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Muslims on Hajj

Aired January 19, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN HOST (voice-over): A sea of white, a symbol of devotion, some 2 million Muslims converge on Mount Arafat for the most sacred day of the Hajj.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you feel being here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very, very good.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Happy. Very happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arafat is very crowded today. Maybe every year I have visited Arafat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you happy to be here?



HOLMES: Hello. I'm Michael Holmes with INSIGHT.

Wednesday was the high point of the Hajj, when pilgrims ascend Mount Arafat. That's where the prophet Mohammad is said to have given his last sermon some 1,400 years ago.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All able-bodied Muslims are obligated to make the pilgrimage if they can afford to do so. Muslims from every walk of life, rich or poor, male or female, make this spiritual journey.

We begin our program this day with the stories of two pilgrims, one from the United States, the other from France, who are making the Hajj for the first time.

Let's start with CNN's Zain Verjee.


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Facing Mecca, from Manhattan. Vilsha Vili (ph) recounts how a near-death experience right after her wedding day drove her to make a decision, one that would take her to the deserts of Arabia.

Suffering from health problems and lying in ICU, she thought to herself...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've made mistakes. I've done some things I'm proud of, some things I'm not, but what I haven't done is I haven't done my Hajj.

VERJEE: A holy pilgrimage to Mecca and an obligation for Muslims.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Vanas (ph), you want a cookie?

VERJEE: Two kids, one autistic, kept her too busy for years, plus the money was short.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Scrimped and scrimped and scrimped and saved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scrimped and saved and, you know, we saved whatever we could.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He moonlighted. I freelanced.

VERJEE: This year, with enough money saved and her in-laws willing to help with the kids, things fell into place.

Finally, she plans for Mecca, prepares herself with her family's input and packs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm going to wear this one, because it has a print and so that maybe he can see me, because there are so many people and I've been told everyone wears white and black. So I wanted a print, so that he can find me.

VERJEE: She takes along a notebook containing the names of 22 friends that asked her to pray for them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For their children, for health, for a good marriage.

VERJEE: Nervous and excited, she anticipates a climatic spiritual journey.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The feeling, it's just overwhelming, that you'll just cry and cry and cry.

VERJEE: Weeks later, she and her husband Caraj (ph) are two of more than 2 million pilgrims in Mecca. In her daily life, she prays toward the Kaba every day. We spoke to her minutes after she saw the sacred shrine for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The crying and the tears and, you know, you're praying, and you don't know what you're thinking and am I saying the right things, I don't know. And you get here and it's just, I mean, everything goes out of your head. It's phenomenal.

VERJEE: Vilsha's (ph) been in Mecca only a few hours, and says she's already learned a life-long lesson.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'll tell you one thing that I've learned is that we're not the only ones who are coming with difficulties, you know. Everybody has got something behind them.

VERJEE: As she walked out of the mosque, she told Caraj (ph) this experience ranks with one of the greatest moments of her life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It ties giving birth.

VERJEE: She is exhausted and makes her way back to her bus for the next stage of the Hajj, the Mina Valley. She's already thinking of home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel like we want to go home and be different people, be better people.

VERJEE: Zain Verjee, CNN, Mecca, Saudi Arabia.



JIM BITTERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At Paris's Orly Airport, the pilgrims began lining up before dawn. With the largest Islamic community in Europe, it's probably no surprise France is sending the most European Muslim's to Mecca. 23,000 in all.

For many, like Inman Marzuki (ph), it's a first. He was raised a Muslim, but only recently really began practicing his religion. In a secular country like France, Inman (ph) believes your faith has to be even stronger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): That's the courage, the force. I'm stronger in my religion than those in Arab countries precisely because things are not so Islamic here.

BITTERMAN: His wife, Aida (ph), is not quite there yet. She refused to cover her head, as many Muslim women do, and she's not ready to go to Mecca. But she is intrigued at the way religion has taken hold of Inman (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): From the moment he decided to pray, it changed a lot of things in his life: the way he thinks, his perspective. I am happy because it's in the right direction.

