The Magazine

Saudi Arabia's Koran Kops

The religious police run amok.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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All is not well with the long-standing Saudi-U.S. alliance. In Washington, faint murmurs of discontent may be heard regarding an infusion of $20 billion worth of new U.S. weaponry to the desert kingdom birthplace of 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers of 9/11. Many Americans resent the proposal to supply more arms to a country that, especially with respect to Iraq, has turned out to be a less-than-reliable ally. Remember: At least half the "foreign fighters" in that country come from the desert kingdom.

That's one reason for the prospective arms deal to raise eyebrows. But close observers of Saudi affairs as well as Saudi dissidents have another concern. They wonder: Are the weapons intended to defend against foreign aggression or to strengthen the monarchy against growing discontent among its own subjects?

Saudi politics are opaque, to say the least, but there are increasing signals of social upheaval. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has taken small steps toward reform but must contend with powerful opposition from the Wahhabi religious establishment. The most serious source of public discontent is the abuse of power by the religious militia or mutawiyin. In July, religious militia members were brought into Saudi courts for the first time, charged with arbitrarily killing people taken into custody for morals offenses (including possession of alcohol, and an unchaperoned meeting between a man and an unrelated woman).

The misdeeds of the mutawiyin, officially styled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, have become so resented that some members of the royal family, as well as lower government agencies, have promised reform. On August 22, the Saudi daily al-Watan (The Nation) announced that the Saudi Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution had turned over two members of the mutawiyin to a higher court for trial in the May 2007 death of Salman Al-Huraiwisi. The victim had been swarmed by 18 mutawiyin in his family home on suspicion of keeping liquor, and died at their hands. But the mutawiyin are pushing back. "Reforms" promised for the end of Ramadan, in mid-October of this year, include recruiting better-qualified staff and involving young people in mutawiyin activities.

Promises to involve the young in the religious militia are hardly reassuring. Al-Madina newspaper reported on August 22 that King Abdul Aziz University had introduced a dress code banning males who grow their hair long or dress "inappropriately," under threat of cancellation of their monthly stipends or exclusion from class. And on August 21, the governor of Mecca region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, issued an alarming decree. Many Saudis had hoped he might liberalize the western Hejaz region (which includes the two main holy sites of Islam and has always resented the Wahhabis). Instead, he commanded the administrative personnel in the cities of Jeddah, Mecca, and Taif to adopt guidelines from the religious militia that called for prohibiting tight clothing, long hair on men, and jewelry.

The mutawiyin also called for preventing coffee shops from serving customers outdoors (where unaccompanied men and women might see each other or meet), and further demanded that Saudi Arabia bar the import of Western clothing and jewelry entirely. The mutawiyin suggested barring young people from the streets at night unless they are involved in specific errands.

The only function of the mutawiyin is to enforce the strict fundamentalist code of Wahhabism. Militia members patrol the shrine of Muhammad in Medina to assure that traditional Muslims do not "worship" Muhammad by praying directly to or touching the Prophet's tomb. They also walk the streets of the ancient city looking for anybody diverging from Wahhabi doctrine, including Shia pilgrims to Mecca and Medina.

On August 10, according to Reuters, a group of eight Iraqi Shia men aged 16 to 26, holding American and British citizenship, accused the mutawiyin of assaulting them in Mecca a week before. The eight Shias claimed they had been detained overnight and beaten by the religious militia for praying in the Shia manner, which differs slightly from the Sunni prayer ritual. A member of the Iraqi parliament said that two of the men were sons of Iraqi political figures. One of the pilgrims, Amir Taki, 24, declared, "We were handcuffed and savagely beaten with chairs, bats, sticks, shoes and police radio communication devices." They claimed to have been denied water, food, medicine, and toilet facilities, and to have been subjected to threats of murder. They escaped because one used a hidden cellphone to contact U.S. and British diplomats.