McMecca: The Strange Alliance of Clerics and Businessmen in Saudi Arabia

Why are Wahhabi leaders allowing the destruction of historical sites in Islam's holiest city?
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Construction cranes are seen as Muslims circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on January 6, 2013. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

The Saudi government is demolishing some of the oldest sections of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, according to a report by The Independent this week , which includes photos of the wreckage. The mosque is one of Islam's most important religious sites, to which all Muslims face while praying. The sections being destroyed date back to the Ottoman and Abbasid period and are the last remaining parts of the compound that are more than a few hundred years old. "One column which is believed to have been ripped down is supposed to mark the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad began his heavenly journey on a winged horse, which took him to Jerusalem and heaven in a single night," The Independent reports.

Though the Saudi government argues that the demolition is part of a plan to expand the Grand Mosque complex to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims to the site, it seems strange that the theocratic government, controlled by extremist Wahhabi clerics, would so wantonly destroy Islamic holy sites. It is a paradox I encountered when I visited Mecca a few years ago reporting a story for The New Republic about the growing commercialization of Islam's holiest city:

A report by the Saudi British Bank (SABB), one of the kingdom's biggest lenders, estimates that $30 billion will be invested in construction and infrastructure in Mecca over the next four years from local and foreign companies. Up to 130 new skyscrapers are anticipated, including the $6 billion Abraj Al Bait Towers, a seven-tower project that, once completed in 2009, will be one of the largest buildings in the world, with a 60-floor, 2,000-room hotel; a 1,500-person convention center; two heliports; and a four-story mall that will house, among 600 other outlets, Starbucks, The Body Shop, U.K.-based clothing line Topshop (Kate Moss is a guest designer), and Tiffany & Co. En route to the hajj, pilgrims already have the opportunity to stop at cosmetic superstore MAC, perfumery VaVaVoom, and Claire's Accessories. H&M and Cartier are on the way. "All the top brands are flocking here," says John Sfakianakis, SABB's chief economist. "The only thing missing is Filene's Basement."

It is not surprising that commercial interests are flocking to the city: Approximately 2.4 million pilgrims visited Mecca in 2008, and some estimate that the number could rise to 20 million within the next few years. But developers and retailers have found an unlikely ally in Wahhabi clerics, who consider the veneration of historical sites to be a form of idolatry, and are happy to see all them demolished.

"It is not permitted to glorify buildings and historical sites," proclaimed Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, then the kingdom's highest religious authority, in a much-publicized fatwa in 1994. "Such action would lead to polytheism. ... [S]o it is necessary to reject such acts and to warn others away from them."

A pamphlet published last year by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, endorsed by Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and distributed at the Prophet's Mosque, where Mohammed, Abu Bakr, and the Islamic Caliph Umar ibn Al Khattab are buried, reads, "The green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet's Mosque," according to Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. This shocking sentiment was echoed in a speech by the late Muhammad ibn Al Uthaymeen, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent Wahhabi clerics, who delivered sermons in Mecca's Grand Mosque for over 35 years: "We hope one day we'll be able to destroy the green dome of the Prophet Mohammed," he said, in a recording provided by Al Alawi.

The unholy alliance means that a handful of archeologists and conservationists, as well as foreign NGOs, are the only voices trying to prevent the destruction of these sites. The recent demolitions at the Grand Mosque are just the latest victims of this intersection of commercial and religious interests:

Sami Angawi, the founder and former director of Mecca's Hajj Research Center and the most vocal opponent of the destruction of Mecca's historic sites ... estimates that over 300 antiquity sites in Mecca and Medina have already been destroyed [by 2008], such as the house of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, which was leveled to make room for the Mecca Hilton Hotel. (According to Ivor McBurney, a spokesman for Hilton, "We saw the tremendous opportunities to tap into Saudi Arabia's religious tourism segment.")

Over protests by groups like the Islamic Supreme Council of America and the Muslim Canadian Congress, Saudi authorities have authorized the destruction of hundreds of antiquities, such as an important eighteenth-century Ottoman fortress in Mecca that was razed to make way for the Abraj Al Bait Towers-- a move the Turkish foreign minister condemned as "cultural genocide." An ancient house belonging to Mohammed was recently razed to make room for, among other developments, a public toilet facility. An ancient mosque belonging to Abu Bakr has now been replaced by an ATM machine. And the sites of Mohammed's historic battles at Uhud and Badr have been, with a perhaps unconscious nod to Joni Mitchell, paved to put up a parking lot. The remaining historical religious sites in Mecca can be counted on one hand and will likely not make it much past the next hajj, Angawi says: "It is incredible how little respect is paid to the house of God."

According to the Washington-based Gulf Institute, almost 95 percent of Mecca's millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone. When I questioned Habib Zain Al Abideen, the Saudi deputy minister of municipal and rural affairs, head of all the kingdom's hajj-related construction projects, about the destruction of historical sites in Mecca, he seemed unconcerned about their religious significance. More important to him was that the hajj was "a good opportunity to visit Mecca and Medina, do some shopping, make a vacation out of it."

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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