Conspiracy Theories Won’t Stop the Kingdom’s Reforms
Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca during the 2015 hajj. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images)

Conspiracy Theories Won’t Stop the Kingdom’s Reforms

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, February 22

In July 2006, a piece of news circulated in online forums; a precursor to social media platforms. It claimed someone was deliberately mocking Islam by building a replica of the Kaaba (sacred Muslim shrine in Mecca) in New York City and using it as a nightclub that would be open 24/7. As a young reporter for Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper at the time, I was tasked with uncovering the truth of the matter. Upon further investigation, it became clear the building was neither a nightclub nor a replica of the Kaaba, but rather a cube-shaped flagship Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It later emerged that the entrance to the store was composed of glass; however, initial photographs featuring the glass exterior covered with a black protective layer caused false news to spread like wildfire due to its resemblance to the Kaaba. In the wake of 9/11, passions ran high and religious extremists issued numerous controversial fatwas against the West. Some even used false news to advance their agendas and stir up anti-Western sentiment. It is remarkable that, after 17 years, incitement and extremist ideas remain prevalent. Technology and our access to information have progressed greatly, yet reactions on social media about the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s announcement of a new downtown project in Riyadh demonstrate the similarities that persist. An immense cube at the project’s center sparked much discussion, particularly on Twitter. This structure, which will be used for entertainment, restaurants and commerce, has raised questions due to its size and height, which surpasses that of Islam’s holiest shrine in neighboring Mecca, or Al-Mukarramah, the Kaaba. Of course, it is not necessary to explain how absurd the claim is that the design of the Apple Store was inspired by Islam. To begin, Islam does not have a monopoly over items in the shape of a cube. It is highly unlikely that the Star Trek producers or Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik had Mecca in mind when designing the Borg Cube or 3D puzzle respectively. Moreover, it is ridiculous to think that such intentions could have been the inspiration behind the design of this landmark. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose king is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” does not require any external validation of its commitment to serving the Islamic faith. The kingdom’s efforts to serve millions of pilgrims, build and restore mosques, and provide billions in humanitarian aid to Islamic countries, attest to its dedication. An interesting comparison can be drawn between the story of the Apple Store and the story of the cube. The United States of America has long been viewed as an infidel in the eyes of many extremist Muslims. Recently, however, attention has shifted to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Extremists within the kingdom and abroad are attempting to distort the progressive reforms undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, casting doubt on their efficacy. But the truth is that women have been liberated from restrictive guardianship laws and are now empowered to drive cars, and serve as ambassadors, lawyers and doctors. The reforms are indeed making a positive impact on the nation. Extremists in Saudi Arabia want to impose a lifestyle similar to that of the Taliban, where women are denied the opportunity to receive an education or work, and are treated as second-class citizens, having to remain in their homes for the majority of the time. Music and parties are also considered abhorrent to their fundamentalist views. The Prophet Muhammad – may God bless him and grant him peace – was welcomed with singing and drumming when he migrated from Mecca to Medina, a reminder that these views are in stark contrast to the religion’s true spirit. Additionally, they reject the use of a foreign term, such as “downtown,” to refer to the new project, claiming it to be a way of “Westernizing” the nation. Despite the absurdity of this notion, extremists have overlooked the fact that many “Western” terms actually stem from the Arabic language. Consider, for instance, the word “algorithm,” which derives from the name of Al-Khwarizmi, a scientist who made major contributions to the fields of mathematics, astronomy and geography. He was a Baghdad-based astronomer during the Abbasid period. Can you imagine what the world would have become if the West had been so myopic as to preclude its scholars from studying and benefiting from Arabic research and knowledge? Of course, without algorithms, these tech-savvy individuals would not have been able to access the social media platforms which they have embraced and so frequently utilize. What the kingdom should do is to persist with its reforms, while espousing progressive changes and executing ambitious development projects. After all, a cloistered cuboid structure is not the most menacing threat to Islam. The most pernicious threat lies in the closed mind that overlooks the fact that Islam did not reach its zenith until it was welcoming of all cultures, and promoted the research, philosophy and architecture which it employed in its entirety and disseminated to the West. – Faisal Abbas (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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