The Hajj each year brings untold suffering for the poor Muslim families in the poor Muslim states. My country, Bangladesh, home to 170 million, was once known internationally as the poorest country in the world. It is still a poor country. In recent years, hunger has been reduced from famine-like to "just" a hand to mouth condition in this densely populated tiny land.

This minute change came about mainly from the ready-made garments, or textile, sector in which four million girls, aged twelve and up, work exhaustedly ten hours a day. Every single dollar that comes into Bangladesh represents an acre of sweat.

Every year, however, a massive amount of precious foreign currency is flushed out of the country toward Saudi Arabia in the name of the Hajj pilgrimage, pulling back and hollowing out the currency here. This year, over 107,000 pilgrims left Bangladesh to observe the Hajj rituals in Saudi Arabia. Each enthusiast officially spends an average of $6,000 to go on the Hajj; and millions more hidden dollars pass out of the country unofficially. In this way, billions of U.S. dollars fade away from this poverty-stricken nation.

Meanwhile, people cannot get electricity for more than a few hours a day, and.approximately 1,000 road accidents occurred this year due to the poor conditions of the roads, which the government cannot repair for lack of funds.

Most people are so obsessed with the Hajj that they do not even bother to compare what they are spending with the better exchange rates of the foreign currencies in the country's black market. Moreover, there are pickpockets stationed to leak money from pilgrims who are unaware.

Although people are free to choose whether to go on the Hajj or not, many are distressed about the crushing pressure, especially on poor people, to embark on this dubious journey.

Among the pilgrims are hundreds who have just retired from government service and are making the trip with the last sums of money they will have to live on in retirement for the rest of their lives. Most of the time, these pilgrims are burdened with two or three daughters who are yet to get married; as marriages are arranged in this part of the world, parents need a notable amount of money for the dowry and often the ceremony. There might also be family members who live with them -- their mother or father -- who desperately need nursing; but the Hajj is so important, so necessary, for the majority of the people here, that, for the sake of becoming "pure," they completely ignore these obligations.

Why does this happen? It is so easy to exploit people who are illiterate. For hundreds of years, people are taught that Saudi Arabia is the most sacred place. They are led to believe that if someone dies on Saudi land, he will be transferred directly to Paradise. In Muslim societies, an adult must perform the Hajj at least once in his life to be cleansed of sins and make him "eligible" for Paradise where 72 virgins await him; for women, nothing. Even educated Muslims can become violent to avail themselves of this choice. But where is the freedom to choose for other people who might wish for something different?

In addition, Saudi Arabia regularly donates spectacular amounts of money to build mosques and madrassas [religious schools] where the young are taught concepts that are not true and about places that do not exist. More than 4,000,000 students are now "learning" in madrassas in Bangladesh alone.

Government officials never interfere in this trend out of fear they might not be re-elected. The government even provides officials to oversee these operations. School texts are highly influenced by the Islamic beliefs. Most importantly, freedom of speech is harshly banned, especially on these issues. Most of the citizens therefore have no way to air their ideas, and no way to speak out, so there is no ability or vehicle to make people aware of these medieval ideas.

There are, further, countless prejudice-derived injustices here. You will see everyone walk down the street with possessions to offer to the clergyman, or master, or whatever you would like to call him. A scrawny, torn-dressed man leading a cow, who stopped to ask for a glass of water, said: "For last six years I have saved up money to buy a cow to offer it before the master. I had had no more money to carry the cow on a train. So I started to walk from Rangpur (a distant district, more than 300 kilometers away). Thanks to Allah I am now only 20 kilometers or so away from my destination."

That "master," it turned out, had been earning millions of dollars from these kind of followers. When he died, he left more than ten million poverty stricken, illiterate followers who now have to pay fealty to his two sons.

One of these sons was educated at Al-Azhar University in Egypt; the other not only has a massive house in the most luxurious area of Dhaka, the capital, but the house is being used as harem-lodge where more than 50 girls live to amuse him. The younger son once shot and injured his elder brother with a pistol in response to accusations that he had slept with the elder brother's wife. But justice did not touch them.

This non-fiction is like the Hajj: Saudi Arabia gets pilgrim-taxes from the poor devotees. The Emirs, Princes and even ordinary citizens, mix up this taxation money with their enormous oil-revenues, and roam around the world, as far as the hotels of London, searching for beautiful girls and sometimes boys, to take to bed with them. This is what they do with our money -- many millions each year.

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