Mecca as religious souk: the hajj has become big business

The arid landscape hugging the Jeddah-Mecca highway used to hold little appeal. But now travellers can marvel at the fantastical structure rearing out of the otherwise unforgiving landscape, clearly visible from 25 miles away.

The new 485-metre-high Mecca clocktower would bear a remarkable resemblance to Big Ben, were it not for the gold crescent and Arabic calligraphy adorning it, and represents a new era for Mecca, symbolising the dizzying vision and growth of the religious tourism industry in Saudi Arabia.

An estimated 2.5 million Muslims began the annual hajj pilgrimage today and the total number of tourists to Mecca and Medina, home to the prophet Muhammad, is expected to rise from about 12 million to almost 17 million by 2025.

The clocktower is part of a project that buckles under the weight of its own statistics. Abraj al-Bait, a complex of luxury hotels, malls and apartments, has an estimated value of $3bn, a built-up area of 1.4m sq metres, 15,000 housing units and 70,000 sq metres of retail space…

The level of pampering offered by some of the hotels – Asprey toiletries, 24-hour butler service, $270 chocolate selections – may jar with the ethos of sacrifice, simplicity and humility of hajj but it is not a contradiction felt by the customers snapping up royal suites at $5,880 a night, eating gelato or milling around hangar-like lobbies of polished marble in their Hajj clothing of bedsheets, towels or burqas. Raffles is reporting 100% occupancy for it 211 rooms.

Helal said: “As long as you do what you have to do for the hajj, it does not mean you have to eat bread or lobster, or sleep on a bed or the floor. It is not for me to say how people should stay when they get here…”

Business reports conclude that Saudi tourism, especially the religious variety, is recession proof. The government’s commission for tourism and antiquities said revenue from tourism this year would reach $17.6bn, then almost double again by 2015.

RTFA. As usual, religion is big business around the world. The landlords of Islam are no less greedy than the Baptist educators of the whole person. You get what you pay for – is still the slogan.

Toxic toy crisis requires fresh solutions

Manufacturer recalls of toys, promotional drinking glasses, and other children’s products constitute an ongoing “toxic toys crisis” that requires banning potentially harmful ingredients in these products and other changes in policy and practices. That’s the conclusion of a new analysis in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.

Monica Becker, Sally Edwards and Rachel Massey note that in June the United States government recalled 12 million promotional drinking glasses sold at a fast-food restaurant chain because the painted coating contained cadmium, a toxic metal. Since 2007, the government has recalled more than 17 million toys due to high levels of lead.

The report says that these and other incidents have raised concern about the problem of toxic substances in toys and other children’s products, many of which are made overseas. The substances include ingredients either suspected or recognized as potentially damaging to children’s health. Although government, industry, and advocacy groups have taken significant actions to solve the problem, including restricting the use of certain substances, that response remains inadequate, the scientists say.

The authors recommend several actions for the government, including banning or restricting the use of all substances with well-documented toxicity in toys and other children’s products. They also offer recommendations for how the toy industry can be proactive, including establishing an industry-wide list of toxic substances to avoid.

Anyone bet on who gets the job done first?

Our government studying, listening to lobbyists, checking with election campaign managers, polling companies – deciding what legislation is needed if any?

The worldwide toy industry establishing a proactive body to suggest to all concerned governments what should be banned and/or watched?

Sebastian Vettel is youngest-ever Formula One world champion

Vettel carrying his race trophy back to the changing room
Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is the new Formula One world champion after winning the title-deciding race in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. The German produced a peerless drive from pole position to take the checkered flag ahead of the McLaren pair of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who led the championship standings going into the final race of the season, could only manage seventh place to see his title hopes ruined.

The 23-year-old Vettel is the youngest-ever world champion in motorsport’s premier class, claiming his fifth victory of the year to take the lead in the standings for the first time in a topsy-turvy season…

“I’m a bit speechless. I don’t know what you are supposed to say in this moment,” Vettel told the official post-race press conference.

It has been an incredibly tough season, physically and mentally especially. But we have always believed in myself, my car, the team…”

Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

The victory left Vettel on top of the standings with 256 points, just four clear of Alonso. Webber finished the season on 242 points with 2008 champion Hamilton on 240.

Red Bull had already clinched the constructors’ title after the penultimate race in Brazil, but a solid display from McLaren left them in second place ahead of Ferrari.

Bravo, Vettel. I’m still a McLaren fan; but, Sebastian Vettel has been knocking at the door for a while, now. His talent couldn’t help but bring him to the top.

