Back then, we found ourselves at the gates of the "Sacred Mosque" of Mecca, just past a Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Sheraton Makkah Hotel and Towers, caught in a frightening crush of pilgrims as they tried to storm into the mosque for a final circumambulation, or tawaaf, around the iconic black cubed building, called the Kaaba.
The pilgrims who died never completed this final ritual.
Neither did my family.
In the hard press of pilgrims against us, my mother held tight to my preteen niece and nephew, their nimble bodies dwarfed in the stampede of men and women, oblivious to the children around them.
My father, meanwhile, burrowed into the crowd like a mole. I passed my son, Shibli, then 3 months old, to a young Muslim convert in our group, because he had stronger footing in the spiritual mosh pit in which we were drowning.
The crowd pulsed with each step we took closer to the Sacred Mosque.
But we chose to not complete the requisite circling of the Kaaba because we had a religious epiphany there, in that supposedly sacred space, as we faced near death. The truth is that chasing external rituals, or "orthopraxy," at risk of life and limb, is not only dangerous but also foolish and most certainly not spiritually enlightened.
Now, I get a new realization as I follow the details of the horrible stampede and listen to callous-sounding Saudi government officials, one of whom blamed the victims as "some pilgrims from African nationalities." Or the Saudi journalist who said on CNN
that the pilgrims might have "made a wrong turn" and "defied the order of police."
I am more certain than ever that Muslims need to boycott the multibillion-dollar industry of the Hajj, its rituals and a Saudi regime that exploits its role as "custodian" of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina to secure moral immunity. This despite the country's awful human rights record, the denial of the vote for women, deadly stampedes and fires like the Hajj carnage, and the exporting of a violent interpretation of Islam.
Malaysian-American singer and songwriter Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values
, calls for Muslims to boycott the Hajj. "Many in the progressive Muslim community have quietly boycotted hajj for some years as the idea of cleaning one's soul in a land morally corrupt, rife with human rights abuses and materialism repulses them," says Zonneveld. "We call on Muslims worldwide to reflect: supporting such a corrupt regime makes us complicit."
Just this June, for example, a Saudi court reportedly upheld a sentence of 1,000 lashes
and 10 years in prison against a human rights activist and blogger, Raif Badawi, for "apostasy." On September 11, a crane on a project operated by the Saudi Binladin Group, started by Osama bin Laden's father, fell to the marbled floors of the palatial mosque in Mecca, killing more than 100 pilgrims and injuring hundreds of others
And just days ago, HBO talk show host Bill Maher posted a widely shared Tweet
to advocate for the release of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, an activist from the minority Shia sect, sentenced by a Saudi court to death by, yes, crucifixion. Sadly, around the world, Islamic terrorist groups, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to ISIS in Syria, espouse the Saudi-backed theologies of Islam called Wahhabism and Salafism.
It's time to boycott Saudi Arabia.
In the year 630, in the place where hundreds of pilgrims were trampled last week, the prophet Mohammed led 10,000 soldiers on a march to Mecca. The city surrendered without a fight, and the former goat herder destroyed the idols of 360 gods. Later, he reconstructed a shrine to Allah as a monotheistic god.
Islamic history marked this juncture as the end of the period of Jahiliya, or ignorance. Mohammed died two years later, yet within a century, the empire of his successors stretched from Spain to Afghanistan. It engulfed the armies of the Persians and the Byzantines and reached as far as the gates of Vienna.
But back in 2003, as we were squeezed from all sides, I couldn't escape one thought: Just like the soldiers who accompanied the prophet Mohammed, we could die in Mecca, in a new age of Jahiliya.
We learned we could sacrifice a poor lamb if we couldn't finish the circumambulation. My father and I stood, staring at the scrum around the Kaaba, confused. My mother was clear as a bell about whether we should any longer participate in the spiritual heist of the Hajj pilgrimage.
"Don't do it," she said.
And we don't.