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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The mutawiyin have benefited from the secrecy surrounding their internal functioning, and their "surprise" tactics help them maintain an atmosphere of intimidation. Their defenders claim the mutawiyin follow a prece dent in the strictest school of Sunni sharia, identified with the 9th-century jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal, whose followers organized patrols for "prevention of sin." But such patrols remained a marginal phenomenon in Islamic history, often condemned, until the emergence of the Saudi state in the 20th century.

The Mutawiyin in Court

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. His relatives demand that those who caused his death be executed. 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.

A little before Al-Bulawi's death, in May, Salman Al-Huraisi, aged 28, died in mutawiyin hands in Riyadh. His home had been raided by militia members looking for alcohol and drugs. The Saudi daily al-Watan (The Nation) reported on June 28 that a lawyer for Al-Huraisi's family had been denied access to a medical report on the fatality, but that Al-Huraisi had died after blows to the eye and head.

Some 18 mutawiyin participated in the raid on Al-Huraisi's home, and one of them is now due for trial. Local authorities initially sought to absolve the mutawiyin in the case by throwing a blanket of equivocation over them. Representatives of the governor of Riyadh claimed that the as-yet-unidentified individual accused of the killing was not on patrol when the victim died. The pro-al-Qaeda media enterprise Al-Sahat (The Battlefields) praised this attempt to deflect blame from the mutawiyin as appropriately protecting the militia's status. But some Arabic media insist Al-Huraisi's assailant was a leader of the mutawiyin. As in the past, vagueness about how the mutawiyin operate enables their alleged misconduct.

Finally, a 50-year-old Saudi woman known as Umm Faisal ("mother of Faisal"--her full name is undisclosed) has filed suit against the mutawiyin for an incident in 2003 when she, her daughter, and a foreign maid were verbally and physically harassed while waiting in a car for her two sons. The three women were charged with public immorality, in line with Wahhabi teaching that the presence of women in cars amounts to solicitation of prostitution. On July 3, the complaint of Umm Faisal became the first ever civil action in which a representative of the mutawiyin was summoned to court, although, again, the trial was postponed, this time until September.

With all this, the kingdom is atwitter about the mutawiyin. It is proof of the entrenched totalitarianism of Saudi society that such small steps as the charging of four militia members for Al-Bulawi's death and the court appearance of a militia member in the Umm Faisal matter are seen by ordinary Saudis as significant developments, potentially heralding a new epoch in the kingdom's life.

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.