The 2021 Hajj pilgrimage: Cancelled.. But why?

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(Dok. Kemenag RI)

IO – As a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia sends 220,000 Haj pilgrims every year—the highest Haj quota globally. However, Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Kholil Qoumas announced that the government had decided to “cancel” the departure of Indonesian Haj pilgrims in 2021. 

The decision, conveyed in a press conference on June 3, 2021, immediately drew mixed responses—acceptance, criticism, and even sneers. Why should the public care about this decision? Isn’t Haj pilgrimage just a religious event? 

Minister Yaqut himself called the decision a “bitter” one. He said that the government had “… decided to cancel the departure of Haj pilgrims during the Haj season of 1422 H for Indonesian citizens who use the Indonesian Haj quota and other quotas,” as announced in Jakarta (03/06/ 2021). 

A bold but a bit hasty decision 

As bitter as it is, of course this decision deserves serious scrutiny and attention from the public for several reasons. First, this is the second “cancellation” in the past two years for Indonesian Haj pilgrims. The term “cancellation” here needs to be questioned, because it implies that previously a decision has been confirmed. On the contrary, the decision to allow the Haj pilgrimage for 2021 has not been officially announced by the highest authority in Saudi Arabia. From a policy perspective, the term “cancellation” used by the Religious Affairs Ministry sounds problematic. They should have chosen a better word to communicate such an important policy decision. 

Second, in the midst of a difficult time during the pandemic, this decision can be considered to be very bold, but also a bit hasty because, to date, perhaps Indonesia is the only country that has announced the cancellation—unilaterally—even before an official decision from the Saudi Arabian government itself whether or not they will allow Haj pilgrimage in 2021. 

To be honest, as an observer, I was shocked, even more than last year’s “cancellation”. I think this time the government has been too hasty in its decision to “cancel”, for whatever reason. Let’s compare other countries’ response to this matter. 

A day after this announcement, the Malaysian government, through Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Religious Affairs Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri stated that “we are still waiting for an answer from the Saudi Arabian government regarding the departure of pilgrims from Malaysia to the Holy Land” (04/06/2021). Then he mentioned the importance of maintaining international diplomatic etiquette and manners, especially with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regarding important Haj decisions. 

Then, the Indian government, through the Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, on June 6, 2021, said it was not yet clear whether the annual Haj pilgrimage in 2021 would be allowed or not. However, as reported by ANI news agency, the Indian government’s decision will solely depend on the Saudi Arabian government. Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India would support whatever the Saudi government decides. 

Third, the government’s decision seems to be more focused on and heavily influenced by technical calculations, figures, and other administrative aspects related to Haj pilgrimage, while excluding other aspects. We heard the Minister Yaqut’s explanation that the Ministry had held various preparatory meetings and simulations since the end of 2020. Surely this is a very good thing, and deserves our commendation. But how much does the public know about these matters? How far and wide is the government’s familiarization on the preparations for the Haj pilgrimage known by the public? 

When the government said that the timeline for the Haj preparations was too “tight” so that it is not possible to send pilgrims, many thought the government had made a good calculation, and perhaps at the same time had considered input from Muslim organizations such as Muhammadiyah that recommended the government not send pilgrims for the 2021 Haj season. However, others also responded critically. 

In my opinion, the government seems less focused on seeking alternative models for Haj departure during the pandemic which requires attention to details, discipline, compliance to health protocols, but at the same time, flexibility. 

The government lacks sensitivity on non-technical matters related to Hajpilgrimage. The decision not to send pilgrims for two consecutive years must have had a big impact. In fact, the consequence can be profound, normatively and empirically. 

The Haj pilgrimage is the dream of every Muslim, and the holy city of Mecca is an important symbol, as we often see in photographs, paintings, calendars, calligraphy or even wall clocks. For Indonesian Muslims, Haj is the culmination of faith, the joyful and sorrowful experience of which is shared with friends and relatives. In the villages, tens or even hundreds of people would often accompany their relatives or neighbors who leave on a pilgrimage with prayers and hopes that one day they could also set foot in the Holy Land. 

