Showdown looming in Iraq

Showdown looming in Iraq

Baghdad seems to be bracing itself for an almighty bout of arm-wrestling, with its dysfunctional government on the one side and the Shia militias on the other, writes Salah Nasrawi

On 20 October, one of the commanders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, posted a letter to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on the Internet chastising the latter’s government for failing to support the Shia para-military force in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

In the unprecedented letter, Al-Muhandis demanded that Al-Abadi reconsider the budget allotted to the PMF and provide it with more weapons, equipment and facilities, which he said the PMF needed in the war against IS.

“With each battle we go to plead and beg,” wrote Al-Muhandis in the letter, raging with bitterness at what he perceived as Al-Abadi’s passivity towards the force known in Arabic as Al-Hashed Al-Shaabi.

“Even if your intention is to dissolve Al-Hashed in the near or distant future, the least you should do now is to provide the means it needs to sustain the current battle,” he wrote.

He specifically asked Al-Abadi to supply Al-Hashed with armoured personnel carriers and bomb detectors. “Why are these volunteers, as you call them, left to face explosives, missiles and the enemy’s weapons with their bare bodies,” he asked.

Among other demands, Al-Muhandis made in his letter was putting Al-Hashed, largely composed of Shia militias, on a par with the army and security forces and creating a joint command system that would coordinate between Iraq’s three forces.

Whatever the implicit message, Al-Muhandis’s open letter to the Shia leader contains an element of symbolism that invokes the expression of a titanic power struggle in Iraq.

Al-Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohamed, is the leader of Kataib Hizbullah, an Iranian-sponsored Shia militia which has been active in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. In addition to acting as the leader of the militia, Al-Muhandis also serves as deputy commander of Al-Hashed.

Al-Muhandis is orchestrating along with two other powerful leaders, Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organisation and Qais Al-Khazali, founder of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq network, or the “League of the Righteous”, most of the activities of the PMF.

Al-Hashed was formed from Shia militias following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 to IS militants and their lightning advances into cities and towns in central Iraq. Backed by Iranian weapons and advisers, Al-Hashed led the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive to regain control of most of the land lost to IS.

According to many analysts, the militias are now eclipsing Iraq’s security forces in the fight against IS. Last week they recaptured Baiji, a strategic city north of Baghdad, from IS after several botched offensives by the Iraqi army.

Al-Hashed now commands some 120,000 fighters. In addition to the some $1 billion it receives from the state budget, the PMF gets additional funding from other Iranian religious clerics and donations from Shia businessmen and political groups.

Though the government says the PMF comes under the control of the prime minister’s office, most of the militias which compose the force, and in particular the main ones, function without any government supervision or control.

Since they rose to prominence following last year’s IS onslaught, the militias have expanded their hold on towns and neighbourhoods in Iraq. International human right groups have accused the militias of using the weak rule of law in Iraq to commit abuses.

In September, a militia group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 18 Turkish construction workers in Baghdad and listed demands for their release that included Turkey to stop its interference in Iraq and to lift a siege on several Shia towns and villages in Syria. The workers were released four weeks later after an undisclosed deal with the government.

The militias are becoming a growing risk for governance and stability in Iraq as they are increasingly functioning within the state apparatus and in particular in the security forces where sometimes they operate as replacement forces where the state is absent.

The link between the Shia militias and the government security forces dates back to the period following the US-led invasion in 2003, when thousands of Shia militias who were fighting against the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein were integrated into Iraq’s post-Saddam army and security forces.

After Al-Abadi was nominated as prime minister in July last year, he designated Mohamed Ghabban, a senior official in the Badr Organisation, as the new interior minister despite the Sunni rejection of Al-Amiri, the head of the group, to assume the post.

Since he assumed office, Ghabban has purged hundreds of officers and replaced them with others who are now loyal to Shia militias, in particular the Badr Organisation.

Three days after the publication of his letter, Al-Muhandis posted another note protesting against a raid by US special forces on IS targets in northern Iraq in cooperation with the Kurdish Peshmergas. It was the first time that American troops have been reportedly deployed in the fight against IS since the US started its airstrikes against the terror group in August last year.