Britain’s top general says West need not “defeat” al-Qaeda

The new head of Britain’s armed forces, Gen Sir David Richards, has warned that the West cannot defeat al-Qaeda and militant Islam.

He said defeating Islamist militancy was “unnecessary and would never be achieved”. However, he argued that it could be “contained” to allow Britons to lead secure lives.

Gen Richards, 58, said the threat posed by “al-Qaeda and its affiliates” meant Britain’s national security would be at risk for at least 30 years.

The general, who will tomorrow lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in memory of Britain’s war dead, said the West’s war against what he described as a “pernicious ideology” had parallels with the fight against Nazi Germany in the Second World War…

He said the British military and the Government had been “guilty of not fully understanding what was at stake” in Afghanistan and admitted that the Afghan people were beginning to “tire” of Nato’s inability to deliver on its promises…

The general said: “In conventional war, defeat and victory is very clear cut and is symbolised by troops marching into another nation’s capital. First of all you have to ask: do we need to defeat it [Islamist militancy] in the sense of a clear cut victory? I would argue that it is unnecessary and would never be achieved.

“But can we contain it to the point that our lives and our children’s lives are led securely? I think we can.”

He also said the real weapon in the war against al-Qaeda was the use of “upstream prevention” as well as “education and democracy”. The problems that gave rise to militant Islamism were unlikely to be solved soon, he added.

On the issue of future wars, the general said he could see no case for military intervention in other countries “at the moment” but added that he would be “barmy to say that one day we wouldn’t be back in that position”.

I’d love to see discussion with the general more detailed than that contained within the short attention span of the Telegraph. Not a bad newspaper for conservatives; but, sorely lacking in thoroughness and detail providing information for truly thoughtful analysis.

Still, there’s more truth here than you could expect from what passes for popular conservative media in the United States.

Paranormal vs. Sacred – which spooky system gets discussed?

Practically anything goes at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, where scholars of dozens of religions convene annually to debate, relate and on occasion mate. Conversation ranges from the Talmud to tantra, from Platonism to Satanism…

What was almost impossible to find, at this orgy of intellectual curiosities, was discussion of the paranormal: ESP, premonitions, psychic powers, alien abduction and the like. This is a conference concerned with all sorts of supernatural and metaphysical claims. In panels, over coffee and during cocktail-hour quarrels, they talk of Moses at the burning bush, the virgin birth, Muhammad’s journey on a winged horse. So why nothing about, say, mental telepathy?

That is the question posed by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston and a renegade advocate for including the paranormal in religious studies. In his new book, “Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred”, he tries to convince serious religion scholars that they ought to study, say, ESP or alien abduction…

“There is resistance in the way our universities are set up, in the elite culture of higher education,” says Dr. Kripal, 48, who grew up in Nebraska and once planned to be a Benedictine monk. “Paranormal events completely violate the epistemologies around which we have formed our own knowledge…

In other words, it is one thing to study a miracle a thousand years old — that seems a safe question for the historian or the theologian. But what to do with people who say they were abducted by a U.F.O. last week?

Sitting here invested in nothing more or less than measurable, reproducible reality – the whole discussion is temporal. If some absurd concept, tale or hypothesis is old enough, found in sufficient dusty tomes inside sacrosanct walls – it’s believable. If it happened last week in Cincinnati, it’s just too easy to invalidate. Even for a True Believer.

RTFA. Have a good time.

Mexican police hunting for 12-year-old hitman

A gang of teenagers employed as “hitmen” are suspected of being responsible for dozens of killings, Mexican police said.

Police detained a minor on Friday accused of working as a gunman for a drug cartel after shocking videos and photos were posted online by a rival gang, and local media reported that police were also seeking a 12-year-old hitman nicknamed “El Ponchis,” (the cloak) but there was no confirmation of that from prosecutors.

Pedro Luis Benitez, the attorney general of Morelos, told a local radio station that police had detained a minor who allegedly worked as a gunman for a drug cartel and were looking for another.

He did not say whether the minor who was detained or the one being sought had appeared in the online photos or video. He also did not give the age of the suspects, but he implied they were young enough to be playing with toys.

“It is easy for them (criminals) to give them a firearm, making it appear as it if were a plastic weapon and that it is a game, when in fact it is not,” Benitez said.

There are reports that El Ponchis is a sadistic killer whose preferred method of killing is to slit the throats of his victims. He is believed to be employed by South Pacific Cartel, operating in the state of Morelos, just outside Mexico City…

The material posted online shows boys believed to be as young as 12 years old, pose for the camera with guns and corpses.

The gang is paid $3000 per killing. Not much value for a human life.