Activists in cities around the world rallied over the weekend to protest what they describe as Saudi Arabia’s systematic destruction of holy sites. The process has gone on for nearly a century, and, the protesters say, it has gained momentum in recent years, with the Saudi government moving to make dramatic — perhaps irreparable — changes to the face of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.
About 700 people gathered in Washington, D.C., and marched toward the Saudi Embassy on Saturday. Similar protests were also held over the weekend in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, London, Karachi and Hyderabad in Pakistan and Melbourne, Australia.
The demonstrators called on the Saudi government to rebuild the Jannatul Baqee cemetery in Medina, a western Saudi city that is second only to Mecca in its importance for Muslims around the globe. The cemetery contains the graves of many members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family as well as some of his closest companions. The Saudi royal family demolished the shrines on top of the graves in 1925, saying that tombstones are un-Islamic, and replaced them with single unnamed stones.
Wahhabism, the Muslim sect whose tenets are official doctrine in Saudi Arabia, frowns on visits to shrines, tombs and religious historical sites, on the grounds this might lead to worshiping anyone other than God — Islam’s gravest sin. Many other Muslims, however, do not view offering prayers at sites like Jannatul Baqee as idolatry and believe the practices imposed by the kingdom’s rulers prevent them from paying proper respect at it and other holy sites.
“The Wahhabi sect of Islam stands to denounce the building of shrines on holy personalities, but the rest of the 71 sects [of Islam] want to go to these sites and pay respect to these personalities,” says Zaineb Hussain, a director at Al-Baqee, the group that organized the protests.
Al-Baqee is a Shia group based in Chicago that has been trying to bring attention to these issues since the 1990s. It started organizing protests each year on the eighth day of the 10th month of the Islamic calendar to mark the anniversary of the cemetery’s destruction. In 2007 it began busing people to the Saudi Embassy in Washington to demonstrate. The group says several sects are usually represented at the protests, including some non-Muslims.
The group says it submits a memorandum every year to Saudi officials. This year its letter called for the government to “immediately halt the destruction and desecration of shrines, graves, cemeteries [and] relics and in good faith begin the process of rebuilding these sacred sites to their original beauty.”
“We submit our memorandum to them every single year, and every year we do not get an official response from them, not even an acknowledgment that they received our memorandum,” says Hussain.
Al Jazeera was unable to reach Saudi officials for a response.
An unnamed nongovernment source says that the projects should not be seen as destruction but as expansions of existing holy sites — necessary to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia each year for hajj. (This year’s pilgrimage will take place during the second half of September.) When the Saud family took control of Mecca and Medina in the mid-1920s, crowds of about 50,000 were considered large for the annual pilgrimage. In 2012 more than 3 million faithful made the journey, according to the Saudi Embassy in Washington — and that figure does not include tourism outside the annual pilgrimage season, which has also grown dramatically.
Construction in both the holy cities — especially around the Grand Mosque in Mecca, toward which all Muslims turn when praying, and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where Muhammad is buried — has often been controversial. Some dissidents have compared Mecca’s emerging skyline to Las Vegas’. Recent projects include a modern clock tower hotel, decked with shopping malls, ballrooms and Jacuzzis. The structure rests on the site of what used to be an 18th century Ottoman citadel.