Muslims from the nasty Saudis. This points to the increasing tensions between the autocratic and the elected Sunni Islamists, represented by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that is trickling down to remote outposts like the United States.
(3) There is something ludicrous about American Islamists calling on their government to bring religious freedom to the most religiously un-free country in the world, the Islamist Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
(4) How does one respond, by laughing or crying, to the assertion that "The right to freely practice one's faith without fear of harassment, intimidation, or violence is a constitutional guarantee" when the topic is Saudi Arabia? Are CAIR et al. pulling our leg or do they really want to exploit the Constitution as a tool of foreign policy?
(5) Rahat Husain, an ally of Muslim Advocates, adds in an article that "When the Americans called the U.S. embassy for assistance, they claim that they were ignored and no assistance would be offered 'unless someone died'." This aligns with the advice proffered by the Jeddah consulate noted above, which implies that hajjis are basically on their own in Mecca and Medina, beyond the reach of the consulate.