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Iconic Clash:

Saudi Fights to End Demolition Driven By Islamic Dictate
Architect Sees a Terror Link In Razing of Monuments; Princes Don't Muzzle Him
A Mall Goes Up in
By Hugh Pope
The Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- In a private lecture he gives to small groups in his home here, Sami Angawi sometimes ends with projections of three images in succession. The first shows the 2002 dynamiting of a minaret by a shrine in the holy city of Medina. The second depicts a colossal ancient Buddha in Bamyan, Afghanistan, being blown to bits in 2001 by the former Taliban regime. The third is the World Trade Center engulfed in flames. Mr. Angawi, a 51-year-old architect, is waging an unusual campaign against a feature of Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Islam that rarely comes up for public discussion inside the country: the alteration or destruction of holy sites. The desert kingdom's dominant clerics believe any reverence for buildings or saints distracts from their doctrine of worship of God alone and constitutes polytheism, regarded by them as the gravest sin in Islam.

In a provocative critique, Mr. Angawi directly links the religious zeal that destroys shrines to the intolerance that breeds Islamic terrorism. "Should we have destroyed all our heritage of diversity?" he asks. "Shouldn't we be learning to think before blowing everything up? It's due to a monopoly of religious opinion, and that has to end."

As Mr. Angawi's unusual polemic gains a wider audience within Saudi Arabia, he offers a hint of a significant shift by the country's embattled leaders. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, the royal family has faced mounting criticism based on links between its favored form of Islam, the fundamentalist strain called Wahhabism, and global terror. In its modest way, Mr. Angawi's architecture lecture suggests Saudi Arabia is increasingly tolerant of public criticism.

In one sign that some government leaders want his views heard, he recently participated in a series of national discussions about reforming Saudi society. The unprecedented exchanges, sponsored by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, effectively the country's leader, were a tentative step toward encouraging economic and political change.

Mr. Angawi started giving slide shows about preserving architecture in the 1970s, but since Sept. 11, 2001, he has been more outspoken. He estimates several thousand people have heard his lecture about the damage to Saudi Arabia's architectural history. People gather at his or other private homes, drawn mostly by word of mouth. Audiences have included Saudi academics and oil-company executives.

"The Wahhabist rulers of that nation are undertaking a new ideological jihad to destroy major relics and monuments."

Sheik Hisham Kabbani

That Mr. Angawi can do this without harassment suggests he has the tacit support of at least some members of the large royal clan. He hasn't stopped any bulldozers, but he is one of a small band of activists beginning to challenge from within the Islamic fundamentalism that is Saudi Arabia's official ideology. "The government has unlocked the door to change. Some are pushing to get in. Others are pushing to keep the door closed," Mr. Angawi says.

Saudi journalists are growing braver in challenging the religious establishment, although the editor of a Meccan newspaper lost his job after putting an encounter between liberal and religious dissidents on his front page in May. A group from Medina is forming an association to protect the remaining shrines and monuments there. In June, the Cabinet decreed that women could own businesses in their own name. Ground-breaking municipal elections are set for November, beginning to challenge princes' and clerics' monopoly on power.

Over the years, the Saudi government has let fundamentalist clergy and developers destroy the famed old mosque of Abu Bakr and tombs of close relatives of Muhammad in Medina. It has turned the sites of Muhammad's great battles of Uhud and Badr into a parking lot and an area of empty tarmac. In 1990, a site where some believe Muhammad lived with his first wife, Khadija, was paved over when developers extended prayer areas around Mecca's Great Mosque.

The government has also pulled down a stone house with a colonnaded courtyard in Medina known as the Egyptian Monastery, once favored by pilgrims from that country. Saudi lawyers say Wahhabi religious authorities have issued many edicts over the centuries endorsing the destruction of historical places to discourage polytheism. "It is not permitted to glorify buildings," said one such ruling in 1994.

Mr. Angawi does glorify buildings -- openly. "Mecca used to be the link that brings Muslims together, the heart of the Islamic world," he says. "Something has gone wrong with the heart, and we need to restore the balance."

Spokesmen for the Saudi kingdom say old sites that get paved over are simply the unfortunate victims of modernization, which is in some cases aimed at making it easier for pilgrims to get around Mecca and Medina.

As for Mr. Angawi's analysis linking fundamentalism, the destruction of holy sites and terrorism, the government dismisses this as far-fetched. Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman, says Mr. Angawi's suggestion of such a connection is "by far the most extreme extrapolation I have ever heard." The Saudi government has condemned terrorism, including the Sept. 11 attacks. It also stresses that it is currently battling a wave of domestic fundamentalist terrorism.

Today's Saudi ideology has its roots in the 1700s, when a desert preacher, Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab, began to condemn the Islam then practiced in central Arabia as decadent and dominated by superstitious veneration of shrines, dubious holy men and even trees. He inspired a movement dedicated to reviving his understanding of the original Islam, founded in the seventh century by Muhammad.

The puritanical preacher's followers, allied with the powerful Saud family, then destroyed many shrines in Mecca and Medina, including some over the supposed graves of companions of Muhammad. Outrage over these acts in the wider Muslim world contributed to a military defeat of the initial alliance between the Saudis and the sheik in 1818 by Egyptian and Turkish forces. Pious and wealthy families rebuilt many shrines.

But in the 1920s, when a renewed Saudi-Wahhabi coalition surged back into power in what became the current Saudi Arabia, the shrines started coming back down.

Saudi Wahhabis sought strict implementation of Islamic Sharia law. That continues today. At least 50 Saudi men and one woman were publicly beheaded last year for crimes ranging from murder to homosexuality. Less commonly, executioners cut the hands and even legs off thieves. Saudi critics say the clergy is sometimes mixing up Islamic law with old tribal codes, especially when it comes to restricting women's freedom. No other Muslim country, for instance, holds that Islamic law bars women from driving.

