The politics of Hajj-going in Britain

mcloughlinSeán McLoughlin, University of Leeds

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Muslims and governance: an evolving relationship

Get a pdf of this article here

The Hajj is one of the largest annually occurring pilgrimages in the world and is a major event in the lifetime of many Muslims. In the UK it has also been at the centre of complex negotiations between Muslims and between Muslims and government. Indeed, by exploring the politics of Hajj-going in Britain one can get an insight into the fluctuating relations between Muslims and the state over the last twenty years.

On average, around 23,000 British Muslim pilgrims travel annually to Saudi Arabia to complete the Hajj, which is incumbent once in a lifetime upon Muslims who have the  means. These figures are the highest for Muslims in Western Europe; indeed, ‘London has become the Hajj capital of Europe’.[1] In this essay I am not going to be concerned with UK pilgrims’ experiences of the religious rituals of Hajj, something I have written about elsewhere.[2] Rather, based on 11 recent, in-depth interviews with pilgrim welfare organisations, government officers and tour operators, I am more interested in what a case study of Hajj-going reveals about the changing contemporary relationships between British Muslims, Islamic organisations and the UK state.

My argument is that even while Hajj-going in the UK is not supervised by the state, as it is in Muslim-majority countries, during the 2000s the Hajj did become a temporary focus for government soft power. As we shall see, awareness of pilgrims’ needs at home and abroad has come in large part as a result of British Muslim activism. However, the pilgrim welfare lobby in the UK reflects the particular resources and capacities, as well as the divisions, of British Muslim voluntary organisations per se. Thus, what was crucial in better recognition and regulation of Hajj-going in the UK during the 2000s was ultimately a changing political context and especially a New Labour government’s (1997-2010) need to incorporate British Muslims, whether in terms of inner-city votes or policies of cohesion and security.

MPCG SM 1The pilgrim welfare lobby and the emergence of a British Hajj delegation

Large minority ethnic constituencies have come to exercise political leverage in particular locales of postcolonial Britain since the 1980s. However, successful lobbying on behalf of Muslim pilgrims in the UK has most often been targeted at national government given a primary concern with problems in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Founded in 1998, the Association of British Hujjaj[3] (ABH) is a registered charity based in Birmingham, the city with the second largest Muslim population in the UK and one dominated by British Pakistanis, the largest single Muslim ethnic group in the country. Formed in response to various Hajj disasters in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s as pilgrim numbers skyrocketed, the ABH chairman himself told of how, immediately after a 1997 tent fire, which killed over 300 pilgrims, he had been unable to determine the fate of various family members. On other occasions, too, the ABH general secretary and various local people had been unable to easily access help when they were affected by thefts or deaths in the holy places; it seemed that every year hajjis returned to Birmingham with tales of human tragedy. Thus, various businessmen and professionals in the city, together with a number of senior Muslim medical doctors and religious scholars, decided to establish the ABH.

A_city_of_luxury,_some_do_without_-_Flickr_-_Al_Jazeera_English
Pilgrim welfare? British Muslim Hajj-goers have not always been able to access help and support they need when in crisis

The ABH’s pioneering objectives were twofold: 1) to persuade the British government to better support its Muslim citizens on Hajj and ‘umra[4] and 2) to educate British Muslims about health and safety matters in Mecca and its environs. In terms of the former, the late Dr Syed Aziz Pasha of the Union of Muslim Organizations, UK and Eire, an early Muslim umbrella organisation founded in 1970, had called upon the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to consider a UK Hajj mission during the early 1990s but to no avail.[5] However, when New Labour came to power in 1997, dependent on many votes from amongst the expanding Muslim populations of the UK’s inner-cities, a political context emerged that was hospitable to extending the public recognition of minority ethnic ‘communities’ to include ‘faith’ and indeed ‘Islam’.[6] The ABH approached a fellow Pakistani / Kashmiri, Baron Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, the Labour councillor who was raised as the first Muslim male life peer in 1998, and it was he that provided the necessary ‘bridging power’ to government. Together with Lord Ahmed, at a meeting in the House of Lords on 15 July 1999, the ABH managed to convince Baroness Symons that there was diplomatic advantage both at home and abroad in the UK being the first non-Muslim government in the West to establish a UK Hajj delegation.[7]

