The Magazine

The Crisis of the Wahhabi Regime

Surprising developments in Saudi Arabia.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Long accustomed to abusing their power with impunity, the Saudi mutawiyin or "religious police" (more on that misleading translation in a moment) suddenly find themselves on the defensive. Increasingly challenged by critics, they felt compelled early this year to go through the motions of announcing a "modernization": Warrants would be required for searches, the use of force for moral violations would be banned. In practice, however, nothing changed. And when, this spring, two Saudi men died in custody, events took an unprecedented turn: Controversy erupted in the Saudi media; several mutawiyin members were dragged into court; and the boldest reformers called for dismantling altogether this hated institution.

But to make the story intelligible, it is necessary to begin at the beginning--with the uniqueness of Saudi Arabia. In addition to being the only state named after its rulers, and having no constitution except the Koran, this is the homeland of the radical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism, the official sect of the kingdom, is a patched-together, relatively recent expression of the faith of Muhammad, and the Wahhabi institutions that support the Saudi order often seem amorphous and opaque. Given the general absence of transparency in the kingdom, this should come as no surprise.

But there is no Wahhabi institution more difficult to define than the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Founded in the 1920s, when the Saudi state came into being, as an enforcer of collective morals, this body of at least 10,000 individuals is known to Saudi and other Muslims as the mutawiyin, or "devotees." Although often described in Western media as the "religious police," the mutawiyin have little in common with a police force--they wear no uniform and receive no salary--and are better described as an Islamofascist militia, something akin to the Nazi and Communist rank-and-file party members in lands ruled by those movements. Their mission includes ideological indoctrination in the dangers of "imitating the West" (such as watching television), but they mainly enforce Wahhabi standards of behavior in public. Their constant and degrading interference with ordinary people has brought about growing discontent. If judicial scrutiny is imposed on the mutawiyin, Saudi Arabia will undergo a profound change in its social life.

A kind of adjunct to the tens of thousands of state-subsidized clerics, the mutawiyin are a pillar of Wahhabism in the kingdom. 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.

Until now, the mutawiyin have not been called to account for their sometimes drastic deeds. They have no professional standards or training. They are free to assault people and then shove them on their way, making no record of the encounter, having carried out no official arrest, and making no provision for any hearing or further punishment, although offenses deemed particularly grave--alleged adultery, say--may land the suspect before a sharia court.

Members enter the mutawiyin from the kingdom's strictest schools and mosques. They are not paid, but are assigned to regular patrols. They wear no identifying uniform except a red-checkered headscarf. They travel in unmarked cars. Instead of a firearm, they carry an asaa, a long stick resembling a riding crop. But they have offices and detention centers, and both the chief Islamic cleric in the kingdom, grand mufti Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, and interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz (notorious for asserting that 9/11 was the handiwork of Israel), say the mutawiyin are supported by the state. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has a chief, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ghaith, and has lately appointed public-relations representatives, still unpaid.