Saudis Turn Mecca into Vegas

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Historic and culturally important landmarks are being destroyed to make way for luxury hotels and malls, reports Jerome Taylor

SAUDI ARABIA/

A general view is seen of the Grand Mosque during the Muslim month of Ramadan in the holy city of Mecca August 20, 2011.  Saudi Arabia has begun the biggest expansion yet of the Grand Mosque, to raise its capacity to 2 million pilgrims, the state news agency SPA said. 

REUTERS/Hassan Ali

Behind closed doors–in places where the religious police cannot listen in–residents of Mecca are beginning to refer to their city as Las Vegas, and the moniker is not a compliment.

Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world.

Once a dusty desert town struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj, the city now soars above its surroundings with a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels.

To the al-Saud monarchy, Mecca is their vision of the future–a steel and concrete metropolis built on the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcases their national pride.

Yet growing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have looked on aghast as the nation’s archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Muhammad (s) insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être.

Few are willing to discuss their fears openly because of the risks associated with criticising official policy in the authoritarian kingdom. And, with the exceptions of Turkey and Iran, fellow Muslim nations have largely held their tongues for fear of of a diplomatic fallout and restrictions on their citizens’ pilgrimage visas. Western archaeologists are silent out of fear that the few sites they are allowed access to will be closed to them.

But a number of prominent Saudi archaeologists and historians are speaking up in the belief that the opportunity to save Saudi Arabia’s remaining historical sites is closing fast.

“No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism,” says Dr Irfan al-Alawi who, as executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has fought in vain to protect his country’s historical sites. “We have already lost 400-500 sites. I just hope it’s not too late to turn things around.”

Sami Angawi, a renowned Saudi expert on the region’s Islamic architecture, is equally concerned. “This is an absolute contradiction to the nature of Mecca and the sacredness of the house of God,” he told the Reuters news agency earlier this year. “Both [Mecca and Medina] are historically almost finished. You do not find anything except skyscrapers.”

Dr Alawi’s most pressing concern is the planned £690m expansion of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred site in Islam which contains the Kaaba–the black stone cube built by Ibrahim (Abraham) that Muslims face when they pray.

Construction officially began earlier this month with the country’s Justice Minister, Mohammed al-Eissa, exclaiming that the project would respect “the sacredness and glory of the location, which calls for the highest care and attention of the servants or Islam and Muslims”.

The 400,000 square metre development is being built to accommodate an extra 1.2 million pilgrims each year and will turn the Grand Mosque into the largest religious structure in the world. But the Islamic Heritage Foundation has compiled a list of key historical sites that they believe are now at risk from the ongoing development of Mecca, including the old Ottoman and Abbasi sections of the Grand Mosque, the house where the Prophet Muhammad (s) was born and the house where his paternal uncle Hamza grew up.

There is little argument that Mecca and Medina desperately need infrastructure development. Twelve million pilgrims visit the cities every year with the numbers expected to increase to 17 million by 2025.

But critics fear that the desire to expand the pilgrimage sites has allowed the authorities to ride roughshod over the area’s cultural heritage. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone.

The destruction has been aided by Wahabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that has served as the kingdom’s official religion ever since the al-Sauds rose to power across the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century.

In the eyes of Wahabis, historical sites and shrines encourage “shirk”—the sin of idolatry or polytheism–and should be destroyed. When the al-Saud tribes swept through Mecca in the 1920s, the first thing they did was lay waste to cemeteries holding many of Islam’s important figures. They have been destroying the country’s heritage ever since.

Of the three sites the Saudis have allowed the UN to designate World Heritage Sites, none are related to Islam.

Those circling the Kaaba only need to look skywards to see the latest example of the Saudi monarchy’s insatiable appetite for architectural bling. At 1,972ft, the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, opened earlier this year, soars over the surrounding Grand Mosque, part of an enormous development of skyscrapers that will house five-star hotels for the minority of pilgrims rich enough to afford them.

To build the skyscraper city, the authorities dynamited an entire mountain and the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress that lay on top of it. At the other end of the Grand Mosque complex, the house of the Prophet’s (s) first wife Khadijah has been turned into a toilet block. The fate of the house he was born in is uncertain. Also planned for demolition are the Grand Mosque’s Ottoman columns which dare to contain the names of the Prophet’s (s) companions, something hardline Wahabis detest.

For ordinary Meccans living in the mainly Ottoman-era town houses that make up much of what remains of the old city, development often means the loss of their family home.

