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.
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.”
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.”