The Pentagon said the raid was aimed at rescuing Kurdish fighters who were being held by IS. A Facebook page operated by Al-Hashed, however, disputed the US claim that the raid was a rescue mission and accused the US troops of “evicting” besieged IS commanders from the area.

“We are aware of your plans and who the politicians are who are collaborating with you. We fought them for ten years when our hands were empty. Now our hands are full, and we can reach you and unveil your plans and expose you if you do not stop,” it wrote.

Leaders of Al-Hashed have long denounced the US air support in the fight against IS and some have even threatened that they will “eject” US ground troops if they are sent to Iraq, a prospect the Obama administration has ruled out.

The US operation in Al-Hawija comes amid controversy on whether Al-Abadi should request Russian help in the war against IS. Since Russia started its airstrikes against opposition groups in Syria, Al-Hashed leaders have increased their pressure on Al-Abadi to seek Russian military support in the war against IS.

Such a request would put Al-Abadi in a delicate position with the United States, which has made it clear that it opposes Russian military intervention in Iraq.

Though Al-Abadi has agreed to set up a liaison group to coordinate intelligence and security cooperation with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from IS, he has been reluctant so far to ask Moscow to intervene.

Head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said on a trip to Baghdad last week that the United States had won assurances from Iraq that it would not seek Russian airstrikes.

Another dispute that has worsened the mood among the increasingly disgruntled militia leaders has been the prime minister’s decision to appoint a controversial Iraqi-American who worked closely with the Pentagon during the early days of the US occupation of Iraq as his new chief of staff.

Last week, Al-Abadi named Emad Dhia (Al-Kharsan), who headed a group set up by the US occupation authority to assist the Bush administration in running Iraq after the invasion in 2003, as secretary-general of the Council of Ministers, a post which will put him in charge of running day-to-day government affairs.

The secretary-general of the council is a key post in Iraq, and since it was created under former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki its holders have been considered to be the “power behind the throne.”

In his post Dhia will probably oversee some of the actions of the military and security forces and Al-Hashed whose commanders are answerable to Al-Abadi in his capacity as the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.

Al-Abadi’s mysterious decision to give the post to Dhia, who has never served in the Iraqi government and has lived most of his life in the United States and has worked closely with the Pentagon, is expected to worsen his relations with Al-Hashed’s leaders who fear that Dhia serves an American agenda.

Whatever the reasons behind Al-Hashed’s mounting discontent, relations between Al-Abadi and the Shia militias have reached a crossroads. Many analysts have expected that the rise of Al-Hashed will shift more power from the government to the militia leaders, eventually leading to a power struggle within the Shia alliance.

That seems to be happening sooner than it expected, and Al-Muhandis’s rage against Al-Abadi is just the opening act to more dramatic developments to come in the on-going struggle over who controls Iraq.

If the recent history of Iran can serve as an example, the Revolutionary Guard, on whose model Al-Hashed in Iraq is being built, has ultimately displaced the clerical elite who were behind the Islamic Revolution and become the country’s centre of power.

This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on Oct 29, 2015

Regional impact of the Turkish elections

Regional impact of the Turkish elections

The regional implications of the forthcoming Turkish elections could be enormous, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Turks go to the polls on 1 November to choose a new parliament, the elections will be watched by regional players as never before. The outcome of the vote will impact on Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours in a variety of areas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the snap elections to end the political stalemate that followed the June 2015 parliamentary elections. For the first time since 2002, voters denied Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority and gave the country’s large Kurdish minority its biggest ever voice in national politics.

Even before the current political deadlock, Turkey was sinking deep into political uncertainty. The country is grappling with escalating instability and economic turmoil. Turkish opposition parties have accused Erdogan of forcing snap elections in a bid to return the AKP to the majority in parliament it lost in the June elections.

