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Friday, November 4, 2011

Will this year's Hajj have an ‘Arab Spring’ effect?

he annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the world's largest gathering of Muslims - the biggest annual gathering of humanity, period.

So it's no surprise that Middle East experts expect this year's pilgrimage, the first to happen since the Arab Spring began last year, to be different.

The pilgrimage, called the Hajj, happens in the same global neighborhood as countries that have been roiled by protests, revolutions and war over the last 11 months.

But there's uncertainty about exactly how this Hajj, which officially begins Friday, will be different.

Some experts are watching for potential flare-ups in Saudi Arabia, a country governed by an unelected royal family and where freedoms are limited. They note that ordinary Saudis will be rubbing shoulders with Arabs making pilgrimages from countries that have staged anti-government demonstrations and have unseated long-entrenched regimes.

"This idea of freedom and dignity is spreading like wildfire, and at a gathering like the Hajj it's conceivable that the electricity coming from these ideas will be picked up," says Akbar Ahmed, the chair of Islamic Studies at American University. "This is what scares the Saudi bureaucracy."

"There are thousands of pilgrims who want to topple the established order of the Saudi monarchy," he says.

But Ahmed and others say the Hajj's effects on the Arab Spring are just as likely to be much broader, as many pilgrims share notes on uprisings and overthrows before returning home to countries ruled by despots. more