Under normal circumstances, according to the calendar, the peak of the 2021 Haj pilgrim age should begin on the night of Saturday, July 17, 2021 until the night of Thursday, July 22, 2021, depending on the start of Dzulhijjah, 1442, or the 12th and last month of the year on the Islamic calendar. However, due to the Indonesian government’s decision to “cancel” this year’s Haj pilgrimage, the hopes of many pilgrims to carry out the fifth pillar of Islam have been dashed. According to a report, the waiting list for Indonesian pilgrims who have made a “down payment” to be in the queue has reached more than four million people. 

When calculated, the two-year absence would create a backlog of almost half a million (220,000 times two) of would-be pilgrims on the Religious Affairs Ministry’s waiting list. Although we all hope that this pandemic will be over soon, no one knows for sure when. This means we can never know how many more Haj seasons will would-be pilgrims have to wait. With the various projects to expand the pilgrim facilities in Mecca and Medina, we hope that Indonesian Haj quotas can be significantly increased. 

Indonesia didn’t get a quota? 

Fourth, the reasons put forward by the government are still centered on the Covid-19 global pandemic. That is, of course, a plausible reason. However, there are actually other factors that still didn’t add up, and observant members of the public actually know that until the day the government decides to “cancel” the Haj pilgrimage this year, Indonesia is still on the list of countries banned from flying into Saudi Arabia. Since April 2021, the civil aviation authority of Saudi Arabia has announced 20 countries that are banned from flying into the country, countries in Europe, America, Latin America, East Asia, and Asian countries that usually send pilgrims in large numbers such as India, Turkey and Indonesia. This ban was extended at end of April 2021. 

However, at the end of May, the Saudi Arabian government has lifted the “fly ban” for 11 countries, leaving only 9 countries on the list. And, herein lies the problem. Indonesia is still on it. 

The government should have elaborated more on this factor, and also taken appropriate steps in this regard. Why? Because the rumor in circulation suggest that the Indonesian government didn’t get a Haj quota from Saudi Arabia while other countries like Malaysia are said to have been granted “additional” Haj quota for 10,000 pilgrims. This is, of course, not true. We never know the real reason behind the ban. It could be purely the country’s policy to prevent imported Covid-19 cases. If this is the case then it must be respected by the international community, similar to the travel restrictions for foreign nationals imposed by other countries. 

Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Indonesia did say that the revocation of a fly ban for the 11 countries was not related to Haj pilgrimage not long after Minister Yaqut’s announcement. This was done in response to public chatter and rumors circulating on social media that Indonesia could not send its Haj pilgrims because it did not get a Haj quota in 2021. 

Unfortunately, the government has yet to pay specific attention to this matter, and has not explained that this is actually one of the significant factors and reasons behind the cancelation. Why? Because even if Saudi Arabia allow the Haj to go ahead this year and Indonesia gets a limited quota during the pandemic — perhaps far less than pre-pandemic figure — that doesn’t mean anything if Indonesia is still included in the no-fly list to Saudi Arabia. 

It’s widely known that Indonesian pilgrims for decades have been flown by Garuda Indonesia Airlines, apart from Saudi Airlines from various embarkation points in the country. In my opinion, the government, in this case the Religious Affairs Ministry, is less focused on addressing this issue and seems powerless in the face of torrent of criticisms and “bullying” by the public, especially on social and online media. 

In fact, if we pay closer attention, of the 11 countries whose landing rights were revoked, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Germany, the United States, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, France and Japan, perhaps only the UAE that can potentially send its pilgrims because the other 10 countries have an insignificant number of pilgrims. 

It would be a different matter if Indonesia, Turkey, India or Pakistan – which are still on the list – are allowed to fly into the country. These are countries with a large Haj quota, as well as growing number of Umrah (a lesser non-mandatory pilgrimage that may be performed any time during the year) pilgrims. According to official records, before the pandemic, no less than 700,000 Umrah pilgrims from Indonesia fly to Saudi Arabia to carry out what is considered sunnah (the Prophet’s recommendations). If Saudi Arabia gives the green light for Umrah, surely many Indonesians would flock to Mecca and Medina. I believe this is the most plausible reason why Indonesia— as well as other countries with a large Muslim population—is still on the blacklist. 

My speculation is that Saudi Arabia does not want to immediately open the “floodgate” for countries with a massive wave of would-be Haj and Umrah pilgrims. In addition, of course the ongoing pandemic, the emergence of new variants, and how the Covid-19 outbreak has been handled by these countries could be a strong reason behind why Saudi Arabia is very protective of its territory from the worst scenario of triggering a Covid wave through imported cases. 