Non-Muslims cannot visit Mecca and Medina, but The Independent was able to interview a number of citizens who expressed discontent over the way their town was changing. One young woman whose father recently had his house bulldozed described how her family was still waiting for compensation. “There was very little warning; they just came and told him that the house had to be bulldozed,” she said.

Another Meccan added: “If a prince of a member of the royal family wants to extend his palace he just does it. No one talks about it in public though. There’s such a climate of fear.”

Dr Alawi hopes the international community will finally begin to wake up to what is happening in the cradle of Islam. “We would never allow someone to destroy the Pyramids, so why are we letting Islam’s history disappear?”

Prophet’s (s) Wife’s House

The house of the Prophet’s (s) wife Khadijah was destroyed and replaced with a public toilet block. After lengthy negotiations the site was briefly excavated with artefacts found dating back to the Prophet’s  (s) time.

Expansion of the Grand Mosque

In order to accommodate the ever growing pilgrim numbers, the authorities have begun a £690m expansion. Houses have been pulled, and it is likely the old Ottoman and Abbasi columns will also go.

The Prophet’s (s) Birth House

The building where the Prophet (s) once lived lies just a few hundred yards  from the Grand Mosque. Currently a library, the fear is that it could suffer the same fate as his wife’s house when the mosque expands.

Royal Mecca Clocktower

In order to build the clock tower and its surrounding skyscrapers–most of which house luxury hotels–the Saudi authorities approved the destruction of an entire mountain and the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress that lay on top.

Also under threat

Bayt al-Mawlid

When the Wahabis took Mecca in the 1920s they destroyed the dome on top of the house where the Prophet Muhammad (s) was born. It was then used as a cattle market before being turned into a library after a campaign by Meccans. There are concerns that the expansion of the Grand Mosque will destroy it once more. The site has never been excavated by archaeologists.

Ottoman and Abasi columns of the Grand Mosque

Slated for demolition as part of the Grand Mosque expansion, these intricately carved columns date back to the 17th century and are the oldest surviving sections of Islam’s holiest site. Much to the chagrin of Wahabis, they are inscribed with the names of the Prophet’s (s) companions. Ottomon Mecca is now rapidly disappearing.

Al-Masjid al-Nawabi

For many years, hardline Wahabi clerics have had their sites set on the 15th century green dome that rests above the tomb holding the Prophet (s), Abu Bakr and Umar in Medina. The mosque is regarded as the second holiest site in Islam. Wahabis, however, believe marked graves are idolatrous. A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, endorsed by Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, stated that “the green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet’s  (s) Masjid.”

Jabal al-Nour

A mountain outside Mecca where Muhammad (s) received his first Koranic revelations. The Prophet (s) used to spend long spells in a cave called Hira. The cave is particularly popular among South Asian pilgrims who have carved steps up to its entrance and adorned the walls with graffiti. Religious hardliners are keen to dissuade pilgrims from congregating there and have mooted the idea of removing the steps and even destroying the mountain altogether.

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Why Catholics Could Learn a Lot from Islam

September 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, sings the praises of Ramadan – and reflection – to Jerome Taylor

There was a time when the country’s bishops didn’t lose much sleep over headlines. As the moral arbiters of the nation they would wade in on controversial issues, regardless of what next day’s editorials might say.

But like much of the establishment, Britain’s senior clergymen have surrounded themselves with legions of press advisers whose jobs it is to make sure their paymasters don’t put their foot in it – predominantly by keeping their heads below the parapet.

“I’m not sure he’ll say much on that,” says the press man for Archbishop Vincent Nichols when asked whether the leader of Catholics in England and Wales will broach the topic of abortion. “We’re not really keen on an ‘archbishop versus the politicians’ headline’.”

But it turns out that Archbishop Nichols does hold some rather strong opinions on Britain’s elite. “People are trying to take short cuts,” he sighs when asked about the various scandals that have rocked Westminster, the banks, the Metropolitan Police and Fleet Street. “They’re not interested in the long-term consequences as long as it’s success.

“Whether that’s reading a newspaper, trying to make the most of your time in Parliament through expenses, the police looking for quick results or the banks. There are all those commonalities.”
Nichols, a football-mad cleric from Liverpool who has risen to become the second most senior Catholic in Britain (after Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien), is an intensely media-savvy operator. Unlike Dr Rowan Williams, his Anglican opposite in Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Westminster has avoided head-on collisions with politicians since he was appointed by the Pope two years ago to lead Catholics in England and Wales.