MPCG SM 2Muslim interlocutors, local/global contexts and the question of funding

Lord Ahmed went on to lead the very first British Hajj Delegation (BHD) in 2000. However, it was eventually decided by the FCO that he would do so alongside another dignitary, Muslim Council of Britain (MCB, established 1997) general secretary, (now Sir) Iqbal Sacranie, a Gujerati heritage businessman originally from Malawi. Increasingly privileged by New Labour in support of the effort to establish a new, professionalised British Muslim leadership, one which would act as the main interlocutor with the state, at the time, the MCB was sometimes criticised by existing Muslim organisations for seeking to assume control of their work. Indeed, representing a very different religio-ethnic segment of interests, the ABH general secretary is on record suggesting that the whole BHD initiative had been ‘hijacked’ and ‘politicised’,[8] with the proposed delegation and its leadership increasingly dominated by MCB affiliates. When Lord Ahmed eventually resigned his role, it was a member of the MCB’s Board of Counsellors, and another new Labour peer, Lord Adam Patel of Blackburn, also of Gujerati heritage, who subsequently led the BHD from 2001, the year in which MP for Blackburn, Jack Straw, became Foreign Secretary.

While the core concern of the BHD was to provide English-speaking medical support,[9] it was also part of a wider FCO strategic priority which saw domestic and foreign policy interests converge in the context of ‘9/11’ and the ‘war on terror’. There was a desire to both improve British Muslim perceptions of UK government policy and promote better relations with the Arab and Muslim world more generally.[10] In its heyday, this exercise in soft power was ritually performed when Foreign Secretary Straw launched the delegation annually in partnership with its new leader and symbolic ‘representative’ of British Muslim pilgrims, Lord Patel. In the company of various ambassadors and diplomats, this event was hosted at the symbolic home of the wider Muslim world in the UK, the Saudi-funded Regent’s Park Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC). Even while in other arenas of policy ‘old’ Labour state multiculturalism faced stern criticism,[11] this gathering communicated New Labour’s communitarian vision for the UK as a multi-faith, participatory democracy where, as active citizens, British Muslims could take a role in UK diplomacy.

MPCG SM 3However, while many of the BHD medics funded their own locum cover, the government was forced to defend criticism of the overall cost of the BHD when it was clarified that the pilgrimages of other faiths were not being supported in a similar fashion.[12] For instance, Sir Michael Jay, head of the diplomatic service, maintained that the Hajj was ‘a unique event which merits special attention’.[13] During the 2000s, FCO expenditure on the BHD increased every year from around £40,000 in 2004 to £110,000 by 2009. A Hajj Advisory Group had also been established in 2001-02 with a view to encouraging British Muslims to independently support the BHD. However, despite the involvement of the MCB, the ABH and  other organisations with close connections to diverse Muslim constituencies,[14] such finance was not generally forthcoming with the exception of small contributions from Bombay Halwa Ltd and GlaxoSmithKline.[15] Thus, the Hajj Advisory Group was abolished in 2006,[16] the year that Jack Straw left the FCO.

Health and Hajj fraud: ethnic networks and ‘hard to reach’ communities 

Tellingly, since its inception, there has been no mention at all of the BHD on the ABH’s website.[17] Since 2004, too, and always a few weeks before the official BHD launch, ABH patron, Lord Ahmed, has hosted a complementary but parallel event, ‘Hajj Awareness Week,’ at the House of Lords. There are also ABH pre-Hajj camps and seminars in cities with significant Pakistani numbers, including Bradford, Manchester and Glasgow, as well as Birmingham and London. Indeed, despite being marginalised from the BHD, the ABH secured small pots of state funding to deliver Hajj-related messages to these government-identified ‘hard to reach’ communities during the 2000s.[18] For instance, when, in 2001, an outbreak of the rare W135 strain of meningitis was traced to UK hujjaj or those who had been in close contact with them,[19] the Department of Health worked in partnership with both the ABH and MCB, as well as private sponsors, to raise awareness of the issues, including new Saudi Ministry of Hajj immunisation requirements.[20] Officers of the ABH make regular contributions, too, in the British Pakistani diasporic public sphere, including the Urdu press and a newly burgeoning Islamic satellite television sector which is an especially significant means of reaching Muslim women. The ABH is therefore best understood principally as an expression of established (but far from unified) Pakistani Muslim networks and interests, and it is this constituency that it serves to a greater or lesser extent.

