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Who Decides Which Muslims Get To The Hajj?

August 20, 2018

I thoroughly enjoy reading and watching the news reports on the religious and cultural experience where millions of Muslims participate in the hajj.  The enormity of the ritual along with the deeply held convictions of those on this mission is moving.  The pilgrimage is now underway.

But how does a follower of Islam get such an opportunity–an opportunity which is also a requirement once in the lifetime of a Muslim?  Foreign Policy magazine answered that question in 2015. 

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws millions of visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

It varies from country to country: The Saudi government sets quotas for the number of citizens from each country who can go on hajj every year — but then it’s up to the countries themselves to decide how they fill those quotas.  In some countries, the process is rife with corruption and inequity.

Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims by far, gets the largest allotment: 178,000 this year, down from 211,000 in 2013 (the Saudi government lowered quotas for countries across the board that year to make room for multi-year construction projects that will eventually expand the capacity of the major religious sites). In general, the numbers show that the Saudi government tries to openaround one spot per 1,000 Muslims in a country, although in Indonesia and many other countries the fraction is considerably smaller, especially since the recent reductions.

As in many countries with large Muslim populations and a high demand for the hajj, the Indonesian government has put in place an elaborate system for determining who goes when. Aspiring pilgrims who declare their intention to perform hajj must pay at least $2,000. That’s almost a full year’s pay at minimum wage in Jakarta, the capital, where minimum wage is higher than anywhere else in the country, or almost three year’s pay for the more than 43 percent of Indonesians who live on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank data from 2011. The payment secures a spot on a waitlist, which varies in length by region: 12 years at best, 17 at worst. Meanwhile, the money goes into a government-run hajj fund controlled by the Religious Affairs Ministry. In 2014, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, head of the Islamist-leaning United Development Party, was implicated in a graft investigation connected to management of the hajj fund.

Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, the countries with the second, third, and fourth-largest Muslim populations, respectively, have their own systems, and each face their own share of quota woes. The Pakistani government conducts a drawing from applications, placing the tens of thousands of people who miss the cut on a waitlist. But petitioners have accused the government of apportioning parts of the quota among various private tour operators in exchange for bribes. One in four Indian Muslims who wanted to make the pilgrimage this year were permitted to go, based on a complicated system of sub-quotas and lotteries at the state and territory level. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had to give up most of the more than five thousand hajj spots it had reserved for its own use — an inexplicably large allotment for dignitaries in a system that saw ordinary Indians turned away. And 30,000 Bangladeshis were turned away this year, even though a third had already paid, after a government website mistakenly allowed too many people to register.

Even countries with relatively small Muslim populations are not exempt from hajj-related struggles: After the Saudi government reduced South Africa’s quota from 2,500 to 2,000 in 2013, wait times ballooned to six years.

Inevitably, some pilgrims try to get around the restrictions. According to the U.S. State Department, non-Saudis who perform hajj without a permit face immediate deportation and a 10-year ban on returning to Saudi Arabia. Women under 45, permitted or no, must travel with a close male relative or face the same.


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