He chooses his words carefully, making sure he is not seen to be directly attacking ministers.

One deviation is on the papal trip one year ago, which – the Archbishop reveals – was nearly sunk, not by thenegative advance publicity about sex abuse within the Catholic Church, but by a lack of political willpower once last year’s general election got under way.

“It was almost impossible to make any progress in the cooperative effort that a state visit needed,” he discloses, in his white-carpeted study behind Westminster Cathedral. “No one was making any political decisions. That was the point I was most worried.” The failure to form a government for a further 10 days compounded the pressure.

It took the Archbishop to make a veiled threat of international humiliation to the new Prime Minister to get things moving again, he says. Only after a phone conversation with David Cameron did events speed along. “I told him it will be a question of the reputation of Great Britain having issued an invitation to the Pope and then not make it happen,” says Nichols. “They came back with the appointment of Lord Patten and once that was done, we got going.”

The announcement that the Pope would make a state visit to Britain was the first big test for Nichols, after being promoted by Pope Benedict XVI from the archbishopric of Birmingham to Westminster in April 2009.

In the eyes of the Vatican, that visit exactly one year ago, was a storming success, despite the negativity ahead of it. The papacy had been battered by months of headlines as new sex abuse allegations broke out across the Catholic Church, with questions over Benedict’s pre-papal role as head of the Vatican body in charge of upholding the church’s moral and doctrinal purity. In Britain there was also widespread concern about the spiralling costs of the visit. But when Benedict finally stepped foot on British soil he was largely embraced.

“The attitude in the country today towards religious faith is not the same as it was a year ago,” claims Archbishop Nichols, who is in line for a promotion to Cardinal once his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, turns 80 next year and loses his Vatican voting rights.

“I think to some extent the Pope demythologised some of people’s fears – the innate British suspicion of anything Roman Catholic and of the Pope as a position. I think that was profoundly changed when they saw the man himself.”

It was partly the Archbishop’s ability to avoid controversy – and weather the storms when they arrive – that encouraged Pope Benedict to promote him.

Some might see his careful answers as a missed opportunity to hold politics up to a higher level of moral scrutiny. Others say it is a sensible approach to a world where a controversial soundbite can easily overshadow the wider message.

On abortion, Archbishop Nichols’ message is one of carefully worded support for the MP Nadine Dorries, and her amendment on independent abortion counsellors. “In the eyes of the Catholic Church abortion is a tragedy,” he says in a voice that still bears a hint of his Liverpool upbringing. “Our principle objective must be to try and win greater sympathy for that perspective and for the value of human life from its beginnings.

“In that sense independent counselling would appear to be reasonable. But our main principle would be the nature of abortion itself and that it is an act that destroys human life and is difficult to bear, not only for the person who has the abortion.”

And on the recent rioting, Archbishop Nichols, whose flock play a prominent role within Britain’s prisons as spiritual and practical rehabilitators, says that those rioters who feel aggrieved by harsh sentencing from judges and magistrates will have to wait their turn in the appeal courts.

“I think its right to make a distinction between isolated acts of criminality and what happened during a serious civil disorder,” he says. “If the judiciary has got it wrong, that is what the appeal system is for.”

To mark the one year anniversary of the papal visit, the Archbishop has asked Catholics to re-embrace the sacrament of penance and, specifically, giving something up on a Friday. Traditionally European Catholics might forgo eating meat at the end of the week and that is something Archbishop Nichols would like to see more of. “At a personal human level we are having to work out what we can do without because we can’t in these times afford everything we want,” he explains. “That can be combined with a sense of solidarity and help for those who are really genuinely poor.
“So in the Catholic tradition the idea of giving something up on a Friday – the act of self denial – has always been tied with being generous to those in need.”

Ramadan, a whole month of fasting and giving to the poor, recently ended for Muslims. Is that something Christians could do more to emulate?

“You’re right to point to the Muslim community,” Nichols replies. “What many of our bishops say is that young people today – who are much more exposed and sensitive to the Muslim practice of fasting – are ready for a challenge and want a challenge by which they can be identified.” It is those youngsters who have faith that will be the lifeblood of the Church if it is to survive the ever growing secularisation of our society.

“In many ways the young are more religiously minded than the older generations,” he says. “I think it’s the flip side of an age of individualism. Youngsters are not afraid to tell you what they think, to express their faith and be quite exuberant about it. We were much more reticent and probably a bit more troubled by issues of conformity than they are.”

Independent.co.uk The Web

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