Day 6

Why a Canadian Muslim is boycotting the hajj over Saudi war crimes

This weekend, more than two million Muslims from around the world are in Mecca for hajj but Waeza Shamsia Afzal won’t be among them. She's protesting the five-day pilgrimage until the Saudi government relinquishes control of holy sites.

'The hajj is governed by the Saudi regime and I do not agree at all with the atrocities they've committed'

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (Waleed Ali/Reuters)

More than two million Muslims are expected to make the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca this year, but Waeza Shamsia Afzal won't be one of them.

"The hajj is governed by the Saudi regime and I do not agree at all with the atrocities they've committed and continue to commit," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The annual event began Friday and is considered the spiritual pinnacle for many Muslims around the world.

Afzal, who wrote about her concerns for the Globe and Mail, says her opposition starts with the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. 

"The war crimes that were committed in Yemen have left millions of people to essentially starve to death. I think over 13 million from what I've checked," she said, adding that the rights of women, migrant workers and LGBT people — along with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 — have led her to boycott hajj under Saudi rule.

hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and Muslims are required to perform it at least once in their lifetime. Afzal says she would like to fulfil her duty at some point, but she tells Bambury she has conditions. 

Below is part of that conversation.

It's the fact that the hajj is in Saudi Arabia that you cannot abide?

It's in Saudi Arabia and it is governed by the Saudi regime who benefits from the pilgrimage.

Benefits how?

From the facts and figures I've looked into, the Saudi regime brings in about $12 billion that goes toward its GDP from the hajj. I think it's the second largest industry after oil and gas. 

More than two million Muslims expected to visit the Grand Mosque during the annual hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (Waleed Ali/Reuters)

When did this all start for you?

I have been following some of the political situation there and I actually started a petition a couple of years ago.

It didn't really go anywhere, but that was at the time that prime minister [Stephen] Harper signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia and then it wasn't cancelled under Trudeau.

So I've been keeping up to date and following this issue for a while and, I think, it's not something new for me.

How did that choice reconcile with your religious duty as a Muslim? 

Ultimately, I don't feel like I'm necessarily doing anything.

I feel that I'm simply expressing my opinion in the hopes that there are other people who this may resonate with — whether within the Muslim community or other people who are part of a religious tradition that are trying to reconcile some fundamental tenets of their faith with their own personal beliefs or conscience.

What I'm doing is nothing new, I think even within the Muslim community there is discourse on this topic.

An aerial view of the tents of Muslim pilgrims near the holy city of Mecca. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Were you prepared for the fallout from that discourse, and did you think your family and friends would support you?

What's interesting is that it was received, I would say, pretty well from within the community and others.

Within my immediate family, they're pretty progressive. They have very similar opinions to mine when it comes to the Saudi regime. I think it's some more distant, extended family members and then, possibly, some people in the wider community who do not agree with this stand, because ultimately it is a fifth pillar and I acknowledge that.

If the pilgrimage is governed by an independent body, I would like to go on the pilgrimage myself. I understand the sacredness of the place and the importance that it holds for Muslims. 

One of the reasons why this was tough for me is that I really do not want to be pigeonholed into this idea that somehow I'm pandering to an Islamophobic agenda or narrative or somehow betraying the community, because that would really hurt me.

I am very aware of the current climate that is not very favourable to Muslims and the scapegoating that happens and the rampant Islamophobia that exists.

Having this kind of opinion, for me, is a way to exert personal power over a geopolitical issue like this.

It has nothing to do with blaming Muslims ... It's more about personal power and doing what we can to possibly limit the benefits that the Saudi regime collects from the pilgrimage industry.

The annual pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, an act all Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to travel to Saudi Arabia. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

You said that there were, maybe, distant relatives in your family who might not be so supportive of your position here. Let's imagine that those people are over at your house for dinner. What do you do when the subject of the hajj comes up?

This is actually really closely linked to the idea that, I would say, Muslims are not a monolithic community, and there will be people who strongly believe that this is completely wrong.

But there are also others, like me, who reconcile their belief in the faith with not going on the hajj. Because, again, with the idea that Muslims are a very diverse community, you have some Muslims who maybe choose to place more importance on the ritualistic or literalist aspects of the faith. Others maybe fall into a different category.

I would probably put myself in that category who choose to value or prioritize the social justice aspects of the religion or the strong tradition of intellectual inquiry that exists within the religion as well.

What would have to happen for you to change your stance and perform hajj?

If an independent body were to govern the pilgrimage, I think I would feel a lot more comfortable knowing that there's no benefit that the Saudi regime going on what is essentially a holy purpose.

It just feels like a contradiction to go when I know that I'll be benefiting a regime that is then turning around and committing war crimes, and orchestrating the murder of journalists and all of that.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Waeza Shamsia Afzul, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.