이슬람 ‘메카’ 성지순례, 매년 수천명 압사···근본적 대책마련은 언제쯤

* ‘아시아엔’ 해외 필진이?작성한 기사의 한글요약본과 원문을 함께 게재합니다.

 지난 9월 사우디아라비아의 이슬람 성지 '메카'에서 압사사고로 사망한 순례자들의 시신이 길바닥에 놓여져 있다.

지난 9월 사우디아라비아의 이슬람 성지 ‘메카’에서 압사사고로 사망한 순례자들의 시신이 길바닥에 놓여져 있다. <사진=AP/뉴시스>

[아시아엔=아시라프 달리 ‘알 아라비’ 편집장·번역 김아람 기자] 독일이 항복하면서 1차대전이 끝나고, 오스만 제국이 멸망한 이후 중동에는 새 역사의 장이 열렸다. 1923년 터키공화국이 탄생한 것이다. ‘터키의 국부’ 무스타파 케말 아타튀르크 국왕은 정치와 종교를 분리하는 세속주의 채택을 근거로 칼리프제도의 폐지를 선언하고 나섰다.?칼리프는 이슬람교 창시자인 마호메트의 뒤를 이어 종교를 수호하고 이슬람 공동체를 통치하는 최고지배자를 일컫는 말이다.

632년 초대 칼리프 아부 바크르가 선출된 이래 661년까지 ‘전통 칼리프 시대’가 이어졌다가, 1517년 오스만튀르크제국이 이슬람권 최대 국가로 떠오르면서 지금의 터키로 칼리프의 권위가 옮겨갔다가 터키 공화국의 탄생 이후 폐지된 셈이다.

그러나 아랍국가들은 종교통치자 ‘칼리프’의 부활을 요구하고 나섰다. 결국 1926년 3월3일, 이슬람 성지 메카에서 칼리프를 선출하는 중동정상회의가 마련됐다. 이 자리에서 압델 아지즈 사우디아라비아 국왕이 “메카를 방문하는 순례자들의 안전을 보장하고, 종교적 의무를 다하기 위해 최선을 다할 것”이라며 “나를 칼리프로 인정해달라”고 설득에 나섰고 다른 국가 지도자들도 이를 인정했다.

압둘 아지즈 국왕의 후계자들은 그에 이어 칼리프를 도맡으며 메카 순례자를 보호하는 역할을 충실히 수행했다. 압둘 아지즈 국왕은 자신을 곧잘? ‘신성한 성지의 하인’이라고 표현하며 “칼리프로서 내 임무는 전세계에서 더 많은 이들이 메카를 찾아오도록 만드는 것”이라고 밝혔다.

실제로 매년 이슬람 최대 연례행사 ‘하지’를 맞아 메카를 방문하는 이들이 급증했고, 이 시기에는 수십만의 무슬림이 메카로 향한다. 안타깝게도 성지순례자가 급증하다보니 사건사고가 다반사로 일어난다. 좁은 공간에 한꺼번에 많은 인원이 모이다 보니 ‘압사 사고’는 이제 연례행사 수준이다. 올해에만 최소 2천명 이상이 압사사고로 사망했으며, 1990년에도 1천5백여명의 순례자가 목숨을 잃었다. 1987년에는 반미 시위를 펼쳤던 이란 순례자들과 군부대 간의 충돌이 벌어져 400여명의 사망자가 발생하기도 했다.

이에 대해 이란 출신의 한 순례자는 “사우디 정부는 순례자를 보호할 자격이 없다”면서 “이 문제를 해결하고 통제할 수 있는 국제단체 출범이 절실하다”고 전했다. 이에 사우디 당국은 문제 해결을 위해 이슬람교 신전 ‘카바’(Kaaba) 주변의 확장공사를 하고 있지만, 이는 또 다른 사고의 시발점이 됐다. 올해 9월11일 공사장에서 대형 크레인이 넘어지면서 111명이 사망하고 230여명이 부상을 당하는 사고가 발생한 것이다. 제대로 된 사고방지대책이 절실한 시점이지만, 현지 정부는 원론적인 정책만 되풀이하고 있는 실정이다.