In fact, Saudi Arabia is actively responding to the pandemic, even implementing drastic measures such as multiple lockdowns, intercity travel restrictions, to entry ban to certain mosques in Mecca and Medina for residents or worshipers. In fact, since May 2021, news has circulated that Saudi Arabia is limiting the use of loudspeakers in mosques so as not to pull crowds. Things like this show that Saudi Arabia is actually very serious, and its Haj and Umrah Ministry stated that it has put in place all necessary precautions and health protocols for pilgrims. However, the highest decision-making body with a final say on Haj-related matters, which usually consists of the Haj and Umrah Ministry, Home Ministry, Transportation Ministry, Health Ministry, and Foreign Affairs Ministry have yet to, at the time of this writing, officially decide on whether or not they will allow the Haj pilgrimage to go on. 

Rumors and Hoaxes 

Apart from the cancellation, Haj quota, and flight ban, there are other problems plaguing the Haj season this year. Some of these have been widely talked about and some of them are obviously hoaxes. For example, it is alleged that one of the reasons behind why Indonesian pilgrims are being denied entry into Saudi Arabia is because the Indonesian government has not paid for their food and lodging. 

Several Haj and Umrah organizers I talked to said that this is clearly a hoax. Why? Because, in general, service-sector entrepreneurs – catering, lodging, hotels to transportation – in Saudi Arabia adopt a “first come, first served” system. This means that all logistics must be prepared, negotiated, and paid up long before the Haj and Umrah pilgrimage is performed. This can be proven by a letter of agreement and a letter of work contract in each service area. Only then can it be ascertained. 

Others even point out that Haj is the best example of “cash economy” where all transactions are done in “cash”. Of course, the transaction can be done online or via interbank transfer, but in practice everything can only be ascertained if it has been paid upfront. This is the meaning of “cash” here. 

Another issue concerns the type of vaccines used in the handling of the pandemic. The question is: is it true that the vaccine used in Indonesia – Sinovac – becomes a barrier to entry for Indonesian pilgrims because it is reported that Saudi Arabia only approves Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Moderna? 

This issue plagues the Indonesian government because Indonesia is a heavy user of Chinese Sinovac vaccine (technically, the name of the vaccine is CoronaVac). However, the truth is that the Saudi Arabian government implements very strict health protocols for pilgrims, if the pilgrimage is to be held this year. There are two conditions: first, would-be pilgrims must have been fully vaccinated. In Indonesia, that means, receiving two doses; and second, tested negative for Covid-19. These are very sensible because there are still many cases where vaccinated people were still tested positive, or become infected even after having been vaccinated. 

So, where does this issue come from? It is true that Saudi Arabia only recognizes certain types or brands of vaccines that have been approved by the WHO. This is where the problem lies, because as of the end of May 2021, it is true that Sinovac had not been approved by the WHO. Indeed, the Indonesian government, even the country’s Ulema Council (MUI) have to convince the public that Sinovac is halal (permissible) for Muslims to use. Many would-be pilgrims were worried and confused because of the uncertainty. 

However, on June 1, 2021, WHO eventually acknowledged and approved Sinovac for emergency use authorization. In my opinion, the Indonesian government should immediately clarify to the public that Sinovac is safe for pilgrims. It’s just a matter of explaining and asking for a more clarification from the WHO whether performing Haj can be considered an “emergency”. As simple as that. 

Like a wildfire, the issue spread to other areas, such as questioning the strength of Indonesia’s diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, and several other issues, some of which are plain hoaxes, such as accusations that Indonesia’s Haj funds have been used up for infrastructure buildup and so on. Here, the government still looks wobbly and fuzzy in its response to the accusations. Indeed, the Haj funds should have been invested. Even though there is a maxim that “the higher the risk of an investment, the higher the potential return,” the Haj Fund Management Agency (BPKH) has to do it. Why? Because the real cost to perform Haj has increased significantly over the years. For example, in 2019, it was estimated that the total cost could reach over Rp70 million. Meanwhile, the cost paid by the would-be pilgrim is only Rp35 million. This stark difference requires a large subsidy, even though it is taken from the Haj fund investment yield. This is what the government needs to pay attention to. 

So what’s next then? 

