A group of American Muslims sent a letter to the U.S. State Department on Tuesday, imploring the government to provide protection against militants and other threats that could endanger them during their religious pilgrimage to Mecca in October.
The letter, signed by 28 different Muslim groups, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to take measures to safeguard Americans participating in this year’s hajj, an annual ritual required of all followers of Islam who have the ability and means to make the journey to Mecca.
“We urge you to take immediate action to protect American citizens who travel overseas to perform one of the five mandatory acts of their faith and ensure that Saudi Arabia addresses this urgent security matter in preparation for the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage,” the letter read.
Signers cited several reasons for sending the letter, but rooted their concern in a 2013 incident when a group of American Muslims were brutally attacked as they took part in the hajj. While staying at a camp outside of Mecca, a band of Lebanese-Australians reportedly confronted the U.S. citizens, which included three women featured in the reality TV show All-American Muslim. The attackers shouted insults at the Michigan natives, decrying them for being Shia Muslims before strangling one man until his face turned blue and telling the women that they would “rape them all” if they didn’t leave. The assailants were reportedly followers of Salafism, a subset of Sunni Islam that seeks a radical return to a more traditional version of the religion. Extreme strains of Salafism include members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the militant group currently wreaking havoc in Iraq and killing anyone who disagrees with their intolerant theology — including their fellow Muslims.
“The right to freely practice one’s faith without fear of harassment, intimidation, or violence is a constitutional guarantee, as well as an international human rights norm,” the letter read, possibly in reference to the U.S. State Department’s recent report on international religious freedom, released in July, which specifically mentioned Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect its Shia Muslim minority from religious persecution. “For Muslims, the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, is a mandatory religious act that must be carried out at least once in his or her lifetime. Any interference with this pilgrimage is a direct violation of that individual’s religious liberty.”
To be sure, the hajj, which attracts 2 to 3 million people to Saudi Arabia each year, isn’t just dangerous for American Muslims. Although virtually all Muslims consider the hajj to be one of the “five pillars” of Islam, not all Muslims agree with each other, making the massive religious gathering a potential catalyst for flare ups of sectarian violence. In 1979, for instance, more than 200 people died when armed militants took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque, and in 1989, one pilgrim was killed and 16 were wounded after a bomb exploded near the grand mosque. The huge influx of humanity can also cause tragic incidents typical of large gatherings: Around 3,000 people have been killed while participating in the hajj over the past 20 years, most felled by stampedes, demonstrations, and fires at campsites.
“Every American citizen traveling or living abroad should have full assurance that the U.S. government will come vigorously to his or her defense if they are unjustly detained, attacked, or harassed by local authorities,” the letter read. “These protections, including but not limited to meaningful access to full consular services, must be afforded to all American citizens visiting Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj.”
Nevertheless, it’s unclear what, if anything, the U.S. government can do to protect Muslims who embark on the sacred journey. Short of sending armed escorts, the State Department is ultimately required to the respect the autonomy of Saudi Arabia — an American ally — and trust that their officials will keep U.S. citizens safe. But while the Saudi government has supposedly beefed up security measures and installed thousands of surveillance cameras in recent years, their efforts haven’t always born fruit: victims of the 2013 incident said that Saudi authorities did not take their complaints seriously and even deleted a cellphone video of the attack taken by a participant.
“We take seriously all reports of attacks or threats against U.S. citizens, including the reported attack on U.S. citizens during last year’s Hajj,” U.S. State Department officials told the Religion News Service. “While the U.S. does not have law enforcement personnel at the Hajj, our Embassy and Consulate General in Saudi Arabia are in close contact with their Saudi government counterparts.”