Paris Hilton in Mecca
For years now, people have been complaining about how the Saudi government is ruining Mecca with its obnoxious renovations. Thanks to runaway consumerism, the ancient city is overrun with luxury hotels, an awful clock-tower looming over the Ka’ba, and numerous malls and public toilets where holy sites used to be. The latest news is that Paris Hilton’s fashion empire has opened up a store in Mecca, and Muslims worldwide are again disgusted at the apparent poisoning of our holy city.
There are plenty of reasons to despise the Saudi custodianship of Mecca. Their ruling brand of extreme Sunnism, enforced by police squads of skinny teenagers in khaki uniforms, oppresses any Islamic traditions that fall outside its approval, including not only Shi’a but in fact many Sunni practices. The holy city isn’t a bastion of gender equality, and the ongoing development has only exacerbated its economic inequality. For poor pilgrims who have saved their entire lives to make hajj, it’s impossible to find accommodations anywhere close to the Great Mosque.
I’m all for the struggle to make Mecca a truly holy city of peace and justice; this fight matches the struggle of hajj, our own efforts to perfect our character and do better in the world. My problem is when people frame their opposition to the present Saudi version of Mecca as a call to restore a more just past, a return to an imaginary innocence that Mecca supposedly lost in the 20th century. I’m sorry, but that innocence never existed. Apart from the Ka’ba, Mecca is just another city. The people of Mecca—the pilgrims, the authorities, and the regular folks who just live there—have never been anything other than people. Whatever rottenness you can find elsewhere in the world exists in Mecca, and it’s not a Wahhabi invention. Long before Islam and throughout Islam’s history, Mecca has always been a host to unjust power, poverty, greed, racism, sexism, and intolerance. Paris Hilton doesn’t bring anything new to the city.