Friday, November 2, 2012
Imagine that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – has been taken over by Cromwellian Puritans. The new owners of the shrine plan to send bulldozers in, replacing the old church with a monstrous building resembling a concrete spaceship. This is so pilgrims can pray without being distracted by “superstitious” icons. Also, the Old City will be buried under hotels that make Vegas look like Venice.
It wouldn’t happen, would it? Christians would fight to the death to preserve Jerusalem. So would Jews and Muslims. And, for once, they’d have the support of secular politicians and scholars, horrified by the prospect of an act of cultural vandalism unprecedented in modern times.
Unprecedented until now, that is. The long-cherished ambition of Saudi Arabia’s ruling Wahhabi sect to smash up the ancient buildings of Mecca and Medina is nearing fruition.
In Mecca, the house of one of Mohammed’s wives has been demolished to make space for public lavatories. His birthplace may disappear, too, as part of King Abdullah’s scheme to complement the skyscrapers and shopping malls with a Grand Mosque fashioned from the same materials as a multi-storey car park in Wolverhampton.
As for Islam’s second holiest place, the city of Medina, a recent article by Jerome Taylor in the Independent revealed a megalomaniac plan to pull down three 7th-century mosques. Taylor added: “Ten years ago, a mosque which belonged to the Prophet’s grandson was dynamited. Pictures of the demolition that were secretly taken and smuggled out of the kingdom showed the religious police celebrating.”
Only a small minority of the world’s billion Muslims are Wahhabis, despite the tens of billions of petrodollars spent by the Saudis propagating their creed. (Bosnia, for example, is now littered with Saudi-style mosques, replacing the graceful Ottoman architecture that Wahhabis detest.) Many pilgrims to Mecca are revolted by the marriage of Puritanism and greed they find there. Yet protests are scattered and muted. Why?
One answer is that the House of Saud, though widely hated, is also feared: its wealth and terrorist connections make it unlikely that, say, a Pakistani politician would speak openly about the desecration of the Hajj.
The West can hardly complain about such gutlessness: this year’s Hajj exhibition at the British Museum was creepily sanitised – no mention of bulldozers or the 2,000ft clock tower built right next to the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped building that is the centrepiece of Islamic devotions.
But what sticks in the craw is the hypocrisy of Muslims who throw a fit if Israeli archaeologists carry out non-intrusive work underneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, “Islam’s third holiest place”, as we’re constantly reminded. Such anger would be more convincing if the first and second holy sites weren’t being ploughed up by a police state. Likewise, are cartoons of Mohammed really more offensive than reducing the remains of his life to rubble?
As one Middle East expert put it to me: “Jews disturbing the Dome of the Rock fits into an anti-Western narrative, so Muslims can cope with that. The Saudi destruction of Mecca doesn’t fit into that narrative, and so there’s virtual silence.” Something worth bearing in mind, perhaps, when you wonder why the murder of Muslims by Muslims in Darfur or Syria provokes only limited outrage in the Islamic world.