Mammon’s global reach

Al Bait TowersMichael Linton of First Things‘ blog, Public Square, has highlighted an emerging story that touches on a favorite theme of GetReligion’s editors: The intersection of faith and commerce. In “The Malling of Mecca,” Linton describes the construction of Abraj al Bait, which will offer space for 600 retail outlets, hotel rooms and posh apartments, all towering over the holiest site in Islam.

Hassan M. Fattah of The New York Times covered this story very well back in March:

Five times a day across the globe devout Muslims face this city in prayer, focused on a site where they believe Abraham built a temple to God. The spot is also the place Muslims are expected to visit at least once in their lives.

Now as they make the pilgrimage clothed in simple white cotton wraps, they will see something other than the stark black cube known as the Kaaba, which is literally the center of the Muslim world. They will also see Starbucks. And Cartier and Tiffany. And H&M and Topshop.

The Abraj al Bait Mall — one of the largest in Saudi Arabia, outfitted with flat-panel monitors with advertisements and announcements, neon lights, an amusement park ride, fast-food restaurants and a lingerie shop — has been built directly across from Islam’s holiest site.

While acknowledging that many Muslims oppose the Abraj al Bait project, Linton argues that such a profane invasion of sacred space would not be as tolerated by Christians:

Of course, there are those trinket shops next to almost every Christian sacred site, but I think that a lot of Christians view them as embarrassments. Even in Rome, I don’t think there’s a Christian-themed shopping center (although there might be one here in Tennessee, if the Bible Park U.S.A. gets built). My guess is that the memory of the story of the Lord whipping the temple money changers makes us edgy about linking religion too closely with commerce.

This feels like wishful thinking. How many historic churches, including the Washington National Cathedral, make space for a nearby (or even an attached) gift shop? Consider Willow Creek Community Church in greater Chicagoland, which offers a mall-style food court. A number of churches have welcomed Starbucks into their lobbies. ATMs are appearing in church buildings as a convenient way of making one’s donations (and, perhaps most important, obtaining an IRS-friendly receipt). If you have any doubts about the church’s ability to make peace with commerce, read Jeremy “Veteran of this Blog” Lott’s “Jesus Sells.”

While there’s still no One Vatican Place or First Baptist Mall, the sad truth applies across doctrinal divisions: If you build it, they will come.

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  • David Kearns

    Even before this mall there are many merchants next to the Masjid surrounding the Kaaba. It should be noted that a few million worshipers can fit into the building surrounding the Kaaba, and there is no shopping in there. Outside in the streets surrounding there are merchants selling mostly souvenirs that pilgrims like to buy to bring back to their friends and family. Clearly due to a growing Muslim super rich class, some wish to shop far from the common folks, which is truly a shame since the one place we all should appear to be equal, as Muslims, is in Mecca.

    (However I’m sure that I’ll stop at the Starbucks when I, God willing, return to Mecca for my pilgrimage. Just love coffee too much…)

  • Huw Richardson

    You’re very right, “While there’s still no One Vatican Place or First Baptist Mall, the sad truth applies across doctrinal divisions: If you build it, they will come.”

    I like the way the NYT article points out the problems of “development” and “progress” even in Mecca: NYC and SF (etc) have to deal with the same sort of issues. I remember the controversy over building a skyscraper next to St Bart’s on Park Ave. And it seems (from the article) that in Mecca as in those other places, it is the poor who lose their jobs and their homes in the name of accommodating the rich.

    Sadly, the First Things article seem to just want to slam Islam. I’m not sure where Mr Linton gets his ideas about Christians, but I’ve not been to a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site that wasn’t filled up with trinkets and rosary stands. Linton points well to Theme Parks – we’ve got several Christian flavoured parks in the US, as well as places like Dollywood that cater to Christians anyway. American Christians celebrate commerce all the time. One needn’t refer to “historic churches”: very Orthodox parish (and most RC ones) I’ve ever entered, from Cathedral to Rural NC Mission Parish, has a bookstore with jewellery and icons and other stuff. I’m sure that just like the other denominations, Orthodox gift shoppes just help make ends meet, you know?

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  • steve

    I think Linton is on to something. I see a pretty big difference between icons, books and trinkets in the basement of Wash Nat Cathedral, et al, and the “Abraj al Bait, which will offer space for 600 retail outlets, hotel rooms and posh apartments” including Tiffany’s, Cartier, etc.

  • Colm

    There are of course going to be some revenue generating shops owned and operated by religious institutions near famous churches, sanctuaries and pilgrimage sites. That is simple economics and not worth nothing in great detail. Those stores are only notable for their relative subtlety and rather limited retail selection of strictly religious and devotional goods. What the issue is with the ‘Malling of Mecca’ is the actual construction of a massive shopping centre built virtually on top of the most important pilgrimage site for one of the world’s largest religions, without being specifically designed to sell religious effects but rather secular, even pagan (by islamic standards) wares. I’ve visitied the Vatican, the Dom Cathedral in Cologne, and the many beautiful cathedrals and churches in Krakow (which has become a pilgrimage site in its own right) and there is nothing like the Abraj al Bait Mall whatsoever in any of those places.

    Now you can say that First Things’ journalism is biased toward orthodox Christianity, which it so clearly is, but you can make a safe bet that if Pope Benedict commissioned the Alexander VI Shopping Centre to be built on top of the Via Vaticani that the folks at First Things would be the first ones to call it out.