Hina Ali and Ali Jahan Zaib are a Muslim brother and sister in their early twenties who have been living in Hong Kong for more than two decades. Twenty-year-old Hina was born in Hong Kong and is a student at the University of Hong Kong. Her brother, 22-year-old Ali, though born in Pakistan, has been living in Hong Kong since the age of one and is a graduate of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

In an interview with HKFP, the siblings describe their recent experiences in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, where they were performing Hajj, the pilgrimage which is one of the obligations of Islam. They also told us what it is like to be a Muslim in Hong Kong.

This year’s Hajj was the scene of a major disaster when a massive stampede occurred on September 24.

Brother-sister duo Ali Jahan Zaib and Hina Ali. Photo: Hina Ali, via Facebook.

While Saudi authorities claim that the death toll from the stampede was 769, a recent report by the Associated Press claims that the numbers who died exceed 1,100. BBC Monitoring has put the toll at 1,216. This is the deadliest incident to have taken place during Hajj in the last 25 years.

The main causes of the stampede are being cited as lack of appropriate crowd control, infrastructure and management.

Hina and Ali feel that the attitudes of the pilgrims, which are not always “decent” or “reasonable,” also contributed to the chaos. “There are some groups of pilgrims from certain places who tend to get very pushy and ignore who they are pushing. This is something exactly opposite of what you are meant to learn from the Hajj experience which is being patient,” said Ali.

The siblings additionally heard rumours that the stampede was caused by a Saudi official passing through and hence blocking one of the two streets meant for pilgrims, though this was not verified.

Pilgrims at the Masjid al-Haram on Hajj in 2008. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

At the time of the stampede, Hina and Ali had just left the premises with the rest of their family members and retired for the day. Ali said, “I wasn’t there but I had just left and was walking back to my tent. There were numerous ambulances heading to the scene. I wasn’t even aware of what had happened until I got back to the tents where we were staying in Mina where some other people from our group had gotten calls from their families asking if their loved ones were all right.”

He described the response of the authorities in the aftermath of the stampede as immediate.

“They had ambulances on standby all around Mina with 3-4 hospitals as well. We could constantly see helicopters doing patrols and when the incident occurred I believe they had airlifted some pilgrims as well. Clearly, the next day, buses full of more Saudi soldiers went to the area where the stampede occurred and sent in groups of army personnel to walk in the crowd to prevent a sudden rush by pilgrims in case anything happened. This definitely caused people to slow down a bit thus preventing more groups from hurrying their rituals,” said Ali.

In the past few decades, the Saudi government has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure projects such as bridges and pillars to make Hajj safer.

Hina said, “…there are certainly risks involved in performing Hajj…but there are measures that are being taken to minimise them. For example, mosques and tents are all installed with air-conditioners and coolers. There are a multitude of organizations offering free food and drinks to pilgrims as well, to prevent dehydration and weakness. If pilgrims cannot walk, they may take buses which are on standby for them or hire someone to push a wheelchair for the elderly or sick. Hospitals and ambulances are also abundant and efficient, the Saudi government appoints medical staff from various countries so language and communication is not even a problem. Regarding the potential spread of infectious diseases, it is actually mandatory for pilgrims to be vaccinated before entering Saudi Arabia to reduce the chance of getting a disease.”

In spite of these facilities, she said the attitude and etiquette of pilgrims as they go about their Hajj rituals is of paramount importance in maintaining safety and order.

Ali, on the other hand, is more critical of the Saudi management.

“…you see problems like waste management, the poverty problem and even the race problem where the Saudis really put themselves above others. You can clearly see most of the manual labour is being done by Pakistanis, Indians, Bengalis, Indonesians and others from relatively poorer Muslim countries,” he said.

“Waste management is an issue and you can see mainly kids doing the clean up work in the camps. According to one local Saudi he said they were volunteers but it didn’t seem like that, to me at least. More like child labour, then again the locals wouldn’t want to agree to it if it was happening.”

“One major problem with the Saudi government is that it assumes anyone who enters Saudi Arabia, and even more so for people coming for Hajj or Umrah, is going to stay behind and work illegally. So that’s why they have such a complicated procedure to get into Saudi and they keep your passports the whole time you are observing Hajj.”

“I would never have known this if I hadn’t done Hajj myself.”

Hina feels that last month’s disaster could have been prevented with appropriate training for the pilgrims.

“…I suppose leaders of different Hajj groups could have offered training courses to pilgrims so that they would be aware of what to expect and how to react in such difficult situations. Some countries do provide these training courses, but I am not too sure of their quality. Take Hong Kong for example, I went through Hong Kong’s biggest Mosque group called the “Kowloon Masjid.” They only gave a brief introduction to Hajj instead of really addressing the potential problems that could occur,” she said.

Hong Kong is a religiously diverse city where religious freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law. Islam is one of Hong Kong’s minority religions. In late 2014, Hong Kong was home to about 270,000 Muslims, making up 3.72 per cent of the city’s population.

When asked about being a Muslim in Hong Kong, Hina said, “I do not really think Hong Kong is a Muslim-friendly city. By saying this I do not mean that it is anti-Islamic, but it just does not provide adequate resources and education for the public about Islamic culture. A very simple example is the concept of halal food – many Hong Kongers are unaware of what halal is or that Muslims are forbidden to consume pork, which is why it becomes so difficult to find places to eat out.”

Ali agreed with his sister with regards to food, and further added that Hong Kong is far behind competitors like Singapore in terms of providing halal options.

Both siblings said that, on the whole, their religious freedom isn’t interfered with in Hong Kong. They said this arises from a general apathy towards religion, since more than half of Hong Kong’s population does not engage in organised religion.

However, Ali added, “I think being a Muslim (in Hong Kong) isn’t the big problem. It’s just that most Muslims tend to get discriminated against because of their colour rather than their religion.”

Medhavi Arora is in her final year at the University of Hong Kong studying Journalism and International Relations. Her print, video and multimedia pieces have been featured in the Times of India and CNN-IBN. She is a former intern at UN Women and has additional experience in sustainability, international affairs and communications.