Mecca: Seasons of Pilgrimage and Anger

Two years after the end of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of the First World War and the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic, the Arab region clamored for a revival of the caliphate.

On 3 March 1926, delegates from Muslim countries, including Egypt, accepted an invitation from King Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud to discuss the matter. The gathering was held in Mecca, and Abdel-Aziz immediately announced his desire to be the next caliph. But there were other would-be caliphs.

King Hussein bin Ali of the Hejaz, a rival of Abdel-Aziz, had already made a failed bid for the caliphate. Egypt’s King Fuad I was also eyeing the prestigious position.

On March 25, 1924, the then grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Gizawi, the president of Egypt’s Supreme Sharia Court, Sheikh Mohamed Al-Maraghi, and the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Qoraa, among other scholars, signed a document claiming that the Ottoman caliphate had fallen short of Islamic laws and set out the terms and conditions for the creation of a new caliphate.

In 1925, the chairman of the Islamic Council in Palestine, Sheikh Mohamed Amin Al-Husseini, tried to organize a conference in Palestine for similar purposes, as did religious scholars in Delhi in India.

As a result, at the 1926 meeting, Abdel-Aziz wasted no time in presenting the audience with his bid for the caliphate. “When the state of war [in what became Saudi Arabia] and the fate of the country rested in our hands, the people of good judgement in the Hejaz did not wish to wait for the convocation of an Islamic conference as they were unsure who would come to it. Instead, they sent us pledges of allegiance,” Abdel-Aziz said.

“We turned these pledges down with due humility. Then the people of influence and resolve in Najd, who were the main pillars in purging the country and who are the mainstay of security in the country, for it is on their work that all reform depends, expressed the same view,” he told the delegates.

“We then had to accept the pledges of allegiance because we ? the family of Al-Saud ? are not tyrannical kings or selfish rulers. Instead, we are duty bound to the rulings of the Sharia.”

“You will see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears from those who came before you to this land to perform the pilgrimage how security is well established in the entire land of Hejaz and how, between the two holy shrines, the land is as safe as it has ever been,” he added.

Much of the claim of Abdel-Aziz to the Muslim caliphate emanated from his ability to secure the safety of pilgrims to Mecca, a task that he accepted as a religious duty and a mark of honor, and one that he said qualified him for the highest office in the entire Muslim world ? that of caliph.
In the end, none of the other hopefuls were able to prosecute their claims, and the Arabs had to improvise other methods of working together, the later Arab League and other such organizations included.

But Abdel-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and his successors continued to take pride in their role as the protectors of the pilgrims, often using the humble title “Servant of the Two Holy Shrines” to assert their central status in the world’s grandest religious ritual, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is a gathering of worshippers that matches no other and that keeps growing by the year.

As the pilgrims grew in number, the Saudis kept expanding the perimeter of the Kaaba, known as Al-Haram Al-Makki, to accommodate ever more visitors. But managing this grand, and ultimately lucrative, ritual hasn’t always been easy. Violence, accidents and human error have claimed many lives over the years.

Ousting the formidable Hussein bin Ali from power in the Hejaz, Abdel-Aziz assured his listeners in 1926 that, with the power of the sword in one hand and the blessings of the Quran in the other, he would continue to enforce law and order in the land.

“Of money I have nothing… but I have the sword and the Quran,” he said. “The money belongs to the people of the Hejaz, whom I defend and protect,” Abdel-Aziz told visiting dignitaries during the 1933 pilgrimage season.

Two years later, three Yemeni pilgrims attempted to assassinate Abdel-Aziz. He survived the attempt, suggesting that God had wanted him to continue his mission to protect pilgrims against acts of violence. “God in His grace allowed me to survive,” he said. “I ordered the gates of the sanctuary closed and completed the tawaf [ritual walking].”

WAITING FOR THE MAHDI

Fast forward to November 20, 1979, one of the sons of Abdel-Aziz, King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, faced another surge of violence in Mecca.

A man by the name of Joheiman Al-Oteibi had brought a few hundred supporters to the city where they attempted what may have been a coup d’?tat, though this is not how Al-Oteibi described it. Instead, he claimed to be acting out of allegiance to the hidden imam, or mahdi, a man who, according to religious tradition, is sent by God to bring justice to the world.

