We've heard about the Iranian crackdown on un-Islamic dress, but of course Saudi Arabia were there before them: long before them, in the 1920s, with the founding of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, better known to the world as the Muttawa, or religious police. Their proudest moment came five years ago when they prevented 15 schoolgirls leaving a burning building in Mecca because they weren't wearing the correct Islamic dress. Men trying to help were warned that it was sinful to approach. The girls died in the blaze.
Despite calls for their power to be reined in, and claims that they've modernised, they keep on keeping on:
They prowl the streets of the main Saudi cities day and night. Jeddah, the commercial capital on the Red Sea, is the notable exception: Local residents claim to have run the mutawiyin out of town. Elsewhere, however, they seek out people they suspect of violating the Wahhabi code of conduct. If a woman walks outside her home in the full body covering known as the abaya but allows a fold of cloth to slip, exposing her ankle or face, the mutawiyin may scold her or strike her. If they suspect that an unrelated man and woman are meeting in public places, the patrollers may detain and harass them, insulting the female for alleged lewdness, and beating the male. If people keep walking when the call to prayer is heard and do not rush into the nearest mosque, the mutawiyin may swarm and assault them for impiety. Given the Islamic ban on intoxication, if the militia are informed that alcoholic drinks or drugs are being used in a private home, they may raid the house and beat and even kill people. If Muslim pilgrims violate the Wahhabi understanding of monotheism by praying at the shrine of Muhammad in Medina, they are likely to be taken aside and roughed up and, if they are foreign, deported.
A recent scandal provided a test case. A 50-year-old man died while in the custody of the Muttawa. His crime? Associating with a woman who was not a relative:
On July 1, three Saudi judges began a court inquiry into the death last month of a Saudi citizen, Ahmed Al-Bulawi, 50, who had been detained by the mutawiyin in the northwestern town of Tabuk. On July 2, however, four members of the religious militia accused of responsibility for the death, and whose trial had already been postponed once, were released on bail; the previous Friday, mosques in Tabuk had broadcast sermons calling on local Muslims to defend the accused.
Al-Bulawi's case represents a microcosm of the mutawiyin's history. His alleged crime consisted of inviting a Moroccan woman who was not his relative and was unchaperoned by another male into his car... Local authorities claim that Al-Bulawi died of natural causes, although the lawyer for his family told the media that the victim's remains showed he had been beaten in the face and head. The official medical report has not been released. For what it's worth, the unnamed Moroccan woman has revealed that Al-Bulawi formerly worked as her driver...
Naturally, the defenders of the Wahhabi order are intent on the mutawiyin's survival. Prince Nayef has publicly reaffirmed his support, though not loudly enough for Al-Sahat, which complains that the all-male Shura Council appointed by the king has failed to open more mutawiyin centers and authorize payment of members. The Shura Council seems to walk a fine line between popular disaffection with the mutawiyin and extremist pressure; it also rejected reform proposals that the mutawiyin wear uniforms and include female personnel.
Predictably protective of the institution is the Wahhabi establishment. On June 21, the newspaper Al-Madina reported that the grand mufti had denounced "unfair" media criticism of the religious militia and called for repression of the critics. The grand mufti is a descendant of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), originator of the Wahhabi sect. His position has been hereditary since the Al-Wahhab family contracted a permanent alliance with the Saud clan, who leave religious affairs to the Wahhabi offspring while keeping the reins of state power for themselves.
Amid these investigations and declamations, other sporadic and confusing measures have been proposed to ameliorate public dissatisfaction with the mutawiyin. When the case of Al-Bulawi first came to light, it was announced that 380 members of the militia would be trained in "interpersonal skills," surely one of the most bizarre statements yet from the Saudi authorities. The mutawiyin further promised to create a review process for their members' practices.
In case you're agog to find out how this all ended - here's how:
A Saudi court Monday acquitted three members of the kingdom's religious police and a policeman tried over the death of a man in their custody, a judicial source said.
The three members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and the policeman were cleared of causing the death of Ahmad Bulawi in the northwestern city of Tabuk in May, the source said.
The ruling was based on medical reports, including an autopsy, and interrogation by the prosecutors.