In 2008, my wife and I had the opportunity to perform our pilgrimage of Hajj. Like many other people, I found it to be a transformative experience. Despite the crowds and the complex logistics they necessitate, my overwhelming memory is one of peaceful tranquility, unity, and brotherhood with the rest of the Muslim Ummah. Most people have similar transformative experiences, the most notable of which was that of Malcom X, whose Hajj induced transformation led to the complete spiritual recalibration of an entire movement. Many Americans attending this year, unfortunately, will have an incredibly different experience.
The details of this year’s horrific Hajj violence are still, slowly, being revealed. The basics seem to be that a group of Salafis broke into the American camp at Minah (a small tent city outside of Mecca where Muslims on Hajj stay in minimalist conditions), and after confirming that they were Americans and Shi’ites, proceeded to attack and attempt to kill them. Grave statements were made, with threats of rape, beheading, and cannibalism directed at the Shi’ites. Police stood by in tacit, and at times active support with their co-religionist attackers.
Salafism is a particularly radical movement within Wahabbist Sunni Islam, the official religion of the Saudi regime. It is perhaps best known because of its adherence by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Osama Bin Laden. It is based on a purely historical approach to religion, with wistful longings of yesteryear and absolute disavowance of any progression in thought or action, combined with an “ends justifies the means” approach to halt such progression. As the “purest” of the Wahabbis, Salafists enjoy the support of the Saudi regime, both actively when convenient and tacitly when expedient. During my trip to Hajj, the Salafists displayed their disdain for Shi’ites by barring my wife from the prophet’s mosque, defacing my prayer rug, shouting insults at me, and confiscating my prayer books. These seemed egregious affronts at the time, but are downright trivial compared to the life-threatening attacks they have been emboldened to attempt this year.
If there is a silver lining here, it is that this event (if it gets the press it deserves, which is so far doubtful) will serve to highlight in stark relief just how different the branches of Islam are, and how far removed from terrorists most Muslims are. Most of my friends find it incredible when I try to explain to them that if an Al-Qaeda terrorist had me and a non-Muslim in his sites and only one bullet, it would be used on me. This is not hyperbole, unfortunately, but a Salafist truism. In Salafi eyes, as a Shi’ite I am a Mushrik (one who ascribes to others the greatness reserved for God), a much greater sin than being a non-Muslim.
When Muslims try to convince others that they eschew and condemn terrorism in the strongest possible terms, their pleas are often met with an undercurrent of skepticism. However, this event and its ramifications should erase any doubt of that fact. These Salafi terrorists have, by their very actions, at once shown themselves as irreverent of the basic teachings of Islam, and declared mainstream Muslims as enemies.
The world has been locked in a struggle with Islamic terrorism dating back many years before the 9/11 attacks–a hazy war of attrition, where recently lines have been blurred and allegiances have been sometimes unclear. While Muslims have long argued that the terrorists did not represent the ideals of Islam, the terrorists’ profligate use of Islamic symbols planted seeds of doubt in even the most ardent observers’ minds. However, these latest acts of terrorism brazenly flaunt even the most basic traditions of Islam and of the Prophet (SA) himself, leaving no doubt as to their true allegiance (or more accurately, lack thereof). Through their overreach, these Salafis have effectively surrendered their Muslim identity completely. If seen for the opportunity this represents, this event potentially frees the Muslim community from being held hostage by this fanatic fringe once and for all.
And so we shall once again condemn these acts of violence categorically, this time with the surety of innocent victims of terrorism. We, the Muslim Ummah, have nothing in common with these barbarians, who would attack Hajjis in Mecca, and threaten cannibalism and rape. Though they may use our symbols, they do not share our beliefs. It has finally become clear to the world that they do not follow the teachings of Islam, and that they wish absolutely no goodwill for us, nor us for them. Though mainstream Islam has been attacked, it is through this attack that we may have found our freedom, at last.