Wahhabi Internal Contradictions as Saudi Arabia Seeks Wider Gulf Leadership
Wahhabi strictures have been enforced by the mutawiyin, or morals militia, also known as “the religious police,” officially designated the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The mutawiyin patrolled Saudi cities, armed with leather-covered sticks which they freely used against those they considered wayward. They assured that ordinary activities halted during prayer times, when they hurried Saudis into mosques, and that unrelated couples did not meet in public places. They raided homes looking for alcohol and drugs, and harassed non-Wahhabi Muslims as well as believers in other faiths. They killed people they detained.
In January 2012, King Abdullah appointed a moderate director of the mutawiyin, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, to replace Abdul Aziz Al-Humain. Al-Humain, who was named to the post in 2009, was deemed a reformer; he reorganized the mutawiyin, met with human rights monitors, and consulted with public relations agencies. The new supervisor of the mutawiyin has expressed more advanced views – at least in Saudi terms – on women’s status, including support for females to work in shops that sell female clothing, where only men were previously employed. In 2010, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh backed an official in Mecca who denied that Islam requires gender separation or the closing of businesses during prayer. Within two weeks of his appointment, the new chief of the mutawiyin barred volunteers from serving in the institution, a move considered positive in curbing abuses by its members. Since “mutawayin” is interpreted generally to mean “pious volunteers,” this was a major gesture.
In an example of the convoluted nature of Saudi political and religious affairs, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh is a lineal descendant of the founder of the Wahhabi sect, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. But as the royal family is divided over the future, so are the descendants of the Wahhabi founder, who have intermarried since the 18th century with the House of Saud. The latest mutawiyin overseer is a younger relative of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdullah Aal Ash-Sheikh, the Wahhabi grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, who recently advised the Kuwaiti followers of the Wahhabi “Revival of Islamic Heritage Society” that Christian churches should be removed from the Arabian Peninsula, including Kuwait.
The “Revival of Islamic Heritage Society” was designated in 2008 by the U.S. Treasury as a provider of services to Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as for terrorist acts. The Kuwaiti government rejected the Saudi grand mufti’s view, stating that Christians would not be prevented from worship, and churches would not be destroyed. Grand mufti Aal Ash-Sheikh elsewhere declared that Saudi women could be married at age 10 or 12, without their consent, by contract between families.
Nevertheless, some amelioration of Wahhabi callousness was visible even before the change at the top of the mutawiyin. Women increasingly have resisted wearing niqab in Mecca, Medina, and Jedda, where the covering of women’s faces was never common before the arrival of Wahhabism, and it is now admitted that in rural areas, women drive cars and trucks. Saudis observe that since the change in the leadership of the mutawiyin, fewer morals patrols are visible in the streets.
After a medical visit to the United States in March, Crown Prince Nayef addressed another aspect of the controversy over women’s standing: whether Saudi women may take part in the 2012 London Olympics. Previously, Saudi women were blocked by their government from entering all international games, a violation of International Olympic Committee regulations against discrimination. But Prince Nayef told the influential Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat, published in London, that Saudi women could participate in the Olympics, in sports that would “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”