Imagine that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – has been taken over by Cromwellian Puritans. The new owners of the shrine plan to send bulldozers in, replacing the old church with a monstrous building resembling a concrete spaceship. This is so pilgrims can pray without being distracted by “superstitious” icons. Also, the Old City will be buried under hotels that make Vegas look like Venice.
It wouldn’t happen, would it? Christians would fight to the death to preserve Jerusalem. So would Jews and Muslims. And, for once, they’d have the support of secular politicians and scholars, horrified by the prospect of an act of cultural vandalism unprecedented in modern times.
Unprecedented until now, that is. The long-cherished ambition of Saudi Arabia’s ruling Wahhabi sect to smash up the ancient buildings of Mecca and Medina is nearing fruition.
In Mecca, the house of one of Mohammed’s wives has been demolished to make space for public lavatories. His birthplace may disappear, too, as part of King Abdullah’s scheme to complement the skyscrapers and shopping malls with a Grand Mosque fashioned from the same materials as a multi-storey car park in Wolverhampton.
As for Islam’s second holiest place, the city of Medina, a recent article by Jerome Taylor in the Independent revealed a megalomaniac plan to pull down three 7th-century mosques. Taylor added: “Ten years ago, a mosque which belonged to the Prophet’s grandson was dynamited. Pictures of the demolition that were secretly taken and smuggled out of the kingdom showed the religious police celebrating.”
Only a small minority of the world’s billion Muslims are Wahhabis, despite the tens of billions of petrodollars spent by the Saudis propagating their creed. (Bosnia, for example, is now littered with Saudi-style mosques, replacing the graceful Ottoman architecture that Wahhabis detest.) Many pilgrims to Mecca are revolted by the marriage of Puritanism and greed they find there. Yet protests are scattered and muted. Why?
One answer is that the House of Saud, though widely hated, is also feared: its wealth and terrorist connections make it unlikely that, say, a Pakistani politician would speak openly about the desecration of the Hajj.
The West can hardly complain about such gutlessness: this year’s Hajj exhibition at the British Museum was creepily sanitised – no mention of bulldozers or the 2,000ft clock tower built right next to the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped building that is the centrepiece of Islamic devotions.
But what sticks in the craw is the hypocrisy of Muslims who throw a fit if Israeli archaeologists carry out non-intrusive work underneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, “Islam’s third holiest place”, as we’re constantly reminded. Such anger would be more convincing if the first and second holy sites weren’t being ploughed up by a police state. Likewise, are cartoons of Mohammed really more offensive than reducing the remains of his life to rubble?
As one Middle East expert put it to me: “Jews disturbing the Dome of the Rock fits into an anti-Western narrative, so Muslims can cope with that. The Saudi destruction of Mecca doesn’t fit into that narrative, and so there’s virtual silence.” Something worth bearing in mind, perhaps, when you wonder why the murder of Muslims by Muslims in Darfur or Syria provokes only limited outrage in the Islamic world.
Polly’s praise has a hollow ring
Dear Polly Toynbee was in such a tizzy over the EU in yesterday’s Guardian, trying to reconcile her support for Labour’s new line with her ferocious Europhilia. I’ll spare you the details of her contortions, except to say that she ended up by praising the one Blairite minister who had been properly “tireless” in his support of the European Union: Denis MacShane. That’s the same Denis MacShane MP who resigned yesterday after being found guilty of tirelessly submitting 19 false invoices for “research and translation” services. As Polly says, a man truly in communion with the spirit of Brussels.
Vicars with a satanic side
“An ex-Satanist returns to the Catholic Church,” read a headline on a US website this week. Alas, it was just about some woman who’d given up astrology, surely the realm of the feeble-minded rather than of Devil-worshippers.
As it happens, I do know a Christian who used to be a Satanist punk rocker. He’s now an Anglican vicar and a jolly good one, so I won’t embarrass him by naming him.
Mention of Satan and vicars always reminds me of “The Daemons”, my favourite Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story, in which Roger Delgado’s Master poses as the Rev Mr Magister.
He strikes me as your typical Low Church country parson – until, that is, he retires to the crypt to conduct black magic rubrics with distinctly Anglo-Catholic flamboyance.
A sorry state of affairs
Here’s a contender for most humiliating apology of the year: a 540-word mea culpa issued to Lord Ashcroft by Dr Éoin Clarke, whose boring and sanctimonious blog “The Green Benches” is devoted to exposing the wickedness of Conservative health policy. Dr Clarke has been forced to say sorry on five separate counts, including wrongly suggesting that Ashcroft donated money to the Tory party in order to increase the use of agency staff in the NHS.
Incidentally, we’re not talking about a GP blogger who was too busy to check his facts. The only house calls Dr Clarke is qualified to make are to people urgently seeking info on Irish women’s history, the subject of his PhD. As I’ve noted before, Clarke is so proud of his doctorate that he even calls himself “@DrEoinClarke” on Twitter. Bless.
Incidentally, how do you pronounce his name? Says my Gaelic expert: “It’s basically ‘Eeyore’, but with just a hint of the click sound made by Xhosa tribesmen.”
The plot thickens
How very, very odd. We learnt this week that the Slimming World All-Party Parliamentary Group, which allows Westminster politicians to discuss “weight management”, is being wound up. The reason given: a fall in membership. Hmm. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but why have the numbers dropped off since 2010? Might it be politically disadvantageous, shall we say, for an ambitious Tory MP to show too much interest in the subject of double chins?
I seek out my Deep Throat in the Downing Street kitchens. At the mention of the words “Slimming World” she raises a knowing eyebrow. “You’ll have to do your own research,” she says. “All I can tell you is: follow the custard.”
Damian Thompson is Editor of Telegraph Blogs and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He was once described by The Church Times as a “blood-crazed ferret”. He is on Twitter as HolySmoke. His new book is called The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world.