On July 31, 1987 — an infamous day in the history of the Muslim hajj — Iranian pilgrims stormed the holy city of Mecca, chanting political slogans of the Tehran regime, and clashed with Saudi security. More than 400 died, including Iranians, pilgrims of other nationalities, and Saudi police. The tragedy also proved painful to countless more Iranians over the three years that followed, in that Tehran barred its own people from going on Hajj until diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia were provisionally restored in 1991.
This year, for the fourth time since the country’s 1979 revolution, the regime again announced that it would permit no Iranian pilgrims to participate in the Hajj — effectively holding its own citizens’ religious obligation hostage in order to make a political point. Nearly 61,000 Iranian Muslim pilgrims had already booked and paid for their travel to Mecca.
Iran’s cynical use of religion in a game of politics impressed no one, except perhaps for its Lebanese proxy “Hezbollah” and other militias owing fealty to the Mullahs, which seem to have cheered the move. The regime was transparent: It initiated the restriction on its own citizens’ pilgrimage. It did not even bother to allege, as it had done falsely in the past, that Saudi Arabia refused to let them in.
Saudi Arabia simply does not play games with pilgrims. Amid the many conflicts that have marred the region in past decades, the Kingdom has taken great pains to ensure that the holy sanctuaries are accessible to all Muslims, regardless of their political loyalties or countries of origin. And over the past 37 years of strain in Iranian-Saudi relations, Riyadh did not wait for Tehran to resolve its disputes with the Kingdom before granting Hajj visas to Iranian nationals.
This year, though diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been severed, Riyadh took substantial measures to ensure that Iranian citizens were not denied their religious right to Hajj. It green-lighted their transport to Mecca via Iranian carriers, waiving the sanctions that had been placed on some of those companies. The Kingdom also fostered the establishment of an Iranian interest section in Jeddah, under the auspices of the Swiss embassy. The initiative was meant to enable an Iranian government official to cooperate with Saudi Arabia, on Saudi soil, in processing the incoming Iranian pilgrims and tending to their needs. With respect to the pilgrims themselves, the Kingdom exempted them from the traditional requirement of paper visa processing, granting them the chance to apply solely online in order to make the process logistically easier. But the Kingdom could not, alas, free the pilgrims from their own government.
There will be Iranians in Mecca this year: those wishing to go on Hajj who reside not inside Iran but in North America, Europe, Africa, and any part of the world where they do not face restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Tehran, meanwhile, has dredged up another old trick from its revolutionary playbook: organized demonstrations under the banner, “absolution from infidels.” That was the slogan which Khomeini had instructed his supporters to chant in Mecca dating back to 1971. It was eventually joined by the more familiar calls of “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” and the like. In injecting his militant brand of politics into Islam’s holiest rites, Khomeini only tainted his supporters’ ritual practice and jeopardized their lives. And this year, the Tehran regime has itself created the situation in which such chants will not be heard in Mecca — only in Iran, and presumably the enclaves in Arab lands which its proxy militias now occupy.
It is regrettable for all Muslims that 61,000 Iranians will not be able to join their brothers and sisters from around the world in Mecca this year. Their absence is testimony to a greater tragedy, borne out each day in our region through senseless sectarian violence stoked by the Tehran regime: While the Mullahs may speak of distant enemies and “infidels,” the first victims of their policies are always Muslims.