Sites associated with the life of prophet Muhammad have been close to the hearts of all Muslims for almost one and a half millennia. Over the centuries, rule over these sites has passed through numerous hands, including the Ummayads, Abassids and Ottomans. They are currently under the control of the Saudi royal family, under the self-appointed title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”. This is not just an honorific title but one of substantive authority. It is the Saudis who control which of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are permitted or denied entry for the annual pilgrimage of Hajj.
Despite this title as custodians, the estimated 3.7 mn internationals that flock to Arabia each year for the annual Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj may be hard pressed to find clear evidence of what is traditionally thought of as guardianship. Instead of preserving and protecting holy sites, which the Saudi authorities themselves call a “sacred trust”, critics say they are guilty of “cultural vandalism” there.
The Washington based Institute for Gulf Affairs estimates that 95% of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades. The one-time desert region now has a skyline, not lit by stars, but by gaudy luxury hotels and flashy shopping malls hosting the likes of McDonalds, Starbucks, Baskin Robbins, and several Paris Hilton boutiques.
Pilgrims who have scrimped and saved for a once in a lifetime spiritual journey to the heartland of Islamic history and want, for example, to visit the site of the home of Muhammad’s first wife Khadijah will now find a block of 1,400 public toilets in the place where her home once stood. In place of the mosque of Abu Bakr – the first Caliph of Islam – they will now find a cash point. Cemeteries dating back over 1,000 years have been razed. Mountains have been crushed just to make way for car parks.
Global criticism has been muted to a large degree by fears that challenging the Saudi authorities would lead them to exert their control over the visa process; a risk not many Muslims are willing to take. Saudi Arabia also controls country quotas, i.e. how many pilgrims from each country can be admitted each year, leading to scant criticism at a government level.
Occasionally though there is vocal international condemnation of Saudi’s razing of Islamic heritage sites. In 2003, for example, an ancient Ottoman fortress that once guarded Mecca from attack and which dated back over 200 years was completely demolished only to be replaced with a giant 601 metre Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower – the third tallest building in the world. This did not go unnoticed and the Turkish Minister of Culture strongly condemned the destruction of the Ecyad Castle stating “I condemn the pulling down of Ecyad Castle as an act of barbarism.” He said, “Speaking on behalf of the Turkish State and Nation, after such destruction, it seems difficult to consider Saudi Arabia in a friendly light. This is not only disrespect to history, but is also a move to eliminate Turkish culture from their world and history.” However, while it may be the case that there is some sort of nationalistic element behind removing evidence of other cultures from their land, there is certainly much more to it than that.
From a Saudi perspective, the changes are all necessary. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal has dismissed criticisms and defended the developments saying “Of all the countries that have ruled Makkah, Saudi Arabia has undertaken the greatest reforms in the city. The expansion projects are conducted in a modern and sophisticated manner.” The Saudis claim that the multi-billion dollar expansion projects they are working on (including at least $6 bn to expand the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, $21 bn to expand the mosque in Mecca as well as $16.5 bn to modernise the transport system in Mecca) are necessary to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims who flock to the region every year, and there is certainly some validity to that point. In terms of health and safety alone it is significant that more than two thousand people have been killed in stampedes due to overcrowding in the last couple of decades. Modernisation is clearly called for.
Not even Saudi’s staunchest detractors deny that expansion and development is needed but the expansion could easily be done in a way that also accommodates the preservation of ancient sites. Dr Irfan Al-Alawi, the Executive Director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, a centre dedicated to the preservation of historical sites in Saudi, says “We do not deny that expansion is needed but there are ways they could expand while still preserving the historic sites. They could even move some of the buildings, hotels and so on just a mile further away into the desert area.”
One of the explanations as to why they do not do that is simple economics. The religious tourism industry is substantial with $16.5 bn in revenues in 2012 alone. According to Al-Arabiya, Mecca is one of, if not the most expensive areas of real estate in the world with the price of one square metre able to sell for well over $100,000. A royal suite in one of the Abraj al-Bait hotels can cost over $5,880 for a single night. That is quite a motivation when weighing up economics versus preserving an ancient burial plot or a centuries-old mosque.