This tradition goes back to a hadith, or saying, of the Prophet Mohamed to the effect that “God will send to this nation at the beginning of every century someone who will renew religion.”
Leading a group of fighters numbering anywhere between 200 and 600, Al-Oteibi claimed that one of his blood relatives, a man named Mohamed bin Abdallah Al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi. The group barricaded itself into Al-Haram Al-Makki and called on Al-Qahtani to come and accept its pledge of allegiance.

Dozens died in the ensuing clashes and, on January 9, 1980, King Khaled had some of the insurgents executed in public. One of the half-brothers of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a man named Mahrus bin Laden, was arrested briefly in connection with this mutiny.

But the bin Laden family mostly backed the Saudi government. A company owned by the family was involved in the expansion of Al-Haram Al-Makki at the time, and it offered information to the police that helped apprehend the insurgents.

Al-Oteibi’s insurrection was a wake-up call to the Saudi government, and it reacted by opening the way for hardline jihadists to go to Afghanistan where they could channel their zeal into battles with the invading Soviets. The jihadist movement, of which Al-Qaeda is only a part, was born from this desire to give the extremists a remote place in which to expend their energies.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini claimed in a public statement that the US had planned Al-Oteibi’s insurgency. Mobs then attacked the US embassies in Pakistan and Libya. On July 31, 1987, Iranian pilgrims staged demonstrations against the US policies in Mecca. There were clashes with police and more than 400 people perished, most of them Iranian.

Meanwhile, as the numbers of the pilgrims coming to Mecca grew, Saudi Arabia introduced successive plans to accommodate them. Under King Fahd, another son of Abdel-Aziz, the Saudi government spent about $20 billion on expanding the perimeters of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in the middle of Al-Haram Al-Makki.

By confiscating large swathes of land lying immediately around the older areas, the Saudi authorities were able to expand the total area of the shrine to 356,000 square meters, allowing it to accommodate 773,000 worshippers.

The expansion angered some locals who found it too intrusive, and some of the buildings that were demolished for the expansion were important parts of the city’s religious history. Their concerns were shared by some architects and archaeologists, local as well as foreign, who complained that Mecca’s skyline was being disfigured by modern flyovers and high-rise hotels, with their modernistic lines and glistening glass fa?ades.

DOUBLE TRAGEDY

In 2015, tragedy struck Mecca twice. The first was caused by heavy machinery hired to carry out another expansion plan that would bring the total area of Al-Haram Al-Makki to 1.5 million square meters, large enough to accommodate 2.3 million pilgrims. Over the course of the expansion, the Saudi government had confiscated nearly 5,882 properties next to the shrine’s perimeter.

It was at 5:10 P.M on Friday, September 11, that a giant crane teetered and came crashing to the ground in Al-Haram Al-Makki in Mecca, killing 111 worshippers and injuring more than 230. No link has been established between the crash of the 200-meter crane and the anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks in the US in September 2001.

The Iranians, who have no love for Saudi Arabia, immediately lashed out at Riyadh, saying the Saudi government was “not qualified” to organize the pilgrimage and urging the formation of an international body to take charge of Mecca. The Iranian newspaper Kayhan said that Mecca should be run by a Muslim “Council of Custodians”.

Then, a second tragedy took place. A stampede in the Valley of Mina in eastern Mecca left 1,358 dead, including 464 Iranians, 165 Egyptians, 120 Indonesians, 101 Indians and 99 Nigerians, according to Saudi figures. The real death toll may, however, be higher since Egypt has thus far declared 190 of its nationals dead and 45 missing in connection with the incident, a higher figure than that released by the Saudis.

One report said that the convoy of a Saudi prince in the area had triggered the stampede. Eyewitnesses claimed that the tragedy could have been averted had the authorities opened VIP tents located on both sides of the road to relieve the pressure on the main thoroughfare.

Not letting this opportunity pass, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, again questioned the ability of the Saudis to organize the annual event. During a speech at the UN, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also demanded an investigation into the causes of the tragedy.

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