Mecca Conference Criticized for Hypocrisy on Holy Site Destruction

Sherrie Gossett | Staff Writer | Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Mecca Conference Criticized for Hypocrisy on Holy Site Destruction

( - Leaders of a recent conference in Mecca, which emphasized the safeguarding of historic and holy Islamic sites in Jerusalem, are being criticized for turning a blind eye to the reported destruction of such sites in Saudi Arabia. Their statements condemning terrorism have also been criticized.

Representatives of 57 countries, including the prime minister of Malaysia and King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz, who holds the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," attended the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which held its summit Dec. 7-8 in Mecca.

The summit was convened to address "internal and external threats" facing the wider Muslim community -- or "Ummah" -- in the 21st century.

The OIC was founded in Morocco on Sept. 25, 1969, following an arson attack against the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Aug. 21 of that year.

Moral outrage over what the OIC still calls a "Zionist" attack has been an organizing principle of the conference ever since, even though the perpetrator of the arson turned out to be a deranged Australian tourist who belonged to a Christian sect.

While the December summit tackled diverse issues such as poverty, disaster relief and terrorism, a uniting theme was concern for the safety and state of historic Islamic sites in Al-Quds (Jerusalem), including the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Documents issued by the conference indicated that member states should make contributions to "preserve the holy sites in the city of Al-Quds" and "safeguard the sacred city's cultural and historic landmarks and Arab-Islamic identity." The documents cited the need to counter "the judaization of the Holy City."

A statement released by the OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu warned of "illegal Israeli practices" and "aggressions" that aim to alter "historic landmarks."

In a report issued the month before the conference, the secretary expressed "grave concern" over the "deteriorating condition of religious and historical sites" in Jerusalem due to "Israeli practices" such as excavations and the building of the separation wall.

The OIC should "spare no effort to preserve the Islamic historical and religious identity of Al-Quds Al-Sharif," wrote Ihsanoglu.

OIC leaders also cited the need to counter the "desecration of Islamic holy sites."

"It is very ironic," said Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. "The same place where they had their meeting, not one mile away, there are Islamic landmarks much more important in Islamic history than all Islamic landmarks in Jerusalem, that are being destroyed."

Prophet Mohammed's childhood home set to be demolished

Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and expert on Saudi political affairs, estimates that the majority of Islamic landmarks in Saudi Arabia have already been destroyed. Islamic architecture expert Sami Angawi told media earlier this year that at least 300 historical buildings have been leveled in Mecca and Medina over the past 50 years.

"A telling example is the house where the Prophet Mohammed was born and [another] house he lived in until he was 29 are going to be demolished," Al-Ahmed said. Also destroyed was the 18th -century Ottoman-era Ajyad Fort. "They destroyed it at night. They blew up the hill where the fort was situated to make room for hotels," Al-Ahmed said.

In 2002, the Saudi Embassy released a statement saying the fort was not listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and that the Saudi government had called for its "rebuilding by experts in the same traditional way it was first built and at the same location, albeit not on Bulbul Hill."

Other reportedly destroyed sites cited by Al-Ahmed include: the first house in Islam, where the prophet Mohamed held secret meetings with his followers, which was destroyed in the 1980s; the houses of the prophet in Medina, where he lived for the last 10 years of his life; the Al-Fadik mosque in Medina built during Mohammed's life and destroyed in July 2003; and the Ali Al-Oraidi Mosque and Shrine in Medina destroyed in 2004. "It had been in operation for 1,200 years," said Al-Ahmed.

Behind the destruction is the Wahhabist strain of Islam, which seeks to destroy any revered physical structures that clerics believe could lead believers to idolatry, said Al-Ahmed. Real-estate development, especially around Mecca and Medina, which hosts millions of pilgrims every year, is also a major factor.

Religious politics also plays a role. When authorities allegedly destroyed one of the five renowned "Seven Mosques" built by the Prophet Mohammed's daughter and four of his "greatest Companions," Wahhabists were approving. "The mosques are not welcomed by Wahhabis," said Al-Ahmed. "It's partly political. They don't want Shia to go there to pray."

Where the Abu Bakr mosque stood, there is now an ATM machine, said Al-Ahmed. The home in which the founder of Islam grew up is slated to be destroyed, as well as his birthplace, which has a library built over it. Two major battlefields with both historic and religious significance have also reportedly been paved over.

In June of last year, the Islamic Supreme Council of America called for the support of the world community, UNESCO and the United Nations to stop the destruction of venerated Muslim sites in Saudi Arabia.

The exclusive emphasis of the OIC on the danger such sites in Jerusalem allegedly face at the hands of Israeli Jews is a "highly selective politicization of the issue," said Al-Ahmed. "Jerusalem is actually more authentic than Mecca today -- the preservation is much better than that of Mecca," he said.

If a historic Islamic site in Jerusalem such as the Dome of the Rock were ever to be destroyed, Al-Ahmed said, "we'd have a bloodbath."

By comparison, Al-Ahmed noted the irony of a tape of the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Othaimeen, who he described as the "number one Wahhabi cleric."

"On the tape he says, 'We hope one day we'll be able to destroy the dome of the Prophet Mohammed," al-Ahmed quoted bin Othaimeen as saying in reference to the "Green Dome" (Gunbad-e-Khadra), under which Mohammed is buried in the Al Nabawi Sharif mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

Al-Ahmed's Institute for Gulf Affairs is planning a report and a conference on the issue in the upcoming year. The report will contain commissioned photographs and details of the destruction.

"Throughout the centuries, Muslims had no problem preserving these sites; now, we have this new Islam that wants to destroy them. It is very sad and very disturbing," Al-Ahmed added.

The OIC summit also addressed terrorism and social and political issues in several documents it issued. Calls for solidarity among the 57 member nations were accented by the voiced need to "counter foreign threats" and "reject unilateral sanctions."

The OIC jointly condemned "the alarming phenomenon of "Islamophobia" and noted the "moral obligation" of Western powers to provide socio-economic aid for its part in causing harm over the years to Muslims. The OIC also resuscitated the idea of establishing an International Islamic Court of Justice in Kuwait to settle matters between member states.

'Criminalize every single terrorist practice'

Leaders at the summit affirmed the need to "criminalize every single terrorist practice" and supported the establishment of an International Counter-Terrorism Center as endorsed by the Riyadh International Conference on Combating Terrorism.

While all of the summary documents issued by the OIC condemned terrorism, the secretary general's report noted the "lack of consensus on the definition of the term" and "insisted on its differentiation from the right to resist aggression, foreign occupation and self-defense."

The statements don't carry much weight with those serious about counter-terrorism, according to Yehudit Barsky, director of the Middle East and International Terrorism department at the American Jewish Committee headquartered in New York City.

"This is very similar to previous statements made by Arab countries and by the Arab League," said Barksy. "They leave the door open for what they call resistance movements. Legitimizing resistance movements is legitimizing terrorism."

Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), attended the Mecca summit. He did not respond to a request from Cybercast News Service for comment on the conference, nor did he respond to a request to give his opinion of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and whether he believes their use of violence is justified.

Regarding CAIR's previous condemnations of terrorism and violence against "innocent" civilians, Awad also did not respond to the following question: "Do you believe Israeli victims of suicide bombings are 'innocent victims,' or are they legitimate targets of violent resistance...?"

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