The summer of 1987 marked an important event in the history of Saudi-Iranian Relations. But most importantly, it demonstrated once again that religious rituals and politics don’t mix. That year, tensions rose as Tehran insisted that its pilgrims had the religious right and obligation to engage in political demonstrations during their trip to Mecca. Riyadh, on the other hand, adamantly disagreed, arguing that such behaviour violated the spiritual significance of the Hajj.
The pent-up hostility proved uncontrollable when Saudi security forces suppressed an unauthorized demonstration in front of the Grand Mosque. This confrontation led to the death of over 400 pilgrims, comprised predominantly of Iranians. In Tehran, mobs responded by ransacking the Saudi Embassy, culminating in the death of a Saudi diplomat.
The diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been everything but smooth. While the differences between these two rival hegemons in the region may be expected, what is more shocking is that it was a religious rite, an expression of a common identity, that has proved to be disruptive and dangerous.
Some Things Never Change
The largest annual pilgrimage in the world, the Hajj, brings over three million people to Mecca each year. There, the pilgrims circle, counter clockwise, seven times around the Kabah, in demonstration of the unity of the Islamic people. The sheer number of people at any given Hajj is unimaginable, but more impressive is the ability of conducting such a pilgrimage without disruptions - a feat made increasingly more complicated by Iranian tendencies to politicize the event.
The polemic issue of whether politics has a place in the Hajj has plagued diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia since the late 70s and early 80’s, with few years of respite since. The 1987 incident caused significant damage to the diplomatic relations between these two powers, although various events have since warmed their relations, albeit to a limited degree. The War in the Persian Gulf, for one, altered Saudi perceptions, and the contentious issue of the Hajj was resolved through a compromise that enabled Iranians to participate in the 1991 pilgrimage, their first participation in four years.
However, the Iranian-Saudi debate over the place of politics in the Hajj appears to have been reignited, as became increasingly clear through a series of exchanges between Saudi and Iranian leaders in late October. Saudi Hajj Minister Fouad al-Farsi told Iran not to politicize the Hajj after Tehran leaders said Iranians could experience mistreatment during the annual pilgrimage.
President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei warned that Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, might abuse the mainly Shiite Muslim pilgrimage from Iran. They declared that Iran would take appropriate measures if Saudi Arabia were to impose restrictions on Iranian pilgrims. Ahmedinejad further stated that the Hajj was an extraordinary opportunity for defending Islamic values and if Muslims come together, the Iranian pilgrims especially, they will thwart any enemy conspiracies and increase the unity of Muslims.
Behind Iran’s discourse concerning the rights of its pilgrims during the Hajj, is a clear message of Iran’s intentions. What is more problematic, however, is that Iran is framing political differences in a religious, or sectarian framework. A recipe that could prove deadly for those at this year’s Hajj.
The debate surrounding the role of politics in the Hajj is indicative of a larger trend within Islam. It demonstrates the growing political undertones in all Islamic practices. That is, political Islamic movements have managed to politicize Islam for everyone, from the hijab to the Hajj - a fact that renders spiritual events politically contentious for the region as a whole.
A Tendency Towards the Political
The question that this debate over the place of politics in the Hajj sets forth is: why have other countries not pursued political messages during the ritual? After all, Iran is not the only country whose political world is intertwined with its religious establishment. On the contrary, politics in much of the Arab world is influenced by Islam. The Hajj is a momentous event in the Muslim world and the number of people present would render it an occasion for political propaganda. Even Nasser during the Cold War, who had particularly difficult relations with Saudi Arabia, did not bring politics to this event. Iran is the only country that has pursued this policy. Why?
Iran’s new claims for politicizing the Hajj come at a particular juncture in the government’s own political trajectory, on both a national and international level. The last two most public displays of Ahmedinejad’s politics came during the contentious summer elections and most recently during the negotiations addressing Iran’s intentions for its nuclear programme - both of which indicate growing instability for his regime. This is particularly problematic for a country whose foreign policy identity relies on the idea of establishing itself as the rebellious, yet religiously and politically influential, underdog.
In other words, part of Iran’s political strategy in the past has been to rely on this historical martyrdom associated to Shiism. It has taken this image, and turned it on its head, converting it into the image of a revolutionary, anti-western force in the Middle East. A model of Islamic revivalism, it would argue.
As such, the division between Saudi Arabia and Iran is just but one dimension of how sectarian conflict impacts and is influenced by foreign policy in the Gulf. That is, the development of Islamic awakening in the Arab world has taken different forms in countries dominated by the two main sects in Islam. It is also evidence of how particularly conservative movements in those countries, Salafism and Twelver Shiism, have impacted relations between the two countries. Thus, the question of the Hajj becomes particularly cantankerous as Saudi Arabia and Iran struggle for hegemony in the region, on a political and religious basis.
This multifaceted struggle for power brings to light why Iran would choose this year, this Hajj, to reignite the debate over the place of politics in the pilgrimage. Having begrudgingly collaborated with the West, Iran’s regular anti-Western, stomp-my-foot-Iran-deserves-nuclear-arms tantrum, has been put in question. It has put in question the renegade essence behind its influence in the region. For Iran, politicizing the possibility of having over 150,000 pilgrims changing “Death to America” might perhaps undo some of the damage that its rebellious reputation has undergone in the last months.
The opportunity for political propaganda during the Hajj is clearly one that Iran does not want to miss, although it should. While Iran is not the first, and will unlikely be the last, country to exploit religion for political purposes, past crises during the Hajj indicate that bringing politics into a religious ritual can have grave consequences not only for international relations, but for the people it manipulates during the event itself. Should Iran choose to politicize this Hajj, it would undoubtedly open a Pandora’s Box in the Gulf that might have significant impact on already tense sectarian and international relations.