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Witnessing deadly Hajj crush led to a degree at Sussex

“I cannot describe the horror of walking amongst the bodies of 346 dead pilgrims, with others injured and traumatized.”

This was the scene witnessed by University of Sussex student Hani Al-Nabulsi in 2006 when a crush among crowd members caused devastation at the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

More than three million Muslims travel annually to Mecca for the Hajj, one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, and the sheer number of pilgrims in one place has on several occasions led to incidents of injury or death.

Hani, who graduates with a PhD in Social Psychology on Thursday (21 January), was working as a manager at the pilgrimage when he witnessed one of these tragic incidents.

“By early afternoon I began to sense that there was a problem. […] As the crowd crushed forward, the density exceeded seven people per square meter, and at this point catastrophe was imminent.”

“The crowding caused the pilgrims to trip and fall, which rapidly resulted in a lethal crush.”

Hani’s experiences that day prompted him to wonder whether there was a better way to manage the crowd at the pilgrimage, and eventually led to a degree at Sussex.

While at the University, Hani worked with Dr John Drury to carry out a survey of 1194 pilgrims at the 2012 Hajj. Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire whilst in the middle of the crowd on their feelings of safety and their level of identification with others in the crowd.

The researchers discovered that pilgrims felt safer when they identified with others in the crowd, due to an increased perception that these other crowd members were supportive.

Hani explains: “Crowds are often seen as a source of problems. However, given the right circumstances, the crowd can act as part of the solution at large-scale gatherings.

He hopes that managers at the Hajj will be able to use this information to avoid similar crushes occurring in future.

“Until we understand the behaviours of people within crowds, and the psychology of those managing crowds, we will not be able to prevent these tragic incidents.”

By: James Hakner
Last updated: Friday, 29 January 2016