A few weeks ago tragedy struck during the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. A new tally shows that at least 1621 were killed, and thousands more were injured or are missing. Other sources put the death toll near 2,000. While the exact cause of the “Mina stampede” is disputed, the Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street.
However other experts don’t classify the tragedy as a stampede. For example, University of Sussex crowd behavioral expert Anne Templeton told Newsweek. “The density of the Hajj has been shown to reach up to 6–8 people per square meter, so I would be very surprised if a stampede (implying people running mindlessly) could occur in the first place.” The Mina disaster is better understood as a “progressive crowd collapse”: beginning at densities of about six to seven persons per square meter, individuals are pressed so closely against each other they are unable to move as individuals, and shockwaves can travel through a crowd which, at such densities, behaves somewhat like a fluid. If a single person falls, or other people reach down to help, waves of bodies can be involuntarily precipitated forward into the open space. One such shockwave can create other openings in the crowd nearby, precipitating further crushing.Unable to draw breath, individuals in a crowd can also be crushed while standing.
We also know is that a number of crowd crush tragedies have occurred in the past during the hajj, with 1,426 people being suffocated and trampled to death in a 1990 tunnel tragedy, and at least 701 people killed in crowd crushes between 1991 and 2005.
We also know that 346 people were killed in a similar Jamaraat incident in 2006, which prompted the Saudi government to improve the infrastructure of the city and its procession routes. The Saudi Arabian government has been spending $60 billion to expand the Grand Mosque which houses the Kaaba, and has deployed 100,000 security forces and 5,000 CCTV cameras to monitor the crowds.
What also caught my attention about the tragedy were some of the religious responses to the tragedy. To his credit Salman al-Ouda, a Saudi cleric said that “Riyadh regime should be held accountable for the crush, adding that Saudi rulers cannot evade their responsibility by labeling the tragedy as an act of God.” He called on media outlets to cover the incident with full transparency.
However others were not so rational. For example, A Saudi human rights activist said “The way I see it is success goes to those in authority, and mistakes go to God’s will.” And Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader (appointed to his position by King Fahdin 1999), told Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, Muhammad bin Nayef, “You are not responsible for what happened. As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable”.
I cannot say to what extent the government was fully or partly responsible, or to what extent a number of other factors like crowd size, record heat, pedestrian bottlenecks, etc. came together to cause the tragedy. What I can say is that supernatural will had nothing to do with this. It is easy to criticize such simple-minded attempts to deal with tragedy, and it is understandable that human beings want explanations, but it is counterproductive to blame imaginary gods for such tragedies. Such explanations lead to fatalism and passivity, exactly the opposite of what we need if we are to improve our lives and those of our descendants.