By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
Criticism of Saudi Arabia in The New York Times is not unusual these days, but a front-page opinion column in its international edition demanding that the Kingdom suspend the annual Hajj pilgrimage is laughable. Of course, no one is above critical questioning, particularly in relation to confronting the coronavirus pandemic; we can all learn from each other. But a publication with “New York” in its name might do well to look in its own back yard, rather than at a country that — statistically — is managing the crisis far more effectively.
The city of New York, with a population of 8 million, has over 160,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 12,000 deaths. By contrast, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 34 million (more than four times that of NYC), has reported just over 20,000 cases and 152 deaths.
Early, bold and decisive measures taken by Saudi Arabia included halting all prayers at mosques, and suspending Umrah for both residents and international travelers. By contrast, in The New Yorker magazine, Pulitzer-prize winning writer Charles Duhigg identified “local policy failure” as the main reason for New York becoming a major center of the pandemic.
No one, of course, is arguing that Hajj is not an important issue, or should not be discussed. However, the NYT article is constructed in such a way as to mislead readers into thinking that Riyadh has already made up its mind, and is secretly planning to go ahead with the pilgrimage.
That is not true. Everything the Kingdom has done so far indicates that it is more than ready to take any and all measures necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It has already asked prospective Hajj pilgrims worldwide to delay any plans they may have made. The signals could not be any clearer that canceling the pilgrimage is not off the table. Indeed, this very newspaper has published a number of articles recalling times throughout history when Hajj has been interrupted by plague or war.
The timing of the Saudi decision on Hajj is subject to many factors, most notably the ability to ensure the health and safety of the pilgrims, which is at the heart of Saudi Hajj policy every year. NYT columnists are free to voice their opinion, but their views on whether the Kingdom should proceed with Hajj carry little weight, in the Muslim world or anywhere else.
Questions must also be asked about the caliber of the NYT’s writers. When I read that Dr. Ebrahim Moosa is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, I expected to be told something I didn’t already know — not, as Dr. Moosa writes, that Hajj is one of the five pillars of islam, or that the presence of millions of pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah during a pandemic will have lethal consequences… Really?!
Moreover, while comparisons are invidious, in the interests of balance I would have expected the author to point out that the early Saudi decision to suspend prayers and access to the holy mosques came at a time when Iran was refusing to do so in Qom; that while Saudi clerics were urging people to stay and pray at home, those in Iran were advising people to disregard social distancing, and were distributing “perfume from the prophet” to hospital patients who later died; and that while Saudi Arabia took the painful but progressive decision to close the two holy mosques for Ramadan, Israel still banned scientific researchers from working on Saturday, and churchgoers in the US defied instructions to stay at home.
Sadly, such double standards are no longer unusual or unexpected from what President Trump calls the “failing” New York Times — accurately, in fact, since the NYT led the rabble demanding the president’s impeachment, and utterly failed. Now, ludicrously, the newspaper tries to label itself as the voice of 1.8 billion Muslims. It would do well to remember that it does not even represent the nearly 63 million Americans who voted for Trump — and with editorial judgment of such poor quality, I am not surprised.
- Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas