I am distressed by this news report in today’s Detroit Free Press. The first four paragraphs:
A group of metro Detroiters visiting Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage said they were attacked and threatened with death last week by a group of Sunni men from Australia because they are Shias, a minority sect within Islam.
One of the members of the group was strangled until his face turned blue and women in the group were threatened with rape, according to people who witnessed the attack last week. They allege that authorities in Saudi Arabia did not take their complaints seriously and deleted a video one of them had made of the incident.
A U.S. State Department official told the Free Press on Monday: “We are concerned by reports that a group of U.S. citizens was attacked … at a campsite for Hajj pilgrims located outside of Mecca. We take these reports seriously and are committed to the protection of U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad.”
The Embassy of Saudi Arabia did not return a reporter’s calls or an e-mail seeking comment. The State Department official said the hajj and interior ministries in Saudi Arabia “have confirmed that they are investigating” the incident.
In this instance, my distress is more than a matter of principle. I have been a guest of Imam Qazwini and the Islamic Center of America (the largest mosque in North America), and admire their openness, their warmth, their calm devotion, and their civic involvement. I have made dear friends there, people with whom I can talk deeply across all so-called divides of religion/affiliation/belief.
And this distress is only further deepened by the language used in the Detroit Free Press article: the “say they were” in the headline, and the repeated use of the word “allege” in the body of the piece, as though there were some doubt on the veracity of Imam Qazwini and his group of pilgrims. Such language only adds insult to the injury of what actually happened.
In principle, the hajj is when all Muslims come together, when all distinctions of class, ethnicity, denomination, and even gender fall away. But the ultra-conservative and intellectually primitive Salafis — a movement very close to Saudi wahhabism — will have none of this. It’s their way or no way. Their Islam or no Islam. Like all fundamentalist extremists, of all faiths, they see open minds and open hearts as a threat. And respond with violence.
Expect a far more moderate response from the Islamic Center of North America than I am capable of. And expect nothing from the Saudi “investigation.” Year by year, as glitzy multi-million-dollar high-rises go up around the Kaaba itself, the Saudis bear ever greater resemblance to the seventh-century elite who profited from pilgrimage in the pre-Islamic years, charging exorbitant fees for everything from water to access to holy sites. In fact an essential part of Muhammad’s Quranic message protested exactly this.
But even that pre-Islamic elite insisted on preserving the pilgrimage as a time of absolute non-violence.
What, then, does the Saudi tolerance of Salafi intolerance make them?