Another increasingly important concern of the ABH is Hajj fraud, which involves a range of industry problems including incompetence, dishonesty and outright deception amongst a pyramid of tour operators, sub-agents and touts. For instance, the trading standards department in Birmingham claims that in 2012 only four out of 40 Hajj and ‘umra tour operators and agents in the city were fully compliant with UK package tour regulations.[21] Estimating that only 10% of Hajj fraud is reported,[22] and well-aware of the religio-cultural factors inhibiting this amongst older pilgrims especially, the ABH has argued that it is the responsibility of central government to proactively benchmark and regulate UK Hajj- and ‘umra-going as distinct from the ‘secular’ travel and tourism industry. Indeed, following lobbying by the ABH, their then local MP, Roger Godsiff, led a House of Commons debate on 25 March 2009 concerning ‘Hajj Pilgrims (UK Tour Operators).’[23] Reflecting the organisation’s view that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was taking a ‘soft approach’ to these issues in stressing better consumer awareness, it was suggested that all travel agents should pay a bond to ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) with ‘a number of small tour operators going out of business … a price worth paying’ to protect a vulnerable community.

New leaderships, new initiatives? Self-regulation and the problem of representation

i
The Ka’ba in Mecca, one focus for the Hajj rituals

If the ABH mainly reflects the networks of British Pakistanis, the second and only other Hajj welfare organisation of any significance in the UK, the Council of British Hajjis (CBH), is based in Bolton, Lancashire which, like other north-west locations, is a node in British Gujerati / East African Asian Muslim networks. While this means that the CBH also has links to the MCB and another key British Indian political figure in Lord Patel, notably, the organisation is a British-born-led initiative, and so reflects a different approach to that of an older generation of community leaders. Having been for Hajj himself in 2005, the chief executive of the CBH wondered why so much accumulated knowledge about Hajj-going was still not being communicated to British Muslims at the grassroots – ‘Why weren’t people being educated?’ Since holding its first ‘Health at Hajj’ seminar in Bolton during 2006, the CBH’s volunteer young professionals have delivered various events, including flu and meningitis vaccination clinics, in thirty locations around Lancashire, Yorkshire and beyond.[24] Thus, the CBH and the ABH often end up doing quite similar work within parallel networks because of their distinctive ethno-deno-minational locations.

Unlike the ABH, however, which imagines a more ‘old Labour’ interventionist welfare state, the CBH emphasises the need for Muslim self-regulation of the Hajj and ‘umra industry in the UK, a view which reflects both the position of the outgoing New Labour and the incumbent Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition (2010- ) governments. In a secular, multi-faith society the central government officer interviewed for this project was clear that the UK state ‘does not want to control religious pilgrimage…. [It is] important that tour operators work together and have a national body’. Accordingly, in the 2009 House of Commons debate mentioned above, New Labour reported on its efforts to raise low levels of community awareness of consumer rights. A Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform ‘compliance summit’ (16 July 2008) was also organised to ‘hear [tour operators’] views on how they believe the sector can improve its reputation and achieve greater consumer confidence.’[25] Although the Civil Aviation Authority subsequently reported increased ATOL (Air Tours Organisers’ Licensing) and IATA (International Air Transport Association) registrations among tour operators, since 2011 the CBH has nevertheless sought to establish a national British Hajj and Umrah Council which would see tour operators sign up to a voluntary code of practice.

MPCG SM 4This opportunistic move exemplified the argument of the central government officer that, while tour operators themselves – and indeed established Muslim representatives in Britain more generally – seem to lack leadership, they are being ‘shaken up’ by a younger generation of ‘can-do’ activists. However, if an independent-minded tour operator from the north of England is anything to go by, the CBH still has work to do in winning UK tour operators around to the idea of a trade organisation: ‘You don’t get everybody in same frame of mind. I can’t see that happening.’ Moreover, another north of England tour operator, who was one of the few from the UK attending the World Hajj and Umrah Convention held at Olympia, 21-22 May 2013, very strongly opposed the idea that ‘NGOs’ (non-governmental organisations) could represent either tour operators or pilgrims’ interests.