Analysts say the call for the elections amid mounting turmoil in the country has increased the polarisation between the pro- and anti-AKP camps. Much of the polarisation is blamed on Erdogan himself, who has grown more authoritarian in office. He has built up a cult of personality and antagonised secularists, the Kurds, the military, the judiciary and the media.

Erdogan earlier blocked a coalition government, hoping that a new parliamentary vote would give the AKP a majority and form a government alone. A large majority would also allow him to rewrite the constitution to concentrate powers in the presidency.

For many observers, the 1 November elections are the most important in the country’s recent history, and not just for Turkey. The outcome could change the country drastically for better or for worse, and could also certainly affect the immediate region, which is already fraught with political uncertainty.

During its 13-year tenure, the AKP has used foreign policy to advance its domestic drive for power. It has favoured an ambitious approach that promotes its popularity at home while fundamentally reshaping Turkish foreign policy and making Turkey a key regional player.

One of the main issues that will decide the future of Turkey’s relationship with the region is Ankara’s attitude towards its Kurdish population. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) picked up about 13 per cent of the vote and 80 seats in the last elections, breaking the 10 per cent threshold required for a party to take its seats for the first time and raising hopes for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey.

But a recent crackdown on the Kurds ended a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that had held since 2013. The government is also trying to strike at the popularity of pro-Kurdish opposition groups in order to secure an absolute majority in the elections.

In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), labelled by Ankara as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, is making significant gains on the ground. A collapse of the peace process and the resumption of fighting with the PKK will certainly ignite turbulence along Turkey’s southern border with Syria and even with Iraq, which has a Kurdish-controlled territory.

Since the civil war in Syria started following the popular uprising in 2011, the AKP has insisted that President Bashar Al-Assad should have no role in a UN-backed proposal for a transitional government in Syria.

Ankara has also called for a safe zone to be set up in northern Syria to keep the Islamic State (IS) terror group and Kurdish militants away from its borders, and help stem the tide of displaced civilians trying to cross into the country.

There has been no international support for either idea. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has further complicated Erdogan’s plans for the future of the war-torn country. It has also left him facing the stark reality of Turkey’s limits when challenged by an international power.

There are increasing fears that after the elections an AKP-led government will be more involved in the war in Syria and will drag the country further into the country’s quagmire.

Iraq is another regional policy hurdle for Turkey. The Shia government in Baghdad has accused Ankara of siding with Iraq’s Sunnis in the country’s sectarian conflict.

It also accuses Turkey of supporting jihadists, including IS, in parts of Iraq. Iraq has criticised Turkey for its continuous bombings of what it claims to be PKK targets in northern Iraq, calling these an “assault on Iraqi sovereignty.”

Last month, an Iraqi Shia group calling itself “The Death Squads” briefly abducted 18 Turkish construction workers and engineers in Baghdad. The gunmen demanded that Ankara cut the Kurdistan region’s oil pipeline to Turkey and stop Sunni extremists from entering Iraq through Turkish territory.

In both Iraq and Syria, Turkey finds itself in confrontation with Shia Iran. Erdogan has accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts have begun to irritate Ankara.

Turkey also has serious diplomatic problems in its relations with Egypt. Relations between Ankara and Cairo soured after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Erdogan, a vocal supporter of the Brotherhood, labelled Morsi’s overthrow “a coup” and said that he does not view President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as the president of Egypt.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said that bilateral ties with Egypt could “normalise if the country returns to democracy and if the Egyptian people’s will is reflected in politics and social life.”

Erdogan also supports Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist resistance movement, which controls Gaza. Egypt considers the group to be a security threat because it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Opposition leaders in Turkey, meanwhile, have said that Ankara should repair its relations with Cairo if the AKP wants to form a coalition government after the elections.

Turkey’s new approach towards the Syrian refugee problem and the deal it is negotiating with the European Union (EU) poses another challenge to its regional strategy.

The draft agreement on migrants, which is expected to give Ankara incentives including visa liberalisation, financial support and invitations to Turkish leaders to EU summits, will be in return for Turkey policing its borders and stopping refugees from sneaking into Greece and Bulgaria, and from there into other EU countries.

