As the hajj begins this week, Turkey’s chief religious authority assailed Saudi Arabia for building skyscrapers in Mecca, saying that the building project “destroys history,” dwarfs the holy shrine there, and impiously allows Muslims to look down upon the Kaaba. The accusation increases the religious dimension of the recent geopolitical strife between the two nations. The Daily Hurriyet reports:
“I told the Saudi minister of the Hajj that it is considered wrong in our culture to look down on the Kaaba. ‘Then how did you look over it while traveling with an aircraft [over Mecca],’ the Saudi minister asked me. Well, this is another point of view,” Professor Dr. Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), told a group of journalists in Mecca on Sept. 29.
As millions of Muslims perform the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the ongoing construction boom in oil-rich Saudi Arabia is again being questioned, particularly due to the transformation it has triggered around the Kaaba, a structure believed to have originally been built by Abraham, a prophet according to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The cuboid building is at the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, the al-Masjid al-Haram, which is now surrounded by several high rises, including the 260-meter-high ZamZam Tower.
The ongoing Saudi destruction of historic Mecca is attracting the attention of the West as well: it was the focus of the lead opinion piece, by Ziauddin Sardar, in the New York Times today. The Saudis aren’t just disregarding history, they’re pursuing the basic ideology of their state. Saudi Arabia is the product of the alliance between the Al Saud and the Wahabbi movement. From its inception in the 18th century Wahhabism has been infamous, within Islam and without, for its fanatical iconoclasm when confronted with any potential object of shirk, the Islamic term for idolatrous polytheism. Just as the Byzantine and Protestant iconoclasts destroyed Christian “idols,” shirk as imagined by the Saudis mandates the destruction of objects associated with Islam. For this reason, as Sardar points out in the Times, they have demolished the homes of some of Mohammed’s closest followers, and Saudi clerics have pushed for the destruction of the house of the Prophet himself.The immense cultural loss (not to mention the tackiness of the new buildings raised atop the destroyed sites) is obvious, but there is also a religio-spiritual angle to Turkey’s criticism. The historical Ottoman Sultanate and the current King of Saudi Arabia share the title of “Protector of the Two Holy Places,” Mecca and Medina. When the First Saudi State captured the Hedjaz in 1805, the Sultan was compelled to protect the Hajj pilgrims by sending an Egyptian invasion to drive the Wahabbis to the desert backwater from which they came. Ever since then, the Saudis have sought to “protect” the Holy Places and purify Islam by destroying Arabia’s historical sites. By assaulting the Saudis on these grounds, the Turks both flex their neo-Ottoman muscles and undermine a regional rival simultaneously.