The Wahhabis -- part of the Sunni branch of Islam -- also wanted to clamp down on Shiites, who ascribe greater importance to the family of Muhammad, and on Sufis, who follow a more mystical path and often attach themselves to sheiks who they believe have supernatural powers. Both Shiites and Sufis pray at the tombs of those they revere.

Some 26 years ago, Saudi Arabia ratified a United Nations convention committing itself to safeguarding properties of outstanding cultural value. But so far, the Saudis haven't nominated anything in the kingdom to join the 611 cultural-heritage sites in the world that are registered with the U.N.

There is no indication of broad popular support for Mr. Angawi's cause. In 2002, Saudi authorities removed the 18th-century Ottoman fortress of al-Ajyad in Mecca to make way for a five-tower project rising 31 stories. The development includes a hotel, shopping mall and apartments. They overlook the Kaaba, the cube-shaped stone building swathed in black silk that is the focal point of all Muslims' daily prayers and the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (One of the lead contractors for the $1.6 billion project is the Saudi Binladen Group, owned by Osama bin Laden's relatives.)

Many Saudis see nothing wrong with the way the great mosques of Mecca and Medina are now surrounded by high-rise developments touted as investment opportunities. "If I can afford it, why shouldn't I have a hotel suite overlooking the holy shrine," says Khaled al-Kordi, a Riyadh financial consultant and member of the country's Supreme Economic Council.

Mr. Angawi cuts an unorthodox figure in Saudi Arabia. He says foes denounce him as a "crazy Sufi" because he follows that dissident mystical approach to Islam. He dresses in a light-spun woolen cloak and a turban and carries an elegant walking stick -- all of which violate the Saudi dress code of white robe and head-cloth. He lives in a palatial residence of his own design in Jidda. Mr. Angawi studied architecture at the University of Texas and received a doctorate from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, doing his thesis on the historical diversity of Meccan architecture.


Hussein Shobokshi, scion of a Jidda merchant family and one who has seen Mr. Angawi's presentation, says the architect is "seen as eccentric, but he's got respect" among the nation's small group of moderate and liberal intellectuals.

Mr. Angawi's family traces its roots to Muhammad, but it is a more commercial distinction that allows him to devote his energy to research. His family is one of 3,200 that have inherited the lucrative position of "mutawwaf," or those licensed to organize the groups of pilgrims who come by the millions each year.

In 1975, Mr. Angawi set up the Pilgrimage Research Center to study ways to modernize Mecca with as little harm as possible to its historic and holy sites. One of his techniques was to use time-lapse photography to analyze pilgrims' movement, plan mass-transport systems and keep private vehicles away from the city core. He says his center received state funding, and some members of the royal family expressed interest in his ideas. The royal family numbers about 5,000 princes, whose opinions vary but who are generally more educated and modern than the religious conservatism that dominates Saudi society. In 1988, Mr. Angawi was invited to give a presentation to senior princes at court.

But he also made enemies among religious authorities and some contractors who do modernization work. He lost control of the Pilgrimage Research Center and resigned his position in 1988.

His commitment didn't wane. "Every time a building goes, it's like watching a relative being slaughtered in front of me," Mr. Angawi says.

In 1990, sympathizers tipped him off that the site thought to contain the foundations of the Meccan house of Muhammad and Khadija was to be paved over. He rushed to the site, even threatening to put his young son in the bulldozer's path. He used his contacts to win permission for a last-minute archaeological dig. It lasted 40 days, and he says his team of volunteers uncovered stone foundations that appeared to be those of the Prophet's abode. But in the end, the site was buried in concrete and covered in unmarked marble. A public toilet now stands nearby, according to Meccans.

"We've done more damage to Mecca and Medina in the past 50 years than in the past 1,500. Of 300 holy sites, perhaps only 10 remain," Mr. Angawi said recently in his book-lined study, the air heavy with incense.

He isn't alone in his concern. In July, the Islamic Supreme Council of America, a Sufi group, called on the U.N. "to stop the wanton destruction of venerated Muslim relics in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." The council, led by Sheik Hisham Kabbani, who is based in Michigan, said, "The Wahhabist rulers of that nation are undertaking a new ideological jihad to destroy major relics and monuments."

Saudi government spokesmen dismiss Mr. Angawi's objections as nostalgia for the old Mecca. "He doesn't like change because it changes the city that he knew," says Mr. Jubeir, the government spokesman. "We want to expand the pilgrimage, and we want to make it safe, comfortable and spiritually rewarding. If we have to remove homes, unfortunately something has to give."

Mr. Angawi says the assault on America in 2001 shocked him into action. He wanted to galvanize Saudi Arabia's small, diffuse band of liberal intellectuals. "We've had many wake-up calls," he says, "but we've been like children covering our eyes."

He uses a slick computer presentation for his lectures, which he says he sometimes delivers to top government officials who quietly invite him to their homes. He also organizes a weekly discussion group for young Saudis on subjects such as the mercy of God, individual freedom and national heritage.

Crown Prince Abdullah invited Mr. Angawi to be one of 60 delegates to a December session in Mecca of the National Dialogue. It included historic discussions about the role of women in Saudi Arabia, with women participating, and the role of minority groups such as Shiite Muslims.

While Mr. Angawi didn't show his slide presentation in the public forum -- the message is still too controversial for that -- he did invite participants to see it in private. Twenty came, he says.

Participants in the dialogue recommended that the kingdom tolerate minority sects, strengthen the role of women and separate the government's executive, judicial and administrative branches. No method for implementing any of this emerged, though. And there was no mention of the architecture of Mecca or Medina.


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