If finalised, the deal will allow the EU to return some hundreds of thousands of refugees to Turkey, where they will be housed in camps financed by the EU. Such a move will expose the selfish foreign policy of Ankara and its disregard for the plight of the refugees, who are mostly Syrians and Iraqis.

In another sign that it wants to use its resources to play a regional role, Turkey started supplying water through an undersea pipeline to Turks in Northern Cyprus on Saturday. The Peace Water Project will transport a total of 75 million cubic metres of water annually to the island.

In his inauguration speech, Erdogan said Turkey is ready to extend water supplies to Cyprus, the clearest indication yet that Turkey intends to use its huge water resources, generated by the South-Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), in the region’s power game.

Turkey is also seeking to secure a role in several regional energy projects that involve Russian, Iranian and Qatari gas pipelines to Europe through the Mediterranean. Such a role would help ensure Turkey’s decisive role in the new world energy order.

No one knows what will happen in the upcoming elections in Turkey. If the AKP regains a majority and forms a government on its own, it will likely resort to its proactive regional policy. If a coalition government is formed, Turkey is expected to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy and probably return to its traditionally neutral and secular role in the region.

But whether the AKP is able to form a government on its own or through a coalition with other parties, Erdogan will still be there for the next three years. There are increasing concerns that he will continue to pursue his adventurism in regional policy in an attempt to maintain his vision of Turkey and keep advancing the AKP’s domestic push for power.

This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on Oct. 22, 2015

Kurdistan drama worsens

Kurdistan drama worsens

The gap between the Kurdistan region’s president and his opponents may be too great to bridge, writes Salah Nasrawi

Talks over a deal to end the crisis over the election of a new leader to replace the embattled Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani broke down yet again last week, raising the stakes in the volatile semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Violence erupted in several towns after the collapse of talks aimed at breaking the impasse between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and four of the region’s main political groups. Protesters set the KDP’s offices ablaze and demanded that Barzani leave office.

On 8 October, after nearly five hours of negotiations in Sulaimaniya, talks that had been billed as a last attempt to close the gap between Barzani’s KDP and its opponents came to a halt. Those opposed to Barzani are refusing to renew the president’s tenure.

Barzani’s last term in office, which ended in July 2013, was extended by two years by the Kurdish parliament on the grounds that the region was not ready to elect a new president. Despite restrictions by Kurdistan’s laws on a third term, Barzani refused to step down after his tenure ended on 19 August.

The Kurdistan government crisis started when four parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran (Change) Movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Kurdistan Islamic League — rejected a decree by Barzani setting 20 August as the date of a direct national ballot to elect the region’s president. They argued that the move was unconstitutional.

They insisted that Barzani abide by the region’s draft constitution, which limits the presidency to two terms, and called for a vote by members of the Kurdistan parliament to choose a new president in line with the region’s legislation.

Barzani, however, has rebuffed the opposition and decided to cling to power. Representatives of the political factions who have been meeting since August have failed to resolve the conflict.

Officials said the failure of the last-ditch talks show that the differences between the KDP and representatives of the four opposition groups are irreconcilable. Opposition groups want to see Kurdistan ruled by a parliamentary system and not by the current presidential system which gives the president enormous power.

On Saturday, Rabon Tawfiq of the Gorran Movement told local media that the KDP has backed down on “concessions” made earlier by its delegates on Barzani’s presidency. Tawfiq did not elaborate but said the KDP still insists that the region’s president be elected directly by the public and remain supreme commander of the armed forces with the final word on security issues.

Among other preconditions, which the opposition groups have vehemently rejected, was giving the president overall power to veto legislation by the parliament, Tawfiq said.

Other officials said the KDP representatives turned down a proposal by the opposition that a new election law should explicitly state that the president of the Kurdistan region should ask the bloc that has a majority of members of parliament to form the regional government.

They told local media that Barzani insists on the current system, which allows the president to appoint a prime minister from the party that wins the largest number of seats in the elections. The KDP, which is in control of two of the three main provinces in Kurdistan, has often won the largest number of seats in regional elections.

