Good Muslims Go to Starbucks

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In our mental gallery of stereotypes, religious leaders—rabbis, clerics, bishops—are unwaveringly dogmatic, poised to support history and tradition over change. In Saudi Arabia, however, the Islamic clerics who represent the kingdom’s austere Wahhabi school of Muslim thought are preaching in favor of a particularly contemporary transformation: plowing over religious and historical landmarks to make room for hotels and retail outlets. With the rise of global oil prices spurring billions in investment, reports the New Republic (March 26, 2008), Mecca alone expects some 130 new skyscrapers in the near future. The destination for millions of Muslims on their annual pilgrimage, Mecca’s Grand Mosque will soon be adjacent to one of the largest buildings in the world: the $6 billion Abraj Al Bait towers, which will house a hotel, two heliports, and some 600 retail outlets, including Starbucks. To clear the way, Saudi officials approved demolishing, among other things, an 18th-century Ottoman fortress. Elsewhere, the house of the first caliph (according to Sunni tradition), Abu Bakr, fell asunder for the Mecca Hilton hotel. Though critics who seek to preserve Islam’s architectural history, including Turkey’s cultural minister, protested the destruction, clerical authorities detest any form of idolatry and thus support Mecca’s surging retail empire.