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Al-Araby al-Jadeed

Religiously bound: Saudi Arabia's relationship with the religious police

Social attitudes are changing in Saudi Arabia (AFP)

Date of publication: 10 November, 2014

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Saudi Arabia's strict religious police are being criticised from within the kingdom, dividing opinion on their roles and responsibilities.

With their long beards and traditional robes cut above the ankles, Saudi Arabia’s religious police have a fearsome reputation in the kingdom. Also known as Haia or the muttawa, stern faced members of the group patrol public spaces enforcing a strict morality code, often striking perpetrators with long, thin canes.

Recent calls for the religious police to be disbanded show a growing shift in Saudi public opinion, however, which would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The public criticism even forced Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the head of Daia, to make a statement requesting the media to ignore stories criticising the role of the organisation.

“One in a million”

Sheikh stressed that critics in Saudi Arabia, “do not constitute one in a million”. But that he had to make the statement in the first place shows just how serious the religious police are taking calls that have moved the issue from whispered criticisms to the public forum. 

Much of the religious police’s legitimacy comes from a statement by former Crown Prince, Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz: “The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [the organisation’s official name] will remain as long as Islam remains in this land.”

However, the extent to which the state takes this seriously is ambiguous, particularly in light of the muttawa's existential crisis as it is forced on the defensive by critics in a public sphere.

It is a massive departure from the omnipotent powers that Haia once held. The former Grand Mufti, Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Sheikh, could once even say that the muttawa "are not be scrutinised, as this weakens their authority".

Yet two years ago, the chief of the religious police harshly criticised a member of Haia, saying, “The world is building aircrafts and we are telling a woman to leave a market because she is wearing nail varnish.”

The public have been highlighting the brutality dished out by members of the religious police through social media. Two months ago, a ten second video showed a British man being beaten by a Haia patrol outside a Riyadh shopping centre. His crime - he allegedly used a woman-only cash desk. In the melee, the victim can be heard screaming, “Get off my wife, that’s my wife. How dare you?” His Saudi wife intervenes by slapping a bearded Haia member on the face, only to receive a kick to the stomach. The humiliating and callous beating of the couple inflamed public opinion.

A question of morals

The religious police responded with a rare act of humility, ordering an investigation into the incident. Within days, the committee issued a condemnation of the offending Haia member and an apology to the victims was published in Saudi newspapers. The culprit and those accompanying him were found guilty of assault, in addition to conspiring to mislead the investigation. He was transferred to another city and demoted to an administrative role. 

A war of words took place on social media, between opponents and supporters of the religious police, even drawing important cultural and religious figures into the debate.

15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and brought the country’s ultra-conservative attitudes under the spotlight

Reem al-Atif, a Saudi writer and supporter of the religious police, criticised Sheikh, saying that he is ignoring public support for Haia. His decisions to limit Haia’s role, she said, could result in the organisation being unable to carry out its religious duty. This mirrors the opinions of conservatives in Saudi society, and more radical elements within Haia.

Dissenting, Muhammad Mahmoud, another writer, tweeted that those who defend the religious police, especially in light of the Riyadh incident, “lacked feeling, humanity and freedom”.

Revising responsibilities

In the wake of the 9/11 bombings - 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals - the country’s ultra-conservative attitudes were put under the spotlight. Media from across the world displayed extremist tracts from Saudi children’s text books. It looked as though the influence of ultra-conservatives in shaping Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policy was finally being questioned, both from abroad and domestically.

Recent changes to Haia’s powers shows that even the government is revising its responsibilities. It appears that no member of the religious police is any longer immune to scrutiny.

Yet in legislature, Haia still carries immense powers. Article 23 of the Basic Law of Governance, the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a constitution, states: “The State shall protect the creed of Islam, apply Sharia, promote virtue and prevent vice, and undertake its duty in the propagation of Islam”.

The article is worth bearing in mind. It means that, unlike secular branches of government, the muttawa is almost impossible to disband. Protecting Islam is part of the ruling Saud family's legitimacy, so although future reforms are possible, Haia are here to stay.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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