The collapse of the talks has created fears that the crisis in the Kurdistan presidential elections could enter a perilous new phase that could push the region into further chaos.

Within hours of breaking the news of the failure of the negotiations, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the Kurdistan region to denounce the deadlock.

In Sulaimaniyah, the power base of the PUK and Gorran Movement, protesters clashed with police in front of the hotel where the negotiators were staying. On Friday, demonstrators in the city of Qalatdizeh attacked a KDP office and set it on fire. Two people were killed and five others were wounded in clashes with office guards.

The protests continued throughout the week, with demonstrators shouting slogans that Barzani should leave office and attacking and torching several offices of the KDP in the Sulaimaniyah province.

In retaliation, KDP supporters attacked Gorran Movement offices in the Kurdistan regional capital of Erbil and in Dohuk, both of which are under the control of Barzani’s party.

Meanwhile, the bickering has polarised Kurdish politics and compounded an economic crisis triggered by drops in revenues caused by the cost of battling the Islamic State (IS) terror group and low oil prices.

Many in Kurdistan blame the financial crisis, which has pushed the region to the verge of bankruptcy, on Barzani’s administration. In addition to the power struggle, the government has been fraught with corruption, cronyism and inefficiency.

Many civil servants have not been paid for three months, and thousands of private-sector businesses have remained closed because of the financial crunch.

High unemployment and poverty have driven thousands of young Iraqi Kurds to leave Kurdistan in recent years, seeking asylum in Australia, Europe and the United States.

Once hailed by the Western media as a flourishing oasis of democracy and peace in the war-torn and sectarian-divided Iraq, Kurdistan has increasingly been moving towards autocracy.

Criticism has been mounting over Barzani’s heavy-handed rule and his family’s monopoly on power in the region. The opposition says that the Barzani family is corrupt and that it uses the security forces to crack down on political opponents.

Many analysts believe that by refusing to negotiate the terms of the presidential elections in good faith and prolonging the electoral crisis, Barzani plans to stay in office for an unlimited period and probably for life.

Speculation is high that Barzani is promoting his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, as his successor. Masrour, who leads the intelligence service, already wields enormous power. His nephew and son-in-law, Nechirvan Barzani, is the KDP deputy chairman and the region’s prime minister.

Other members of the Barzani family have also been dominant in the region’s politics and economy.

In April, Ali Hama Saleh, a Gorran Movement member of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional parliament, wrote that thousands of loyalists and cronies have been receiving pensions and salaries from the government without being eligible for the payments.

Writing in Al-Mashhad Al-Akheer (The Last Scene) newspaper this week, Kurdish opposition writer Georges Kolizadah accused Barzani of pushing the region “towards total collapse.”

“Barzani is the main culprit behind this accumulation of problems and the cause of driving the Kurdish people into these dangerous problems,” he wrote.

Kolizadah said the region’s economy and finance systems are on the verge of collapse. He said that corruption, graft, the embezzlement of government property, the control of oil revenues and the real estate sector, and inefficiency in government are the causes behind Kurdistan’s political and economic crises.

Critics have accused Barzani’s administration of stifling free expression, the independent media and the democratic process in the region. Last week, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch accused the KDP’s intelligence service of “stamping on peaceful dissent.”

It accused the Kurdish authorities of detaining activist Esa Barzani “solely due to his peaceful criticism of the ruling party” and said Barzani has been in detention since 14 August after he had posted pictures in support of rival Kurdish leaders Abdullah Öcalan and Jalal Talabani.

On Monday, the crisis took a sharp turn when Nechirvan Barzani removed four ministers from his cabinet and the speaker of the parliament was barred from entering the capital. The dramatic steps were seen as an escalation that threatens to destabilise the region.

In a statement, the Gorran Movement described the move as a “political coup” and accused Barzani’s KDP of trying to instigate “a civil war” in the region.

As this article went to press, the Kurdistan political crisis has entered uncharted territory, with no signs of attempts being made to stop the decline.

