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Mecca Pilgrimage Begins Friday; Last Year's Hajj Was Marred By Tragedy


One of the world's greatest gatherings begins this Friday - the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This year's Hajj follows one that was marred by tragedy.


The numbers here are in dispute, but as many as 2,600 pilgrims died when they were trapped in the crush of a crowd on a very narrow street. Saudi Arabia, which manages the Hajj, investigated how that could have happened, but it's not released results, which has infuriated Iran, which lost hundreds of its citizens.

MONTAGNE: One year later, the top religious leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia, who represent two different Muslim traditions, Shia and Sunni, are still arguing over that disaster. It's an argument with serious geopolitical ramifications. And for more, we talked to Vali Nasr, whose books include "The Shia Revival."

VALI NASR: This is not the first tragedy that has happened in Hajj, but it just happened that last year that a large number of those killed were Iranians. And then because this tragedy happened at a time when these two governments, they had competition in Yemen and Syria, and it very quickly escalated into a major tension. Saudi Arabia proceeded to execute a Shiite cleric for sedition. There was a riot and an attack on Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia reacted by essentially breaking off all relations with Iran and banning any Iranians from going to Saudi Arabia or any Saudis going to Iran. So as a consequence, there are no Iranians going to Hajj this year.

MONTAGNE: What did Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini say in marking the anniversary of that tragedy? What did he say this week?

NASR: Well, he has, all through, had very harsh words for Saudi Arabia, largely because this stampede happened in the context of escalation of tensions between the two countries over the war in Yemen that Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of stoking over Syria, Iraq and generally the heightened sectarian tensions in the region.

MONTAGNE: Well, in fact, I believe that the ayatollah also referred to Iranians who died last year as being - some of them - murdered because the injured in this stampede, he would say, were not cared for appropriately.

NASR: Yes, that's correct, although there's no clear evidence for that. But the issue of safety of pilgrims goes to the heart of the Saudi government's legitimacy. And therefore, by accusing the Saudi government, first and foremost, of not being able to provide safety, secondly, of not caring for those who are injured, the supreme leader is trying to put pressure on the Saudi government, as the custodian of the two holy places and as a self-declared leader of the Islamic world, of being incapable of managing the Hajj, which is the most important religious festivals and religious observation for Muslims on an annual basis around the Muslim world. And then you ended up in a situation of tit for tat, where Iranian accusations were met with Saudi counter-accusations, and then lack of cooperation between the two sides.

MONTAGNE: Well in this tit for tat, Saudi Arabia's own religious leader responded to Iran with some pretty harsh remarks that Shiite Iranians were actually not Muslims.

NASR: Yes, he did. And this is actually something that the Saudi religious establishment has been saying all along. Saudi Arabia's view of Islam is very narrow, and it views Shiites, actually, as non-Muslims. And this has been one of the issues that has fueled sectarian tensions in the region. And these two countries are right now engaged in a pretty tough competition for influence and assertion of power in the region. And in some ways, this underscores the fact that the rivalry between these two countries is very much playing out in the - in the religious realm as well and is one reason why sectarianism has become such a nefarious force in the region - because it's being employed by these two powers as they try to compete with one another for influence and power in the region.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

NASR: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Vali Nasr is head of the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. An updated edition of his book, "The Shia Revival," is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.