There also seems to be a religious agenda behind the façade of modernity and development. Experts like Dr Al-Alawi directly blames the austere brand of “wahabism” that many Saudis adhere to as the motivating factor behind the destruction of historic sites. He argues that it is their fear of people committing shirk - associating anything or anyone with God – that is the driving force behind the destruction. While all Muslims consider shirk a sin, it seems the Saudis are taking their interpretation so far that they are trying to wipe out any place of historical significance that people might potentially attribute holy status to beyond those clearly set out in the Quran.
A prime example is the site where prophet Muhammad is believed to have possibly been born. At one point it was turned into a cattle market, then a library in the 1950s, and the Saudis are now on course to tear that library down, excavate the site and build part of the expanded palace, or Imam’s residence in its place. In fact, almost as if to pre-empt and quell any outrage in advance they have put up a sign at the location stating: “There is no proof that Prophet Muhammad was born in this place, so it is forbidden to make this place specific for praying, supplicating or get blessing.”
Religious figures in Saudi are cementing the status quo by not speaking out and on the contrary supporting expansion despite its impact on heritage sites. A case in point would be Saudi’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah al-Sheikh who has not only commended efforts to expand the mosques but have said that people should thank the government for the expansion projects.
Islamic historians like Dr Irfan Al-Alawi emphasise that international pressure is an important way to halt further destruction. According to him, several times in the past the municipality have changed their plans to demolish one historic structure or another as a result of negative international publicity. He called for people to keep up the momentum of complaining when Islamic heritage sites are at risk.
When asked why people are not doing more to prevent this cultural vandalism, as he calls it, Dr Al Alawi said “Muslims should have reacted to this years ago, but now we have incompetent people who lack the knowledge and experience to comment on the destruction.”
It seems that if any other group was responsible for wiping out 95% of historical sites in a city considered to be as holy as Mecca is to Muslims, there would be widespread international condemnation. Whether it is fear, economics, an austere interpretation of Islamic teachings or anything else motivating this silence, it is already too late for many historically and religiously significant sites and artefacts in Mecca and Medina to be saved.
People are already mockingly referring to Mecca as a new Las Vegas. If Muslims want to retain any of the spiritual and religious integrity of their Islamic heritage sites, they need to start acting now before it really is too late.
In the village of Tuqu southeast of Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers climbed to the rooftop of a house belonging to Nayef Hussein Moussa.
The soldiers stationed machine guns on the roof and installed cameras to monitor the movement of Palestinians on a road that connects Jerusalem to illegal Israeli settlements in Hebron.
Tuqu’s municipality condemned the Israeli move, calling on the Palestinian military liaison office to intervene.
An Israeli army spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The internationally recognized Palestinian territories of which the West Bank and East Jerusalem form a part have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967.
WEST BANK, (PIC)– The Israeli occupation army on Sunday launched a campaign of arrests and raids in different West Bank areas.
Local sources said that the Israeli occupation forces (IOF) stormed Deir Samit village and kidnapped a Palestinian citizen from his home.
In Jenin, the IOF raided several Palestinian homes in its refugee camp and the towns of Yabad, Silat Al-Harthiya and Yamoun.
Local sources in Jenin refugee camp told the Palestinian information center (PIC) that special Israeli forces wearing civilian clothing kidnapped two young men identified as Mohamed Hasri, 19, and Saad Abu Satour, 20, from their homes in the camp.
The IOF also raided the house of prisoner Karim Hasanat, who has been in detention for 10 years, and handed his family a summons for him from the Israeli intelligence.
The family of the prisoner failed to convince the Israeli soldiers that its son is already in an Israeli jail, according to local sources.
Several homes in Doheisheh refugee camp, south of Bethlehem, were raided as well by the IOF. Ex-detainee Abdul-Qader Zagari was handed a summons from the intelligence during the campaign in the camp.
Violent clashes broke out between young men from Doheisheh camp and the invading troops.
In an earlier incident, three young men were taken prisoners during an overnight campaign in Turmus’ayya town near Ramallah on Saturday.
Israeli media sources, for their part, claimed that three young men were members of a Palestinian “gang” who had launched systematic stone attacks on Israeli settlers’ cars on the main road in Turmus’ayya between Ramallah and Nablus cities.
(Source / 20.04.2014)
Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, Global Week of Action for Palestinian Prisoners, and the Campaign to Free Ahmad Sa’adat organized a conference on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day in Brussels, Belgium on April 19, 2014. The event, held in a packed room at Pianofabriek Culturencentrum in Brussels, included presentations and talks, a photography exhibition and music.
