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Dissident Watch: Sami Angawi

by Rachel Hoff
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2006

In 1975, Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect and scion of a respected merchant family, founded the Haj Research Center to preserve the history and architecture of Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Both cities once boasted centuries-old winding streets and traditional homes. In 1924 though, Saudi tribes invaded the more cosmopolitan Hijaz kingdom and declared themselves custodians of Islam's two holy cities. They imposed Wahhabism, a strict and iconoclastic interpretation of Islam, upon the local population.[1]

The Saudi royal family has since used Wahhabism to justify the destruction of historical sites throughout the region. Just as the Taliban argued as they dynamited the fifth-century C.E. giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, Saudi leaders say the presence of historical religious sites may lead to idolatry. Angawi explains, "At the root of the problem is Wahhabism. They have a big complex about idolatry and anything that relates to the Prophet."[2] During the past fifty years, the Saudi authorities have destroyed more than 300 historical sites in Mecca and Medina.[3] In the past two decades alone, Saudi authorities have destroyed 95 percent of Mecca's ancient and historical buildings.[4] With few exceptions,[5] the outside world remains silent.

Saudi authorities tell foreigners that the destruction is based less on religious imperative than upon the need to provide more modern facilities to pilgrims. They say that construction of parking lots, high-rise apartment buildings, and hotels on top of old neighborhoods and religious sites enables greater access to the Hajj. Angawi dismisses such arguments. He counters that affluent Saudis lease the new apartments for prestige. In actuality, most religious pilgrims have no access to the new facilities.[6]

Other incidents belie official explanations of convenience and access. After Angawi discovered and excavated the site of the house of Muhammad's grandson, Saudi king Fahd, fearing that it would become a pilgrimage site, ordered it razed. Angawi said, "The bulldozer is there, and they take only two hours to destroy everything. It has no sensitivity to history. It digs down to the bedrock and then the concrete is poured in." Frustrated, he has since kept secret the locations of his subsequent excavations, even reburying the remnants of the Prophet's home to spare it from the bulldozers.[7]

Angawi is pessimistic about the future of the cradle of Islam. In an interview with The Independent, he said, "What we are witnessing are the last days of Mecca and Medina Mecca should be the reflection of the multicultural Muslim world, not a concrete parking lot."[8]

Rachel Hoff is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

[1] For background on the Saudi suppression of Hijazi identity, see, Mai Yamani, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).
[2] The Independent (London), Aug. 6, 2005.
[3] New Statesman (London), July 18, 2005.
[4] The Independent,
Aug. 6, 2005; The Toronto Star, Aug. 17, 2005.
[5] The Independent,
Aug. 6, 2005; Turkish Daily News (Istanbul), Jan. 8, 2002.
[6] Seminar in the house of Sami Angawi (attended by Michael Rubin), Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Mar. 8, 2005.
[7] Ibid.
[8] The Independent,
Aug. 6, 2005.


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