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.

My colleague and coauthor Irfan al-Alawi (see our "Crisis of the Wahhabi Regime," in this magazine's issue of July 16, 2007), a British Sunni Muslim, had a similar experience to that of the Iraqi Shia pilgrims, on August 12. He writes, "I went to the prophet's Mosque to read my prayers. I moved close to the sacred chamber where the prophet is buried, which is made of a green coloured metal grill and has a wooden wall surrounding it. The mutawiyin and police sit behind the wooden wall and stop people from looking inside, touching the grill for blessings and praying towards it.

"As I took out a book consisting of salutations for the Prophet, one of the mutawiyin had left to change duty. I was reading the salutations facing the sacred chamber when a police officer told me to move away. The mutawwa who had left to change his shift told me not to face the sacred chamber. I made a gesture indicating I needed only two more minutes to finish praying, but the mutawwa insisted that I leave the area immediately. I continued reading from my book while sitting for approximately five more minutes, and then got up to leave. As I walked around the sacred chamber towards the exit, another mutawwa grabbed me at the indication of the first one, and led me towards the first. The first asked me for my card, to which I replied, 'Which card?' in English. He repeated, 'Card, card.' A well-dressed old Saudi man told the mutawwa to leave me alone, to which the mutawwa replied, 'Mind your own business and don't interfere.' He then asked me my nationality and when I replied that I was British he smirked.

"We then went to the head office of the mutawiyin. The one who arrested me reported the incident and told his senior that I ignored his instructions three times against praying facing the sacred chamber. I waited for ten minutes before a Pakistani dressed in the blue uniform of the Saudi bin Laden company came into the office and sat down next to me. He asked me in Urdu why I was there, and I repeated the incident, to which he replied, 'Why were you facing the sacred chamber?' He then asked me which book I was reading. He looked through it and then asked me whether I was a Shia to which I replied that I was not, but that I was a mainstream Sunni. He then said that the book I was reading was written by a Shia, which happens to be untrue.

"I asked him to ask the senior mutawwa whether I could leave as I needed to be at the airport at 10:30 A.M. The mutawwa refused and said since I had broken their rules and regulations I had to wait for another mutawwa by the name of Sheikh Ibrahim to come and speak to me. The senior mutawwa took out a large book. [Before allowing me to leave] he asked me for my name and my father's name, wrote down an account of the incident, and took my thumb print." (Such prints are typically substituted for signatures in Saudi Arabia because so many people, even members of the royal family, are illiterate.)

Al-Alawi's experience--being detained by the Saudi religious militia for facing the wrong direction while praying, not for any violation of civil or criminal law--is sadly typical of the abuses daily meted out to Saudi citizens. Meanwhile, the Saudi media are now filled with continuous complaints about the allegedly humiliating difficulties encountered by the kingdom's subjects in getting student visas to the United States.
All these problems--meddling in Iraq, abuses by the mutawiyin, suspicion about issuing visas to Saudis in the aftermath of the atrocities of September 11, 2001--have a root cause: state-sponsored Wahhabism. There is only one way for Saudi Arabia to change for the better: dis-establishment of Wahhabism as the state religion, abolition of its doctrinal monopoly, and allowing religious pluralism such as exists, at least on paper, in many Muslim countries. If King Abdullah can accomplish this goal, all the better; but until it takes place, the Saudi crack-up may be long and even bloody.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.