Terra Incognita: Haj, Saudi PR and media failure

There is nothing wrong with media covering major religious events. But how often do major newspapers in the West send their correspondents on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Amritsar, or the Vatican?

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The most interesting story I ran across regarding the haj this year was that of a 70-year-old woman who gave up her savings to support Peshmerga fighting Islamic State in lieu of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. “Zulaikha Abdullah has been cooking for Peshmerga since the war with ISIS began,” Kurdish website Rudaw reported earlier this year.
Comments about her decision were enlightening as well. “The money spent on haj goes back to ISIS pockets to be used for killing peshmergas, bravo lady,” wrote one Kurdish man. “May Allah reward this lady,” another commented, “what she did is worth a thousand haj.”
We won’t hear much about her from the mainstream Western media. Every year when Eid al-Adha approaches we get the obligatory lecture from mass media, as if we are in fifth grade. “What is the haj pilgrimage?” goes CNN’s helpful introduction. “It’s one of the pillars of Islam that all Muslims who are financially and physically able must perform this journey at least once in their lifetime,” writes Schams Elwazar. Elwazar reveals just how banal CNN reporting has become on this topic; he’s been three times. “I went not as a pilgrim, but as a producer covering the event” in 2005, 2006 and 2007. So every year, he helped provide the spoon-fed soft sell of religious class-is-in-session.
For every other religious or secular event in the world the media seems to ask questions, probe diversity, provide a critical take. Except in Saudi Arabia, when Western media pull out all the stops to provide a rose-colored picture, without even a hint of anything but a simple story.
“What’s unique about the haj? It’s truly global,” Elwazar notes. Wasn’t it global last year as well? Aren’t pilgrims at the Vatican “truly global”? The only thing to break the monotony of this narrative is a bit of subtle racism, mentioning the “groups of West Africans in colorful garb, almost singing verses from the [Koran].”
The Africans’ Islam, you see, isn’t quite up to the standard of the supposedly purer Saudi Wahhabi version.
There is always a Saudi PR angle to coverage of the haj. Journalists who cover it must, of course, be Muslim – and should be the correct kind of Muslim. On September 7 the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia claimed that Iranians are “not Muslims” and accused them, by which he meant Shi’ite Muslims, of being influenced by “Zoroastrianism.” This is like a high-level Catholic archbishop bashing protestants and claiming the traditions of pagan druids make English people less Christian, on the eve of Easter. One would assume that such a display of intolerance and bigotry would be worth a lot of coverage, especially on the eve of a major religious event. But for Western media the bigotry is not news, and worse, might jeopardize their ability to report from the kingdom.
Even the constant controversial renovations Saudi Arabia has embarked on at the holy places are glossed over – don’t worry, they’ve “renovated the pillars that represent Satan.” Sometimes, though, even CNN must actually admit the reality: “Saudi Arabia is a religiously conservative country...so our female reporter and producer technically can’t be in the same room as the male cameraman.” Don’t mention also that she can’t drive, can’t travel without permission, or that from a legal point of view needs permission from a man to do basic things. Other details are also hard to hide, for instance that almost 1,500 people were trampled to death during last year’s pilgrimage – by no means a unique occurrence. Local Arabic media blamed “Africans” for the trampling as well, a little tidbit of racism that was covered up by the foreign media, which sought out an “official” narrative.
The New York Times
, which as far as I can recall has never explained to its readers how to celebrate Christmas, Passover, Diwali or other religious festivals, has a helpful guide on “how to celebrate Eid al-Adha like an America.” The comical article, by Wajahat Ali, ponders such questions as “how can I, a dorky, brown, Muslim dude born in California and raised on Genesis and ‘80s action movies make you feel comfortable seeing me board a plane?” Readers get a helpful explanation on sighting the new moon, what to wear, the importance of slaughtering a “glorious, halal lamb” and explanation that the holiday “honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael.”
If you missed the coverage, don’t worry: the Times will have another guide next year.
Ali, writing at the Times, would have us believe that he faces daily hurdles related to his need to “celebrate my Eid al-Adha loud and proud... like an American.” It’s hard to see how, considering every major news outlet provides more coverage of this holiday than any other holiday. One could understand if it was a once-a-decade event, but it happens every year.
The Guardian
in the UK was a bit better than most, giving some coverage of “the city that many haj pilgrims don’t see,” an inside look at the unprecedented urban changes to Mecca. He even mentions “immigrant labor,” those millions of underpaid people, many of them abused by their employers or kept as semi-slaves. Another article gave a look inside Eid in Aleppo, where it is “marked by massacres or more intense by bombardment.”
There is nothing wrong with media covering major religious events. But how often do major newspapers in the West send their correspondents on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Amritsar, to the Vatican or Varanasi? How often do newspapers provide the most conservative and devout explanations for religious events through the mouthpiece of their journalists, laundering religion from something to be reported about to something to be transmitted as fact? Since Islam has become part and parcel of the West, woven into the fabric of daily experience, its holidays and devotion should be treated as other religions are, not granted some sort of exotic orientalist “introduction” every year. The media owes readers also a modicum of honesty, as opposed to glossing over racism and sectarianism in Saudi Arabia, such as anti-Shi’ite views. Those things are not whitewashed in London or New York, so don’t whitewash them in Mecca. Media should also not whitewash the fact that, unlike attending Easter in the Vatican, Dev Deepawali in Varanasi, a Sikh festival in Anandpur or Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem, the haj is not permitted for non-Muslims.
That’s a unique fact, unlike the “unique” diversity CNN talks about. Almost solely among world pilgrimages and religions, this is the one place media cannot report on and which is not open to outsiders. That, in itself, is reason to be critical, for while Ali in the Times can celebrate “loud and proud” in America, other religions cannot celebrate “loud and proud” in Mecca.
For this reason it would be preferable for media to stop feeding us propaganda regarding holidays in Saudi Arabia, and start giving us stories about other places that speak to a more open-minded tradition.
For instance the beautiful Sufi mosque in Ladysmith, South Africa, where the local imams are welcoming to outsiders, could be a place to start.
We all know that if Western media was required to have as many stories celebrating other religions, or even different Islamic traditions, as it has on the haj in Mecca, it would grind to a halt. Of course it won’t hire a Sikh reporter to provide days of coverage of his life, of course it won’t be hiring devout Buddhists every year for a trip to Lumbini, Nepal.
In the end, it’s preferable to remember that the Kurdish woman who donated her savings to help those who stand against ISIS is more inspiring than listening to Westerners give us yet another cliché-ridden, banal, orientalist “introduction” to the haj.