For Muslims themselves, significant reform measures in the Saudi domain would include ending the Wahhabi monopoly in religious life, abolishing the so-called "religious police" or mutawiyin who terrorize the public in the name of morals, and lifting oppressive measures taken against non-Wahhabi Muslims, including both the large Saudi Shia minority and Sufi or spiritual Muslims, who may be either Sunnis or Shias.
Freedom of expression, an elected legislature, and other political and economic reforms would do much more to improve the bad image of Saudi Arabia, among Muslims as well as non-Muslims, than building Western-style high-rises overlooking the sacred precincts in Mecca and Medina. Some of the proposed new construction less resembles Manhattan than it does the grandiose vision of Moscow under Stalinism. Saudi authorities claim the redevelopment of the holy cities is necessary to alleviate congestion during the annual hajj. But the numbers who go to Mecca for the pilgrimage are already restricted to those (except for some Iranians and a few other, marginal examples) who are approved by Wahhabi clerics.
For that reason, out of more than a billion Muslims in the world, in an age when air travel is cheap and tourism, both religious and recreational, has expanded to an extraordinary degree, only about two million Muslims perform the annual hajj. Luxury hotels and timeshares will benefit a small number of rich devotees, but will not alleviate crowding, which has repeatedly led to fires and mass deaths by panic and trampling in Mecca. The current financial downturn has, predictably, cut back on the number of hajj trips to Mecca.
The Manhattanization of Mecca and Medina seems driven by the three most visible aspects of Saudi-Wahhabi rule: the aforementioned "purification of Islam" by liquidating its cultural legacy, glorification of their own power, and simple greed. Who could imagine such a policy in Jerusalem, a holy city for all three monotheistic faiths, and which is protected by its municipal authorities from any construction that would change its sacred character? Or in Rome, at St. Peter's Square? Or, in the secular realm, surrounding the U.S. Capitol with high-rises? A Mecca in the image of Manhattan would, it appears, change the city's Grand Mosque into something more like a religious mall than an ancient temple.
Muslim religious architecture has also been a source of different contentions in the West. Some Western European communities object to the erection of mosques, on the argument, among others, that minarets will change the architectural profile of Christian cities. A considerable controversy has taken place in London, where a fundamentalist "mega-mosque" has been planned to open near the facilities of the 2012 Olympics.
Another case involving Christians has recently illustrated the unpredictable fate of urban development associated with religious worship. Since 1981, a year after the death of former Yugoslavia's Communist dictator Tito, a remote place in southeast Bosnia-Hercegovina, Medjugorje, has attracted millions of Christian visitors. There, a group of visionary Croatian Catholic children, who by now have grown into adults, have reported apparitions and messages by the Virgin Mary, daily except Mondays and Fridays, when they occur twice. Medjugorje, once a dusty hamlet, grew into a major aggregate of rapidly-built guest houses, along with numerous souvenir shops and a large church.
Unfortunately, however, the Catholic authorities never accepted the authenticity of the Medjugorje visions, and at the end of July 2009 Pope Benedict XVI ordered Tomislav Vlasic, the original booster of the phenomenon, removed from the priesthood and expelled from the Franciscan order. That will probably do as much to reduce travel to Medjugorje as the economic slump, but it may also improve the Pope's image with Bosnian and other Balkan Muslims, who viewed the Medjugorje affair as a pretext for Croatian ultranationalism.
The clash of faith and unbelief have lately produced widespread and acerbic public polemics around the world. Faith and commerce have often been found in conflict. But the contradictions between faith, architectural legacy, and urban development may prove a more serious challenge to religion today.
Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor to TCS Daily, is executive director, and Irfan Al-Alawi is international director, of the Center for Islamic Pluralism at www.islamicpluralism.org.
Posted September 04, 2009, TCS daily