Conclusion

In the wider context of austerity Britain, and a new emphasis on a ‘small state’ and the ‘big society,’ in 2010, the new coalition government, despite petitioning from the ABH, the CBH and others, withdrew its support for the BHD medical team. In public communications, consular ministers also seemed to adopt a more admonitory tone with pilgrims, urging them to heed FCO travel advice and ‘take responsibility for their own pre-travel preparations.[26] Suggesting that British Muslim organisations no longer had the ear of government, in sharp contrast to the previous decade, the review of the BHD ‘did not include consultations with community leaders but, rather, took an objective view … The FCO does not provide medical services at any other event involving large numbers of British nationals.’[27] In the context of a new ‘muscular liberalism’,[28] and the envy which government resources directed to Muslims have aroused post ‘7/7’,[29] a Tory establishment with fewer political reasons to court British Muslims decided that the Hajj was no longer ‘unique’ or deserving of ‘special’ support. Government argued that there had been a significant improvement in Saudi medical facilities and a related drop in demand for BHD medical services although this was strongly contested by the CBH.[30]

Yet, as political contexts have changed once again, a new chapter in the story of the BHD has already begun, with its re-launch as a private British Muslim initiative led by Lord Patel at the ICC on 29 September 2012.[31] On the new organisation’s website, and for the very first time, the logo of the ABH sits alongside that of the CBH, as well as those of certain well-known Ministry of Hajj-approved tour operators. It will be fascinating to see whether, in the absence of financial support from the UK state, the new BHD can build organisational leadership capacity and sustainable intra-Muslim alliances, what if any relationship it will have to attempts to establish a national body for tour operators, and to what extent any such developments will positively impact on the experiences of Hajj pilgrims.

Seán McLoughlin is a Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. During 2013-14 he is a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow and writing about various aspects of his research on Hajj-going from the UK. This work draws in part upon data collected with the support of an AHRC grant awarded to the British Museum as part of its 2012 Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam exhibition. The material discussed in this essay is also to be published as part of a longer contribution to a British Museum volume, Hajj: Collected Essays (Porter and Saif 2013).


[1] Robert R. Bianchi, Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 63.

[2] Seán McLoughlin, ‘Holy Places, Contested Spaces: British-Pakistani Accounts of Pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah’, in Muslims in Britain: Identities, Places and Landscapes, ed. Richard Gale and Peter Hopkins (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 132–149.

[3] Hujjaj is the Arabic plural of Hajji, one who has completed the Hajj.

[4] The minor, non-obligatory pilgrimage which can be completed at any time of year.

[5] Mozammel Haque, ‘Launch of British Hajj Delegation 2012’, Islamic Monitor, 5 October 2012, http://islamicmonitor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/launch-of-british-hajj-delegation-2012.html.

[6] Seán McLoughlin, ‘The State, New Muslim Leaderships and Islam as a Resource for Public Engagement in Britain’, in European Muslims and the Secular State, ed. Jocelyne Cesari and Seán McLoughlin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 55–70. Following the Rushdie Affair the Tories did not concede any Muslim claims for public recognition as ‘Muslims’ and insisted that they speak with one voice.

[7] Independent on Sunday, 17 October 1999.

[8] See Q News, 1 March 2000. Elsewhere I have argued that most British Pakistanis, who are more likely to have a Sufi- or Barelwi-influenced heritage, have typically had little to do with the MCB, which traces its roots to the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, a coalition of Deobandi- and Jama’at-i Islami-influenced activists, formed during the Rushdie Affair of 1989. See McLoughlin, ‘The State, New Muslim Leaderships and Islam as a Resource for Public Engagement in Britain’.

[9] Between 2000 and 2009 the British Hajj Delegation (BHD) included eight or nine volunteer British Muslim doctors, including eventually one or two women doctors, as well as a chief medical adviser. They were joined as part of the BHD by one or two counsellors and two or three FCO staff from the UK’s consulate in Jedda.