Leila Khaled, Palestinian political leader and icon of the resistance, sent her greetings to the event via video:
Charlotte Kates of Samidoun and the National Lawyers Guild (U.S.) discussed the legal and political situation of Palestinian prisoners, the mass imprisonment of Palestinians, and criminalization of resistance. Rabee Eid, Palestinian journalist from Palestine ’48, spoke about the Palestinian prisoners from ’48 and the legacy of mass imprisonment from the earliest days of the colonization of Palestine.
Jan of Palestina Solidariteit presented on Palestinian child prisoners and the growing international campaign to boycott G4S, the world’s largest security corporation, which provides security services to occupation prisons and Ofer military court.
Khaled Barakat, coordinator of the Campaign to Free Ahmad Sa’adat, addressed the political implications of imprisonment for the Palestinian liberation movement and the use of isolation as a constant tactic, both inside and outside the occupation prisons, to separate Palestinians from one another. He discussed the prisons and the prisoners as centers of resistance and resistance leaders for the Palestinian movement as a whole.
The event also included a photo exhibition with the images and stories of Palestinian women former prisoners by photographer Asmaa Seba, and concluded with Palestinian food and music by Souk-Souk Soundsystem. The photo exhibition, “Suspended Lives,” showcased former women prisoners with photos of themselves prior to their time in occupation prisons.
“It was very important to have this event here in Brussels to bring Palestinian voices speaking about the Palestinian prisoners, G4S and the BDS movement,” said one of the Palestinian youth who organized the event. “We plan to continue to organize similar events of this type to build the movement further.”
The event followed a successful protest held in Brussels’ Place de la Monnaie on April 17, where numerous Belgian organizations joined together to take the streets to call for freedom for Palestinian political prisoners. “Liberez-les prisonniers palestiniens!” rang out in the plaza as speakers and activists came together to demand freedom for all Palestinian political prisoners.
(Source / 20.04.2014)
RAMALLAH, (PIC)– Jewish settlers used hand saws and other sharp tools to chop down more than 100 olive trees in Ras Karkar village to the north west of Ramallah on Sunday.
Eyewitnesses said that the settlers claimed that they cut the trees because they owned the land that was confiscated to be their own property.
They added that the settlers were routinely attacking lands in Ras Karkar and other nearby villages at the pretext that they owned the land and that it was annexed to their settlement.
(Source / 20.04.2014)
The IDF has installed a new crowd-dispersal weapon on top of the separation wall in Bethlehem.
The new weapon, which is remote-controlled and shoots “skunk” water (putrid-smelling liquid), began operating over the last month. According to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, the weapon can also fire stun grenades, tear gas among other crowd-dispersal means.
In the past month, Palestinian residents of Bethlehem began noticing the new weapon perched on top of the separation wall in an area near where most of the protests against the occupation and the barrier take place. According to participants in last week’s Palestine Marathon, the new camera-equipped weapon moved on its axis and followed them as they passed by it during their run.
One rumor that came up in conversations among Palestinians on social media outlets stated that the weapon was the same one that was installed on the walls separating Israel from Gaza. According to a photojournalist working in the occupied territories, soldiers often use live ammunition against protests near the guard tower in that specific portion of the wall. However, a source in the army told +972 that the weapon will be used exclusively for crowd-dispersal means and will be controlled by the Border Police.
Runners take part in the annual Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem under the shadow of a new weapon (top left) perched atop the separation wall.
In response to an inquiry by +972, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated that the weapon is “part of our means for riot dispersal in Judea and Samaria. The weapon is remote controlled and has the ability to fire water, tear gas grenades, etc.. It is important to state that it does not fire live ammunition. Israeli security forces act in various ways in order to maintain order in the area, while avoiding harming innocents.” The unit refrained from responding to questions about the reason for installing the system, and whether there are any plans to use the weapon in more areas across the separation barrier.
(Source / 19.04.2014)
Lawyer Muhammad Mahmoud of the prisoners’ support organization Addameer said that Israeli police raided the houses of five Palestinian young men before taking them into custody.
The youths were identified as Akram al-Shurafa, Faris Abu Ghannam, Amir Bazlamit, Muhammad al-Jubah, and Ahmad Salah.
Meanwhile, Israeli police detained Ehab Zughayyar and Nafith al-Jubah during a raid in the Old City of Jerusalem, a local committee for prisoners’ families said.
An Israeli police spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and formally annexed the area in 1980 in a move never recognized by the international community.