BITTERMAN: Aida (ph) was raised a Muslim, just like her husband, but admits the couple has had some quite heated discussions about religion.

"The day I cover my head," she says, "is the day I will not work at my present job anymore."

Still, she believes he is right to go on the Hajj and thinks one day she might too.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): To be there must be like living in another dimension. You must leave feeling stronger than when you arrived.

BITTERMAN: There is no question that there are plenty of temptations for any religious person living in Europe. But spiritual leaders say demonstrating faith can often make is stronger.

(on camera): Each year, more and more French Muslims take part in the Hajj. True, those who live here are perhaps more prosperous, more able to go off on a pilgrimage than those who live elsewhere in the world.

(Voice-over): A Muslim travel agent who annually takes pilgrims to Mecca says up to 1/3 of his clients do it just because they can use Hajj as part of their name, and that commands respect.

But no one, he says, can question the personal value of going.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It takes you back to it. It takes you -- it gives you another vision and at the conclusion I think it's kind of therapy, somehow. The feeling you have -- and when you see this kind of equality between people, you feel yourself hopeful. We have one day that I can feel as a real human being.

BITTERMAN: Both Inman Marzuki (ph) in Mecca and his wife back in Paris have faith that he'll come home a better human being.

Jim Bitterman, CNN, Parish.


HOLMES: Two fascinating journeys there.

Well, just ahead, Islam and the West. We'll examine the divide.



HOLMES (voice-over): The Hajj, of course, is a religious pilgrimage, but politics play a part as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): May God bless us and bless Islam. May he bring victory to Palestinian and Iraq. May he bring victory to us over the infidels.


HOLMES: Welcome back to INSIGHT.

Saudi Arabia's top cleric, the Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik declared at a sermon at the Hajj that Islam is under siege. He said military, economic and media campaigns are being waged against the religion and he denounced those who link Islam with terrorism.

Earlier, I spoke with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the author of "What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West."

I began by asking him about the image of Islam in the West and his own impressions of the Hajj.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF, AUTHOR: Well, I'm certainly hopeful that it has improved it positively, because the imagery or the choreography of the acts of Islamic worship are very visually impressive.

When you have 3 million people, hundreds of thousands of people, grouping together, all dressed in the simple two pieces of white fabric, cotton fabric, going around the sacred, the so-called sacred house, the Kaba, the cubicle structure in the center, the sacred mosque in Mecca, it's a very powerful vision.

When you see 10,000 or 50,000 Muslims go into prostration or bowing together at the same time, my non-Muslim friends find this very visually compelling.

HOLMES: Indeed it is.

What -- how do you think, as you have observed, and you have a unique perspective -- how do you think the image of Islam has changed in the West since September 11?

RAUF: Well, the image of Islam is a dynamic thing, and the perception of Islam by the West is something which needs to undergo further revision, if you will.

The relationship between the West and the Muslim world goes back a long time. It goes back to the time of the Crusades. It goes back to the time -- both the good and the bad -- the times of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the Iberian Peninsula, from the year 800, roughly, to the year 1500, at which time -- during that period of time there was very good relationships between the Christian community and the European community, the non-Muslim community and the Muslim community.

But it turned, and the ejection of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, coinciding with the times of the Crusades, continuing through the time of European domination, colonialism, the rise of let's say secularism in Europe, the separation of church and state and the disregard towards religion, all of these things have played a role in various ways in shaping relationship between what we might call the West and Western civilization and the Islamic world and Islamic civilization.

And these are the issues that increasing numbers of us, both Muslims and non-Muslims, want to see this fault line bridged.

HOLMES: Tell me this: since September 11, I think there's been an awful lot of generalizing about Islam, probably the fault of the media but also of Western governments. Do you think that fundamentalists, as they do with any religion, have blackened the name of Islam?

RAUF: Well, certainly militants and fundamentalists press certain buttons that arouse the fears of people on the other side, and what we have to do -- those of us who understand the etiology and the history and the emotionality and the issues involved, have to inform and educate, especially our decision makers, political decision makers, those in the media who help shape and forge the opinion of the masses and can both arouse and/or allay their fears.