As the Indonesian saying goes “the rice has become porridge” (“what’s done is done”). An important, bold decision has been taken, and carried out with little haste. Many would-be pilgrims and members of the public are resigned: “Oh well, there is nothing else I can do” (hopeless, devastated). 

But, why should this be the outcome? And, if there is more that can be done, what would it be? The goal is, of course, to make sure that the Indonesian Haj pilgrimage management can be improved in the future. 

Of course, there is still room for improvement. The government, in this case the Religious Affairs Ministry, should focus more on dealing with Haj issues, because after all they are the one mandated and authorized by the law to do it. 

However, internal information from the Ministry shows that the top office in charge of Haj and Umrah –Directorate General for Haj and Umrah Management (Dirjen PHU) – is still being run by an acting head, even twice. This shows that, bureaucratically, there are still some obstacles and internal problems. In my opinion, for a job as important and strategic as Haj management, the government should be more decisive and thorough in resolving this so that it can focus on improving the performance of Haj administration. Even more so when it is to be conducted amidst the pandemic. 

Also, the government can educate the public and conduct familiarization on the preparation and management of the Haj pilgrimage in a straightforward and transparent manner. This is to avoid any perception that the government is only preoccupied with the technical aspects, while neglecting the non-technical ones: diplomacy, symbolism of the pilgrimage, and empathy for would-be pilgrims who have to wait long for their turn. Don’t forget that the majority of them do not live in urban areas. They are not technocrats and bureaucrats, or Millennials who can easily comprehend administrative matters and evaluate information in the digital era. Most of them are at an advanced age: small traders, farmers and fisherfolk who have low education. 

Conclusion and recommendation 

The government has made a bold decision, but it is a little flawed in the eyes of the public, because it was made a bit hastily. Many factors contributed to this, such as public pressure, criticism on social media, unclear and lack of clear-cut information from Saudi Arabia, lack of access for the Indonesian government from the Haj authorities in Saudi Arabia, and “tight” preparation time for departure, especially the challenges faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

And finally, the government resorted to saying that as we are still in the midst of a pandemic, it is vital to maintain the health and safety of pilgrims. Of course, this is a valid and sensible reason, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is also preparing for the Haj pilgrimage under very strict health protocols. 

If possible, it is better that the Haj issues in the future can be discussed more comprehensively, especially under the extraordinary situation such as the ongoing pandemic. That is, the technical and non-technical aspects of Haj must be considered. The government should not only think normatively and administratively, but also act more flexibly in view of the pandemic. 

The involvement of educators, preachers and community leaders in providing simple explanations as well as during the decision-making process of a crucial event such as Haj would go a long way to help would-be pilgrims. 

Then, the government can cooperate with mass organizations, NGOs or civil society and immediately improve its public communication regarding the Haj, and how to effectively counter and respond to rapidly-circulating fake news, misinformation and hoaxes related to Haj and Haj fund management. These are some of the urgent issues it needs to address at the moment. 

Last but not least, the Religious Affairs Ministry can also invite and involve key players and stakeholders of Haj more broadly, including the pilgrims themselves. So far, the Indonesian Haj management seems overly bureaucratic, administrative and “quantitative”. The public needs to receive healthy and calming narratives in the midst of uncertainty, not news of “shocking” decisions. Hopefully, in the future Indonesia can give many positive contributions to Haj pilgrimage administration and how it can be managed properly and effectively. 

Dadi Darmadi is a Haj and Umrah researcher from the Center for Islam- ic and Community Studies (PPIM) of UIN (Islamic State University) Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta and a lecturer at the university’s Ushuluddin Faculty as well as its International Service and Partnership department head. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at IAIN Ja- karta (1994) and received a Fulbright scholarship for his Master’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder (1998). He earned his second Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Harvard Universi- ty (2006), and completed his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, USA with a focus on Haj, religion and bu- reaucratic culture in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. His expertise is in anthropol- ogy, religion and public policy. (Dadi Darmadi)

Dadi Darmadi is a Haj and Umrah researcher from the Center for Islamic and Community Studies (PPIM) of UIN (Islamic State University) Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta and a lecturer at the university’s Ushuluddin Faculty as well as its International Service and Partnership department head. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at IAIN Jakarta (1994) and received a Fulbright scholarship for his Master’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder (1998). He earned his second Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Harvard University (2006), and completed his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, USA with a focus on Haj, religion and bureaucratic culture in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. His expertise is in anthropology, religion and public policy.