News / Middle East

Saudi Religious Police Work to Improve Image

FILE - Saudi members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, attend training in Riyadh, Sept. 1, 2007.
FILE - Saudi members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, attend training in Riyadh, Sept. 1, 2007.
Cecily Hilleary
In January 2012, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia dismissed the head of the powerful religious police and replaced him with a reported moderate — a move designed to appease growing complaints about abuses of power by a much-feared group known as the mutaween.

Since then, the new leader, Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, has restricted the mutaween’s powers. Even so, many Saudis, especially women, say the changes are not enough.
 
Hardly a week seems to go by that Saudi Arabia’s religious police don’t make the headlines — breaking up drug rings, arresting bootleggers, admonishing women for what they consider immodest dress. Sometimes the mutaween themselves become objects of ridicule — such as when they shut down a dinosaur exhibit in a shopping mall or banned cats and dogs as pets.
 
And sometimes, mutaween actions have tragic consequences, such as the Mecca school fire of March 2002, when the religious police obstructed efforts to rescue female students because they might not be properly dressed. At least 14 girls burned to death, generating outrage across the globe.

Historic roots
A member of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, calls for prayers on a street outside coffee shops in Riyadh June 27, 2010.A member of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, calls for prayers on a street outside coffee shops in Riyadh June 27, 2010.
x
A member of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, calls for prayers on a street outside coffee shops in Riyadh June 27, 2010.
A member of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, calls for prayers on a street outside coffee shops in Riyadh June 27, 2010.
The religious police force is a relatively recent phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic fundamentalist Wahhabis of the early 19th century were the first to use a religious police force to enforce religious laws they believed had been compromised under the Ottoman Empire. Scolding and coercing, the early mutaween ensured the public went to the mosques at prayer time, abstained from smoking, drinking, playing music or, in the case of women, dressing immodestly. 

Saudi Princess Basmah bint Saud Al-Saud, who now lives in London, goes back much further in the region’s history of religious enforcement. She says that Islamic religious enforcer was actually a woman and tells the story of Shifa bint Abdullah bin Abd Shams.

During the Prophet Mohamed’s lifetime, Shifa worked as a nurse, a healer and a teacher. Later, according to Basmah and other historical sources, the second caliph, Omar bin al-Khattab, appointed Shifa as the market controller in Medina, responsible for supervising all trade to guard against cheating, fraud and other violations.

“She actually used to go to the market every morning with a big stick,” Basmah laughs, “telling men off when they were annoying the ladies or even annoying other customers.”

It was Basmah’s grandfather, the modern Kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz Al Saud, who created the Committee for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — which locals call the Hai’a. She says the Committee was intended to curb illegal trade activity, just as Shifa had done — not enforce morality. She blames the influx of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt in the mid-1950s for bringing religious intolerance to Saudi Arabia. Under their influence, Basmah suggests, the mutaween, eventually began to write their own rules.

But aren’t they supervised by the monarchy? Basmah answers, “As time goes on, sometimes you lose a grip on things, like a father and a mother with their children. Every time a child goes to the father, he will tell them, ‘Go to your mother!’ And at the end of that day, that child would never even go to the father anymore, because he would know where the decision-making really is.”

Token reforms?

Ali AlYami, Executive Director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, questions Basmah’s assertion that the Hai’a was intended only to enforce fair trade practices.
 
“Had her grandfather been solely interested in curbing cheating in markets, why not form non-religious institutions with legislative powers and pass laws to make it a crime to cheat and exploit people?” AlYami asks.
 
He says Wahhabis and the House of Saud formalized their alliance in 1744 with the goal of spreading their strict interpretation of Islam across Arabia. They have been allies ever since.
 
“The Hai’a is the most powerful means of sustaining the power of the Saudi ruling family.  They need each other to survive,” AlYami said. “The ruling family says, ‘You guys, you be the bad guys in the name of God, and when people are in bad shape, they will come to us and we’ll make some adjustment and save them. So they will fear you and respect us.'”
 
AlYami is skeptical that the new leader of the Hai’a intends any but the most cosmetic reforms.
 
“Mr. Al-Sheikh, you have to understand, was chosen not because he is a reformer of any meaningful way. He’s close to the ruling family, because he is descended from the Wahhabi movement people. So he is there because he’s more trusted than the former guy to ensure the continuity of the Saudi ruling family, and that’s the bottom line here,” he said. “The Hai’a will be in power as long as the House of Saud rules.”
 
Ironically, Al-Sheikh believes that the very power the religious police seek to control is the power that could end up battering the Wahhabi-Ibn Saud alliance: Women.
 
“It is happening already,” AlYami said, citing the so-called “lingerie movement.”
 
“Women forced the system to hire only women to sell lingerie in stores. And that is creating thousands and thousands of jobs for women,” he said.
 
As for Princess Basmah, she also believes the solution to dealing with the religious police lies in women. Every woman in Saudi Arabia, she says, should simply take off her black abaya and put on something nice and sunny and comfortable “that allows her to walk down the street and be as free as she can.”

You May Like

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Tim Hunter from: United States of America
April 01, 2013 1:35 PM
As a former US diplomat stationed in KSA I spoke out against the de facto collaboration between the US government and repressive agencies in KSA. The State Department has sullied the patriotic image of America among the several repressed peoples of the Arabian peninsula. The US refuses to support the human rights of Christians and Jews and has abandoned Americans being held against their will by the KSA authorities from Foggy Bottom.

As a former serving US diplomat I am thoroughly appalled by the implicit racism stemming from the Obama foreign policy.

by: GodLover from: Senegal
March 30, 2013 8:22 AM
As a Muslim I feel ashamed to see Islam being potrayed this way. Any way, the Wahabis has brought about a lot of conflicts and misterpretations in Islam, oppening the door for Islam critics to slamm us. Islam is the most perfetc religion on Earth. Don't trust neither the media, nor the Wahabits, just read the Quran and see with your own eyes

by: MUSTAFA from: PAKISTAN
March 30, 2013 6:51 AM
This is the belief of SAUDI WAHABI ISLAM that they are only PURE Muslim in this world and all other Muslims are KAFIR. They belive only they will go to PARADISE and all other Muslims will go to Hell because only they are following true islam. But if any body study in depth ROYAL FAMILY life style, they will conclude there is no support in Islam to support their daily activities in the name of Islam.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More