We all have a collective role to play in changing the perceptions, because there is a lot that is in common between Islam and the West, a lot that's in common between let's say Islamic theology and Christian theology and Jewish theology. There's a lot that is common between the Islamic notion of proper governance and let's say the American Declaration of Independence and system of governance.

So when we unpack where the issues are and why these things are coming out, and then if we address them line item by line item, this is how I am convinced we can help turn around the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, and we are hopeful to achieve this within a 10 year period or less.

HOLMES: And yet we see this American ideal, if you like, of spreading democracy throughout the Muslim world, in particular the Middle East. It's a desire that to some is being foisted on the Islamic world. Do you think that there is an ignorance there about whether Muslims want democracy in some of these countries?

RAUF: Well, there's no doubt in my mind that the whole world wants democracy, but the issue or the question really becomes what does it mean.

When you ask people in the Arab and Muslim world what democracy means, they think it means an abdication of all moral values. They think of freedom that is void of any sense of responsibility. There is a lot of misinterpretation which is going along on both sides.

Plus there is a sense also that the attempts of the West to foist democracy has an element of, if you will, religions proselytization. It comes across in that manner.

HOLMES: The West saying that they are right and you are wrong.

RAUF: Right, or an attempt to pressure a group of people into an opinion that you have, rather than having an open discussion on the merits and demerits of a particular point of view, and allowing the other side to adopt a particular position because they themselves freely choose it and choose how they want to shape their method of adopting that particular point of view.

HOLMES: And do you think that cultivates an increase in conservatism and resentment against the West?

RAUF: Well, I mean, look, we here in the West resent people who try to proselytize against, whether it's the people who come and knock on your door in the morning and say we're from the local church and we want to come and have a chat with you for an hour. We feel this is an attempt to impose other people's ideals on us.

There is a method to how we should engage, but within the terms of engagement, I think there is a lot of desire on each side to both understand the other and learn from the other, and that's where the rub is.

HOLMES: All right, we have to leave it there. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, thank you so much.

RAUF: Thank you very much, Michael.


HOLMES: Fascinating man.

We have to take a short break now. When we come back, breaking the glass ceiling in Saudi Arabia.

Stay with us.



HOLMES (voice-over): Saudi women can perform the Hajj, but they cannot drive, they can't travel freely or vote. That triggered a protest in Washington last November outside the Saudi embassy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I happen to believe that, first of all, they are half of the society and you cannot have any meaningful democracy without having every citizen participating. But I happen to believe that if there is any hope for reforming or democratizing Saudi Arabia, it will come with a woman.


HOLMES: Welcome back to INSIGHT.

Saudi Arabia will hold municipal elections next month, the first elections in more than 40 years. Women, however, will not be allowed to participate in any way.

Joining us now to talk about this and other issues is Ali Al-Ahmed, the executive director of the Saudi Institute in Washington.

Thanks so much for being with us.

First of all, when we talk about restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, which ones concern critics the most?

ALI AL-AHMED, SAUDI INSTITUTE: Let me just say that Saudi women would like to get more opportunity in life, in education, in political process. They want to participate. And the Saudi government is responsible for blocking their effort to be part of the political process in their country.

Nine women have tried to participate in the elections, but the Saudi government blocked them by banning them from participating and running for these partial elections.

HOLMES: One argument I think by the Saudi government, if you like, is that it was difficult to register women to vote or to take part because they have no ID cards and they're position in society is such that they're not even on an ID system, and so it would have been difficult to register them.

AL-AHMED: This is very false information. It's the government of Saudi Arabia that can issue IDs. That's number one.

Secondly, Saudi women, many of them, women of them, have passports, which have the same information and the same value as an ID card. So their passports could be used as identification to allow women to vote.

I suggested in a letter to the Saudi head of the election commission that the Saudi elections should be postponed until women can participate, otherwise these are discriminatory elections, because they exclude at least 50 percent of Saudi society.