[10] Hansard, ‘Letter to the Clerk of the Committee from the Parliamentary Relations and Devolution Team, Foreign and Commonwealth Office’, Parliament, 26 November 2004, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmfaff/36/36we06.htm.

[11] McLoughlin, ‘The State, New Muslim Leaderships and Islam as a Resource for Public Engagement in Britain’.

[12] The Independent, 28 April 2003

[13] Hansard, ‘Further Memorandum Submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’, Parliament, 4 December 2003, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmfaff/859/859we15.htm.

[14] TheyWorkForYou, ‘Hajj Pilgrimage: Hansard Written Answers and Statements’, TheyWorkForYou, 30 January 2007, http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2007-01-30b.112114.h&s=Hajj+delegation#g112114.r0.

[15] Hansard, ‘Annex A’, Parliament, 23 September 2004, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmfaff/745/745we10.htm.

[16] TheyWorkForYou, ‘Hajj Advisory Group: Hansard Written Answers and Statements’, TheyWorkForYou, 24 February 2009, http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2009-02-24a.47.0&s=Hajj+delegation#g47.1.

[17] See http://www.abhuk.com/.

[18] Hansard, ‘The Reduction of Racial Disadvantage Grant Programme’, Parliament, 7 July 2000, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmhansrd/vo000707/text/00707w12.htm.

[19] Hansard, ‘Meningitis’, Parliament, 3 May 2001, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200001/cmhansrd/vo010503/text/10503w16.htm.

[20] The previous year, three women in Blackburn, Liverpool and Ilford had died from the same infection having returned from Hajj. See Artsweb, ‘British Muslims Monthly Survey’, Artsweb, April 2000, http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/bmms/2000/04April00.asp.

[21] Emma McKinney, ‘Watchdog Calls on Government to Stop Muslims Going on Religious Hajj Pilgrimages Being Ripped Off’, Birmingham Mail, accessed 21 June 2013, http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/watchdog-calls-on-government-to-stop-muslims-181285.

[22] National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and City of London Police, ‘Hajj Fraud Leaflet’, 15 October 2010, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hajj-fraud-leaflet.

[23] Hansard, ‘Hajj Pilgrims (UK Tour Operators)’, Parliament, 25 March 2009, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090325/halltext/90325h0004.htm.

[24] See http://www.the-cbh.org.uk/.

[25] Hansard, ‘Pilgrimages’, Parliament, 30 June 2008, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldhansrd/text/80630w0004.htm.

[26] Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘Travel Advice for Hajj Pilgrims’, 13 October 2010, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/travel-advice-for-hajj-pilgrims.

[27] Hansard, ‘Hajj Advisory Group’, Parliament, 1 November 2010, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm101101/text/101101w0003.htm#1011022001567.

[28] This was a term used by British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a speech delivered in Munich on radicalisation and the failure of multiculturalism See David Cameron, ‘PM’s Speech at Munich Security Conference’, Official Site of the British Prime Minister’s Office, 2011, http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference/.

[29] Yahya Birt, ‘Promoting Virulent Envy? Reconsidering the UK’s Terrorist Prevention Strategy’, Royal United Services Institute Journal 154, no. 4 (2009): 52–58.

[30] According to Lord David Howell, ‘The number of people treated for minor ailments was 5,967 in 2007, 2,965 in 2008 and 254 in 2009. See ’Hansard, ‘Diplomacy’, Parliament, 11 November 2010, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101111-0003.htm#10111158000568. However, ‘The advertisement of the delegation being there came out too late … people didn’t know where the delegation was’ (CBH chief executive).

[31] See http://www.britishhajjdelegation.org.uk/.

The image Hajj pilgrims sleeping on the street is included courtesy of Omar Chatriwala of Al Jazeera English and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. The image of the Ka’ba is included courtesy of Abdel Nasser and is licensed for reuse under the terms of the Free Art License.

One Response to “The politics of Hajj-going in Britain”

  1. A a hafezi

    Agree that labour for their own political reasons funded this by putting forward labour luvvies. Was consulted by Lord Patel with number of others on fraud and regulating the travel agencies. Too many self interests.

    Reply

Leave a Reply