Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Saudi Spin at the British Museum

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Saudi Spin at the British Museum

Article excerpt

I came out of the British Museum's new "Hajj" exhibition with just one word on my lips - whitewash.

Don't get me wrong; I liked the show, which is filled with gorgeous relics, artworks, textiles and manuscripts. Muslim visitors will be touched by the attention to detail; non-Muslim visitors will leave with a much greater understanding of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. As a believing Muslim, I felt a tingle of excitement as I spotted the rare, 8th-century Quran on display.

But back to the whitewash. The exhibition is hosted "in partnership" with the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh, which was founded in 1987 by the current Saudi king, Abdullah. The country's involvement hasn't been hidden: a smiling Saudi ambassador attended the press launch on 25 January.

Yet Saudi Arabia is home to Wahhabism, the most puritanical and dogmatic branch of Islam. Wahhabis believe that historical and cultural sites encourage shirk, or idolatry, and they have spent much of the past century trying to destroy such sites. When the Wahhabi-dominated al-Saud tribes invaded Mecca in 1924, one of their first acts was to flatten the cemetery where the Prophet Muhammad's wife, mother and grandfather lie buried. In The Two Faces of Islam, Stephen Schwartz describes how Wahhabi invaders smashed mirrors and burned window frames and doorways. The seizure of Mecca, he writes, "came at the end of a 23-year campaign ... accompanied by the usual mass murder: nearly half a million people had been killed or injured by Wahhabi zealots. …

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