The differences in this year’s Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that officially began this week, are many: There’s the escalated efforts to contain Ebola and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus outbreaks, and then there are the selfies.
Thanks to the spread of smartphone technology globally, selfies aiming to share aspects of the pilgrimage, from the ritual walk around the Kaaba—the holiest site in Islam—to kissing the black stone inside, abound. Some religious scholars are not pleased.
The concern is that these images contradict the spirit of modesty of the worship. Until recently camera phones were prohibited from Mecca’s holy mosques; officials relaxed the rules for safety reasons, so pilgrims could be in contact in case of crisis. And with good reason: Thousands of pilgrims have been trampled, suffocated, or burned alive, including up to 350 deaths in a 2006 stampede, 343 in a fire in 1977, and almost 1,500 in a crowded tunnel in 1990.
But now that the floodgates are open, hastily-snapped self portraits come with the territory. Chalk it up to the age of digital narcissism.
Still, the technological infusion has its benefits. In addition to some engineering hacks that make the venue a lot safer (and cooler), authorities have deployed 60,000 security agents to monitor the thousands of closed-circuit cameras, facial recognition software, and a new electronic screening system for Hajj permits. A Hajj app, which serves as a people locator, navigator, translator and message box, is also being tested by 300 pilgrims from Chhattisgarh, India.
Naysayers can be thankful at least that wearable selfie drones aren’t yet swarming over Mecca.