With the presidential elections stalemated, the government dysfunctional, the parliament suspended and violent protests on the streets, Kurdistan’s unrest is just starting and the region’s crisis is set to worsen.

This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on Oct. 15, 2015

Mecca disaster rekindles urge for Islam renewal

Mecca disaster rekindles urge for Islam renewal

As the causes of the 24 September stampede in Mina remains unclear, the world began asking: “How can Hajj calamities be avoided? Writes Salah Nasrawi

The footage of the bodies of pilgrims piled half naked near the site where nearly 800 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede near Mecca as Muslims gathered to perform a key ritual of the Hajj pilgrimage last week was shocking and heart-breaking.

The stampede apparently started when two waves of pilgrims on their way to and from a hectic stoning ritual collided in a bottlenecked footpath near the holy sites. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds were trampled underfoot or suffocated.

The tragedy, the worst to befall the Muslim pilgrimage since July 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims perished in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to the holy sites near Mecca, has rattled the entire Muslim world and raised serious questions about the management of Islam’s most sacred rituals and the world’s largest gathering.

Moreover, the crush has rekindled debates about the need for reform in Islam in order that this faith with some 1.5 billion adherents can conform better to progress and modernity and adapt to new circumstances.

A week after the deadly crush the most pressing question has remained unanswered, namely what caused the chaotic stampede.

The Saudi government has remained tight-lipped on how such a tragedy, which has drawn fierce criticisms of the Saudi authorities’ handling of the safety of the Hajj, could have occurred.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz has ordered a swift investigation into the “painful incident” and a review of the kingdom’s planning for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Yet, the kingdom’s mufti, or top religious leader, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh, has decreed that the catastrophic Hajj stampede was “beyond human control,” blaming it on “fate and destiny”.

Meanwhile, Saudi Health Minister Khalid Al-Falih has pointed the finger of blame at the dead, saying that the pilgrims were “undisciplined” and did not follow traffic instructions.

Among other suggested causes have been the pilgrims ignoring the timetable put forward by the Saudi authorities for the rituals, their rushing to end the rites, the sweltering heat, and confusion and a lack of guidance and assistance by the organisers.

While some eyewitnesses among the pilgrims blamed laxity by the Saudi authorities in crowd control, the pro-Saudi media talked about an Iranian and Shia conspiracy with others putting the blame on undisciplined pilgrims of African nationalities.

Whatever the causes behind the human crush, the disaster has echoed across the Muslim world, as countries from Africa, Asia and Europe all claimed citizens from among the dead and as some called for changes in the pilgrimage procedures to ensure greater safety.

Iran, which had the largest group of casualties with some 155 of its citizens killed in the stampede, was quick to condemn Saudi Arabia for what it termed the kingdom’s “incompetence” in organising the Hajj pilgrimage.

Iran’s supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Saudi government “must accept huge responsibility for this catastrophe.”

Iran’s state prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi said he would pursue legal action against Saudi Arabia’s rulers in the international courts over the crush.

Raisi and other Iranian officials accused the Saudi authorities of blocking a road used by the pilgrims to allow a royal convoy to pass through, causing the deadly convergence of two waves of pilgrims going in opposite directions.

Pro-Iranian Shia politicians such as former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the leader of the Lebanese Hizbullah group Hassan Nasrallah joined Tehran in the protests.

Criticism also came from Sunni Muslim countries. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari urged King Salman “to ensure a comprehensive and thorough exercise that will identify any flaws in the Hajj organisation.”

The head of Nigeria’s Hajj delegation, Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II, said the Saudi authorities should not “apportion blame to the pilgrims for not obeying instructions”.

In Turkey, a Sunni powerhouse which maintains close relations with Saudi Arabia, a senior official of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) criticised the kingdom for failures in managing the pilgrimage.

AKP Deputy Chairman Mehmet Ali Shahin even called on Riyadh to give Turkey “the management” of the Hajj instead. Turkey, he said, would handle it in a “very orderly manner and solve the problems”.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who leads the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said “there must be improvements in the management of the Hajj so that this incident is not repeated.”

