CNN’s Zain Verjee: Obama Inauguration Like Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca

CNN correspondent Zain Verjee, in a report posted on CNN.com on January 17, likened the expected large crowds for the inauguration of Barack Obama to the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca: “The coming political pilgrimage to Washington is similar to another grand event in both size and preparation -- the Hajj, the most important religious pilgrimage in the Muslim world.”

Verjee has personal experience of the Hajj, as she belongs to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam. She filed a web log for CNN of her experience on the pilgrimage in 2005. During her report, she emphasized how security is “[a]t the heart of the planning” for both the Hajj and on Inauguration Day. The CNN correspondent featured a clip of author Michael Wolfe, a convert to Islam, who claimed that security forces in Saudi Arabia “do have lessons to teach us in crowd control and in caring for large numbers of visitors in a modern city.”

Wolfe also played up Verjee’s earlier point about the similarities between the two events: “In both cases, you have large numbers of people gathering at a pre-ordained time in a specific city, to express a common set of beliefs and to celebrate a period of renewal. That’s very much at the heart of pilgrimage.”

Later in her report, Verjee highlighted how the inaugural “pilgrimage” of hundreds of thousands of people is being called by some “an act of faith in democracy and renewal.” She closed her report with a list of some of the differences between the Hajj and the Inauguration, such as the span of time and the weather.

The full transcript of Zain Verjee’s report from CNN.com:

ZAIN VERJEE (voice-over): The coming political pilgrimage to Washington is similar to another grand event in both size and preparation -- the Hajj, the most important religious pilgrimage in the Muslim world.

MICHAEL WOLFE, AUTHOR, ‘1001 ROADS TO MECCA’: In both cases, you have large numbers of people gathering at a pre-ordained time in a specific city, to express a common set of beliefs and to celebrate a period of renewal. That’s very much at the heart of pilgrimage.

VERJEE: At the heart of planning -- security. With two or three million people crammed into Mecca, there have been disasters, like stampedes, fires, terror attacks. The Saudis now roll out about 100,000 soldiers and policemen.

WOLFE: The Saudis do have lessons to teach us in crowd control and in caring for large numbers of visitors in a modern city. There’s a real emphasis, and has been for many years, on control of traffic. There’s a central computerized station in Mecca which is used to provide an overview to professional traffic controllers.

VERJEE: In 2006, we saw how this high-tech command center gets instant images from about 1400 cameras monitoring crowds. Software zooms in to inspect, and if there’s a problem, it’s e-mailed out to a field commander to check out. There’s a similar FBI monitoring center in Washington.

As many as two million are expected to come to the nation’s capital. Some are calling it an act of faith in democracy and renewal.

WOLFE: They’re not going to watch it on television. They’re going to be there, and that is the initial definition of a pilgrimage -- show up.

VERJEE (on-camera): There are differences too. Inauguration Day lasts just one day. The Hajj goes on for a few days. There’s a lot of living on the scene in the hot desert. In Washington, it will be freezing cold. Zain Verjee, CNN, Washington.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center