The Saudi press expended a lot of energy this summer highlighting the damage to buildings and other infrastructure in Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel war. There was a reason: Fundamentalist Muslim clerics in the kingdom wish to divert attention from their own wholesale devastation of ancient Islamic sacred architecture and other monuments on their own soil.

The Saudis and other Muslim states have spent almost 40 years blustering over alleged Israeli threats to the Islamic precincts on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--including the oldest artifact of Muslim architecture, the Dome of the Rock. And they were quick to protest against Western "insensitivity" when Muhammad was depicted in Danish newspaper cartoons. But they remain silent as Saudi radicals demolish the Muslim and Arab cultural heritage, and keep quiet about attacks on the shrines of the Shia sect in Iraq, carried out by Saudi-incited Sunni terrorists.

In the realm of cultural vandalism, Saudi Arabia has much to account for. For even the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan was inspired by the doctrines and habits of Wahhabism, which remains the state-imposed interpretation of Islam in the Saudi kingdom. Yet Wahhabi depredations to the cultural legacy of Arabia have been more extensive, more thoroughly planned, and more persistent than any other such efforts in the last two centuries, except for those seen under Russian communism. And in a coincidence that may not be a coincidence at all, much of the wrecking of historic buildings in Saudi Arabia has been carried out by none other than the Saudi Bin Laden Group, the engineering and construction firm that is the source of Osama bin Laden's wealth.

Indeed, it is more than a startling piece of local news in the Arabian peninsula when ancient mosques, houses, and cemeteries, and even natural features of the landscape associated with early Islamic history, are destroyed in Mecca and Medina. Such incidents embody the battle for the soul of Islam.

Case in point: Some Wahhabis are currently demanding the removal of a cave at Medina, where Muhammad rested during a famous battle, because it draws crowds of Muslims to pray at the site. Wahhabis, as extreme simplifiers and iconoclasts in matters of religion, condemn prayer with the soul of the Prophet as an intercessor, as well as prayer at locations associated with Muhammad. And while less fanatical members of the sect suggest that fencing off the cave will deter prayer there, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Saleh Al-Jarbu, of the Islamic University of Medina (a Wahhabi center), has argued that destroying the site is the only solution. He insists that a fence is insufficient, since people will climb over it.

"The only solution in my mind is to destroy it," he says. "Destroying it will solve the problem for good."

Why do Wahhabis object to Muslims gathering for prayer at a sacred site? The three monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, Islam--have all undergone violent conflicts and the devastation of cultural heritage over allegations of idol-worship. In the first two cases, however, such tragic chapters are long in the past; they ended for Christians in the last three centuries. Unfortunately, Islam remains convulsed by such controversy. Wahhabis preach that prayer at, and preservation of, historic mosques, and the tombs of holy men and women, as well as protection of graveyards of the pious and other monuments, and the decoration of new mosques, and establishment of new cemeteries, are all acts of idolatry.

Of course, most Wahhabis do not object to the construction of opulent palaces and mausoleums for Saudi rulers, but consistency is not their strong suit. In Wahhabi practice, anywhere in the Muslim world, to treat a building or a grave as something worth protecting, and to encourage Muslims to pray at such sites, makes the structure or memorial stone an idol and the worshipper an unbeliever. The Wahhabis especially hate prayers and recitations in praise of Muhammad, which are a firmly established feature of traditional Islam, but which the Wahhabis consider an abominable imitation of Christian practice.

Such details of Wahhabi ideology might be no more than examples of one excessive interpretation of Islam, incomprehensible to the non-Wahhabi mind, were it not that the ongoing campaign of historical demolition in Saudi Arabia has become an important issue in the Saudi transition from an absolutist, ideological regime. "Saudology," or the interpretation of political and theological developments in the kingdom, resembles its predecessor, Kremlinology, in that major events may be discerned behind apparently trivial details.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has long been known for his anti-Wahhabi views, and slow but perceptible changes could lead to the separation of Wahhabism from the state, and the transformation of the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Among the indicators are a renewal among Saudi subjects of the spiritual traditions of Sufism, which Wahhabis despise and have worked hard to liquidate, but to which Abdullah's predecessor, the late King Fahd, was devoted. Other promising news includes the relaxation of restrictions on reading once-banned books, and the naming of women to significant business posts.

Recently, rumors have swept the kingdom of an imminent power struggle between King Abdullah and his younger half-brother, Prince Nayef, minister of the interior and a fierce Wahhabi. King Abdullah has reportedly called for disbanding the religious militia, or mutawwa, which patrol the streets of the kingdom, harassing and even brutalizing those they claim have violated rules for modesty between men and women. (Nayef, it is said, has rejected the proposal to disband the paramilitary arm, and there are even claims that Nayef, like the Soviet holdouts in Russia in 1991, is preparing a coup to obstruct any tendency toward further reform.)