The crush came less than two weeks after a construction crane smashed into the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Islam’s holiest house of worship, killing some 100 people and wounding scores of others. The Saudi authorities blamed the sudden crash on strong winds.

In recent years, the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on upgrading infrastructure in Mecca, including the expansion of the Grand Mosque to increase its capacity to accommodate worshipers and improving transport.

Lavish mega-hotels, luxury residences with Kaaba views, and shopping malls with western fashion chains and international fast-food restaurants have also been part of the expansion projects in Islam’s holiest city.

Many of these projects, as well as the luxurious Hajj style they have introduced, have come under fire from critics who say they undermine the spirituality of the divine rituals which are one of the five pillars of Islam along with the declaration of faith, prayer, the payment of charity and fasting in Ramadan.

In addition, the expansions have been criticised for encroaching on or eliminating almost all of Islam’s architectural legacy in Mecca, such as the building where the Prophet Mohamed was born, the house of his wife Khadijah, and the shrines and mosques of distinguished early Muslims.

While many of Mecca’s architectural monuments were removed as part of the expansion projects, some of these sites have been demolished in line with hardline Wahabi thinking that considers them symbols of “polytheism”.

In many ways, the Hajj, which the Quran says all adult Muslims who are physically and financially able to should make once in their lifetimes, is increasingly becoming fraught with difficulties and sometimes unsafe conditions.

The discussions over the stampede and other accidents during the pilgrimage have thus far focused on the logistics of the Hajj, including organisation, infrastructure, transport and crowd management.

They have also centred on the inconsistencies and confusion in the statements made by Saudi officials and religious leaders and the political and sectarian bickering surrounding the accident, especially the Shia versus Wahabi interpretations of Islam.

The discussions have been avoiding how to deal with the basic theological and traditional elements relating to how the centuries-old and complex Hajj rituals are performed, however.

While the Hajj logistics and infrastructure are increasing being brought face to face with modernisation and globalisation, the rituals themselves remain deep rooted in the traditions of the 7th century CE when a few hundred of the Prophet Mohamed’s Bedouin followers began flocking to the rugged desert around Mecca for the newly imposed Islamic rituals.

Indeed, the repeated calamities during the Hajj season have highlighted the need for a serious debate among Muslims from all schools of thought about theological renovation and renewed traditions within the context of Islamic revival and religious reformation.

Despite a quota system imposed by Saudi Arabia which earmarks 1,000 Hajj visas for each one million in the Muslim population of each country, the number of pilgrims is on the rise due to population increases and improved economic conditions.

According to some statistics, the number of foreign pilgrims has increased by approximately 2,824 per cent, from 58,584 in 1920 to 1,712,962 in 2012. Despite a quota cut of 20 per cent due to the continuation of the construction work, some 1.4 million foreign pilgrims performed the Hajj this year.

In essence, the millions of Muslim pilgrims perform today exactly what a few hundred of their ancestors did 1,400 years ago on the same small chunk of holy land. Meanwhile, millions of others are unable to carry out the religious duty because of the visa quota or other restrictions.

If the expansion of Islam’s most sacred holy site has been a major result of the changes wrought by modernity, then it is time not only for Saudi Arabia but also for the entire Muslim world to develop or even modify the rituals in order to make them conform to modernity without compromising their spirituality or religious values.

The Islamic concept of ijtihad, the exercise of informed independent and legal judgement on issues of the faith, has always been used by enlightened Muslims to interpret and apply divine guidance to the problems of their time.

There are many historical examples. Working with such an understanding of theological expediency, Mohamed’s second successor, the caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, set aside the amputation of hands stipulated by the Quran as the penalty for stealing when the Muslims began starving during a time of famine.

Many of the Hajj rituals are not even mentioned in the Quran, and change or modification in the way they are performed would not affect beliefs, guidance, spiritual fulfilment, or attitudes towards worship.

Today is a moment of truth for all Muslims when the Hajj rites should be let free from the walls of Wahabi fundamentalism.