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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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.