Mecca, Modernity & Muslims

In the NYT’s Art & Design section, Nicolai Ouroussoff has a fascinating report (and nice slideshow) on the controversial construction boom in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.  The Saudi royals seem so impressed by Sin City’s overwhelming and kitschy architecture, they have imported Vegas sized and styled buildings to better serve the (very rich) pilgrims:

While much of the article is devoted to bad architecture and sullied views, the problems run much deeper than mere design:

“It is the commercialization of the house of God,” said Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect who founded a research center that studies urban planning issues surrounding the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and has been one of the development’s most vocal critics. “The closer to the mosque, the more expensive the apartments. In the most expensive towers, you can pay millions” for a 25-year leasing agreement, he said. “If you can see the mosque, you pay triple.”

That mentality is dividing the holy city of Mecca — and the pilgrimage experience — along highly visible class lines, with the rich sealed inside exclusive air-conditioned high-rises encircling the Grand Mosque and the poor pushed increasingly to the periphery.

The issue is not just run-of-the-mill class conflict. The city’s makeover also reflects a split between those who champion turbocharged capitalism and those who think it should stop at the gates of Mecca, which they see as the embodiment of an Islamic ideal of egalitarianism.

Here in the West, and especially in the United States, there are several things we can learn from these developments. First, “Islam” is not a unified religious tradition and individual Muslims can be and are quite different from one another.  There are multiple Islams and all kinds of Muslims. Second, money, consumption, and capitalism — all aspects of modernity against which a small number of jihadists are fighting — are having major impacts on the highly diverse Muslim world.

It should be obvious that huge numbers of Muslims are quite comfortable with modernity and welcome it.  This portion of the Muslim world is growing and will change the international face of Islam over the coming decades.

As is the case with all things it touches and ultimately transforms, commerce will be king.

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