In the last decades of the Soviet era, the struggle for the freedom of artistic creation was a major feature in the epic of liberation. Regimes throughout the Soviet bloc responded to innovations in art and literature by imprisoning artists and authors, trashing art shows, confiscating manuscripts, and censoring books. Under Saudi rule, social change is expressed in cultural turmoil, but takes a different form. Faced with the very real possibility of losing their power and funding as state clerics, the Wahhabis, who still control large areas of the Saudi state, are fighting back--and the extremists have responded to pressure by an increased, even frenzied, effort to liquidate the original religious and architectural legacy of the kingdom.

In the cultural realm, this could be Wahhabism's last stand--just as the persecution of dissident writers marked the death agony of Russian communism. The difference is that the Communists feared the works of living people; the Saudi-Wahhabis are terrified at the survival of the Islamic past.

This has resulted in, among other things, construction projects that have undermined the Grand Mosque here in Mecca, leaving it unstable. In August 2002, the minaret at the Medina mosque-tomb of Ali al-Uraidh, a son of Jaafar al-Sadiq (702-765), was dynamited. (Jaafar al-Sadiq is considered the sixth imam, or religious guide, for the majority of Shia Muslims, and was the founder of Shia jurisprudence.) The razing of the vast graveyard of Jannat al-Baqi in Medina, where many of Muhammad's companions were buried, is well documented. The location was first assaulted by the Wahhabis in the 19th century, and again with the Saudi takeover of Mecca and Medina in 1924.

In 2002 the Ottoman-era Ajyad fortress, overlooking the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was demolished. The fortress was knocked down to make way for an apartment complex, called the Zam Zam Towers. The Saudi Islamic Affairs minister, Saleh Al-Sheikh, had promised that the fortress would be rebuilt in its original form. (The plot of land earmarked for the Towers was formerly under the control of pious endowments, a form of Islamic charitable institution. Some had been established by King Ibn Saud for the maintenance of the Mecca mosques.) But the sanctity of mosques proved little resistant to the sanctity of profits for the Bin Laden Group and its Wahhabi accomplices. Even more bizarre, the Zam Zam Towers are named for the famous well of Zam Zam, for which Mecca is known throughout the Muslim world. But the sources of the well have been diverted by Saudi Bin Laden builders, so that the well of Zam Zam may soon disappear altogether.

The grave of Muhammad's mother, Amina bint Wahb, has been bulldozed and soaked with gasoline. The house of Abu Bakr Siddiq, the closest companion of Muhammad--and the first of the "four rightly-guided caliphs," or immediate successors as leader of the Muslims--has been replaced by the Mecca Hilton Hotel. In Medina, of seven famous mosques erected near the site of the Battle of the Trench, in which Muhammad participated, five have been destroyed. An automatic teller machine now sits in the area. The two remaining mosques are also due for obliteration.

One of the most remarkable and, for Westerners and non-Wahhabi Muslims, shocking examples of the Saudi passion for destruction involves the house of Khadija, the wife of Muhammad, in which the couple lived while here in Mecca. The residence of Khadija was discovered in 1989 during excavations near the Grand Mosque, carried out in preparation for installation of a large paved area.

During the uncontrolled leveling of old buildings in the neighborhood (an objectionable practice in itself) a structure identified as the house of Khadija and Muhammad was located by Saudi Bin Laden personnel, hidden under a foundation. The house included a prayer room used by Muhammad, and was the location where five of his children were born. After the building was photographed, its presence was concealed by sand. Public toilets were erected on the spot where Muhammad had slept. The aim was, once again, to discourage prayer at the site, since Muslims, like Jews, cannot pray in a place where there is any odor of human waste.

Equally startling is a plan for "rebuilding" the birthplace of Muhammad in Mecca. Decades ago the Wahhabis turned the location into a cattle market, and then replaced it with a library. But with a new proposal for a huge real estate development, to be erected in cooperation with the London-based Le Meridien luxury hotel chain, the library is scheduled to disappear. In its place a multistory residential complex will overshadow the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, has provided perfunctory pledges that the kingdom would not abandon its historical patrimony. But the Saudis have shown little interest in protecting the cultural past, and the destruction of history, and historic artifacts, is yet another way for the Wahhabis to show that there is no other form of Islam--whether on the ground, in archives, or in the popular memory--than their own.

We may be witnessing the end of the historic legacy of Mecca and Medina. Today, fewer than 20 structures in Mecca date to the time of Muhammad. Mai Yamani, an outstanding Saudi dissident author and defender of the cultural identity and legacy of Hejaz, the region that includes Mecca and Medina, has noted that the uproar over the Danish cartoons drove "thousands of people into the streets to protest," but when sites are threatened "related to the Prophet . . . part of their heritage and religion . . . we see no concern from Muslims."

Says Yamani: The Saudi monarchy must "rein in" the Wahhabis--now. For their heedlessness may yet provoke enough disgust among Muslims, inside and outside the kingdom, to bring about a break with the Wahhabi monopoly over religious life in the birthplace of Islam--and, perhaps, faster movement toward a system of popular sovereignty.

Irfan al-Alawi is joint chairman of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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