Thursday, August 1, 2013

Far Fewer Chechens to Make the Haj This Year

By Paul Goble

Far fewer Chechens are scheduled to make the haj this year, owing to a cutback in haj slots allotted to the Russian Federation by Saudi Arabia, the cancellation of land transportation to the holy places because of instability in the Middle East, rising prices for the now necessary air travel, and a decline in the number of hajis whose costs are covered by private foundations. But the actual number of Chechen hajis may not decline as much as feared because at least some Chechens are likely to make the haj not from their home republic but from other parts of the Russian Federation where local believers are not able to fulfill the local quotas.

Every year, the Saudi authorities allocate haj slots country by country on the basis of a formula of one haji for every 1,000 Muslims. For more than a decade, the Russian Federation has had a quota of 20,500, although Russian hajis have busted this figure almost every year by travelling independently or going through third countries. In 2011, for example, some 40,000 hajis are estimated to have come to Mecca from the Russian Federation. But this year because of reconstruction of haj facilities, the Saudis cut back the Russian figure by 20 percent, and that translated into a reduction for Chechnya from 3,600 to 2,800 (

The actual number may be different, however. On the one hand, Chechen hajis will be compelled to fly because of problems in Syria and elsewhere rather than take the bus as in the past, with flights costing $4,000 to $5,000—vastly more than the bus. That may push the number down as will a projected decline in the number of haji slots paid for by private foundations. Indeed, the latter factor pushed the recorded number of hajis from Chechnya down to 3,150 last year, although the actual number, if one includes people travelling independently rather than as a group, was likely somewhat higher.

But on the other, at least some Chechens are likely to move to parts of the Russian Federation such as the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Republic, which have typically failed to fill their quotas, and apply to make their pilgrimage from there. According to the Russian Haj Committee, a joint government-religious body, Moscow is supposed to reallocate haj slots to regions where demand is greater, but in fact, this seldom happens in a timely manner. Given rising ethnic tensions in the Russian Federation, however, Moscow has better reasons than ever before to make the system work as intended.

This decline in the number of hajis from Russia has at least three consequences. First, because few Muslims could make the pilgrimage during Soviet times, many see going now as their right and will be angry. Second, at least some Muslims may now turn to local Sufi-controlled pilgrimage sites within the country, something Moscow opposes because these places often radicalize visitors. And third, many Muslims in the Russian Federation may blame Moscow rather than the Saudis for the new restrictions.

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