Politics and Pilgrimage: The Hajj Begins

In principle, the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must make once in their lives if they are able – ought to be above the petty clashes of worldly politics. The Koran explicitly forbids the faithful from “disputing” during their journey. But when the holiest sites of a world religion are located in a country that is asserting itself regionally and transforming itself domestically, you can expect the political and the pious to mingle. As this year’s hajj unfolds over the next several days, here are a few areas in which that’s already happened:


First, the bitter regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia invariably spills into the hajj. In 2016, no Iranians went at all as tensions soared between Riyadh and Tehran over a stampede at Mecca that killed hundreds of pilgrims from the Islamic Republic the previous year, and over the deepening proxy conflict between the two countries in Yemen. This year more than 80,000 Iranians are in Mecca, but Supreme Leader Khamenei has still blasted Saudi control over the holy sites. Meanwhile, officials in Qatar – currently under a Saudi-led economic blockade because of its close ties to Tehran – have complained that Saudi authorities made it harder than usual to get visas to make the pilgrimage.

Second, further afield, the recent clash between Saudi Arabia and Canada over Ottawa’s criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record has fast gone from the political to the personal for many of Canada’s Muslims. After Riyadh abruptly cut air links between the two countries, many Canadian Muslims have sought to cancel their hajj plans altogether.

Lastly, the complexities of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ongoing bid to liberalize areas of the kingdom’s deeply conservative society without provoking a backlash from traditionalists are in full view this week.

On the one hand, a hackathon competition to develop apps meant to make the hajj safer and “smarter” was won by team of Saudi female programmers, highlighting the increased realms of possibility for women in the kingdom (they’ve been allowed to drive since earlier this summer). But on the other, the government’s crackdown on women’s rights activists continues, with more than a dozen jailed since May, including two earlier this month. Meanwhile, a new, clandestine online radio station has begun broadcasting programs that advocate for further expansion of women’s still-meager rights in the kingdom.

World Historic Thought Interlude: For centuries, the hajj was basically the internet of the Islamic world: an event in which people from all corners of the world regularly came together and could exchange information, technology, arts, and ideas that helped spur innovation throughout the Islamic world. So what’s more politicized now, the new internet or the old one?

In 2012, the United States created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect these young people from being deported. Yet just five years later, the program was rescinded, putting close to 700,000 DACA recipients at risk of being banished from the only home they've ever known. More than five dozen of these DACA recipients at risk are Microsoft employees. These young people contribute to the company and serve its customers. They help create products, secure services, and manage finances. And like so many young people across our nation, they dream of making an honest living and a real difference in the communities in which they reside. Yet they now live in uncertainty.

Microsoft has told its Dreamers that it will stand up for them along with all the nation's DACA recipients. It will represent them in court and litigate on their behalf. That's why Microsoft joined Princeton University and Princeton student Maria De La Cruz Perales Sanchez to file one of the three cases challenging the DACA rescission that was heard on Nov. 12 by the United States Supreme Court.

Read more on Microsoft On The Issues.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said that NATO was experiencing "brain death," citing a lack of coordination and America's fickleness under Donald Trump as reasons to doubt the alliance's commitment to mutual defense. NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – was formed in the wake of World War II as a counterweight against Soviet dominance in Europe and beyond. Its cornerstone is that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. But disagreement about burden sharing has gained increasing salience in recent years. In 2014, the bloc agreed that each member state would increase their own defense spending to 2% of their respective GDP over the next decade. But so far, only seven of 29 members have forked out the money. Here's a look at who pays what.

In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, Israel launched a precision attack in the Gaza Strip, targeting and killing a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander. In response, the terror group fired more than 200 rockets at southern Israel. Exchanges of fire have brought cities on both sides of the Gaza border to a standstill and at least eight Palestinians are dead and dozens of Israelis wounded. With this latest escalation, Israel now faces national security crises on multiple fronts. Here's what's going on:

More Show less

More Brexit shenanigans: Britons this week saw Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson endorse Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in upcoming elections. As a special bonus, they got to see Corbyn return the favo(u)r with a formal endorsement of Johnson. Most viewers in the UK will have understood immediately that these are the latest example of "deep fakes," digitally manipulated video images. The more important Brexit story this week is a pledge by Nigel Farage that his Brexit Party will not run candidates in areas held by the Conservatives in upcoming national elections. That's a boost for Johnson, because it frees his party from having to compete for support from pro-Brexit voters in those constituencies.

More Show less

80: More than 80 percent of the electronic voting systems currently used in the US are made by just three companies, according to a new report which warns that they are regulated less effectively than "colored pencils."

More Show less