HOLMES: You know, it's interesting that when we talk about the United States and its various military adventures in the Middle East, one of its staunchest allies in the region are the Saudis. Now, when it comes to treatment of women, do you think the United States has exerted any pressure, and enough pressure on Saudi Arabia to perhaps moderate its attitude towards the role of women in its society?

AL-AHMED: Absolutely not. Unfortunately, this has been the policy of the Colin Powell State Department. Today hopefully we will see a sign with the State Department of Condoleezza Rice. I think that should be one of her most important cases.

Saudi Arabia is the last country, plus Kuwait, that bars women from voting and participating in politics. We saw in Afghanistan how easy. Nobody mentioned that experience. Afghanistan, easily women were able to participate and they participated in large numbers.

Saudi Arabia has much better chances. The society there want women to participate and I hope that can be done this year, and I hope these elections could be postponed.

HOLMES: You say you hope that. Do you really think that the United States, the State Department, is going to -- or the White House -- is going to exert any pressure on Saudi Arabia, when you look at its geopolitical importance to the United States on a political level? Do you really see them stepping in there and putting on pressure?

AL-AHMED: I think it's in their interest. You know, you have to remember one thing. Those societies that bars women from participating -- it's those societies that create problems. 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Most of the suicide bombers in Iraq today came from Saudi Arabia.

This is a society that has a problem because of the government and it should change, not only for the good of the Saudi people but also for the good of the world. You cannot -- I think it's the moral responsibility of the free world to have pressure to the Saudi Arabian government.

If blacks today were in South Africa not allowed to vote, we would be crying and screaming. There is not much difference between South African apartheid against the blacks and the Saudi apartheid against women.

HOLMES: All right. We have to leave it there. Ali Al-Ahmed, executive director of the Saudi Institute, I want to thank you for your contribution. Thanks.

AL-AHMED: Thank you.

HOLMES: Well, one Saudi woman is an exception to the rule in the Kingdom. Hanadi Al Hindi (ph) is the country's first woman pilot.

Our Zain Verjee caught up with her while she trained in Jordan.


VERJEE: A gentle but determined push and a firm, steady grip has catapulted one woman to heights recently unimaginable in her country. Meet Saudi Arabia's first female pilot in training, Hanadi Al Hindi (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love to fly and I'm proud of myself.

VERJEE: Flying may not seem like that big a deal, but in a country where women can't drive, can't travel without permission from a male relative, and generally don't mix with men outside the family, a young woman steering a plane has made headlines. Even the director of the Jordanian Aviation Academy, where Hanadi (ph) is training, registered disbelief when he got an enthusiastic call from her about lessons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Frankly, I was shocked. Whom are you discussing, you know. She said, it's me. I said, are you sure? You are not allowed to drive a car. How are you going to fly an airplane.

VERJEE: Even her friends back home told her there's no future in this for women here. Still motivated, she shrugged it off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't care about this discussion.

VERJEE: She checks oil and prepares for practice. Just taxiing today because low cloud cover means she can't take off.

Hanadi (ph) exudes confidence and with good reason. She's just signed a 10-year contract to fly for Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin Talal's private fleet once she graduates.

Hanadi (ph) is from a city without an airport: Mecca. We visited her parents there to talk about their daughter.

Her father says it was his dream to be a pilot. He shared that with Hanadi (ph) one day as a plane buzzed over a beach they were strolling on. She said, "I'll do it if you support me." He did and went to see her first solo flight.

His feelings were mixed, he says. "I was so proud, but more than anything I was afraid." He added that he trusts his daughter to keep her interaction with men at the academy minimal. Mixing of the sexes is a source of heated debate and criticism in their society.

She catches up with an Algerian pilot at the end of the day for a laugh.

Hanadi's (ph) mom just misses her daughter and remembers the day she left the Kingdom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Indescribable feelings. Fear and happiness, happiness that I can see my daughter flying up in the sky, but my heart was full of fear.

VERJEE: Back in Jordan, Hanadi (ph) has a message for other Saudi women.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you have a dream, follow it and do it.

VERJEE: Zain Verjee, CNN, Mecca, Saudi Arabia.


HOLMES: On that high note, that is it for this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Michael Holmes. The news continues.



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