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Saudi Arabia’s 'Religious Police' Reforms

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Until recently totaling 3,500 paid members, along with their numerous (now excluded) volunteers, the mutawiyin have been a central factor in Saudi Arabian life since their creation by King Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud (1876-1953) after the establishment of Saudi dominion over Mecca and Medina in the mid-1920s. They are best remembered and most criticized for an atrocious incident in 2002, when a fire broke out at a girls’ school in Mecca. Fourteen girls died as they were pushed back into the flames by the mutawiyin, under the pretext that in fleeing the blaze the students failed to cover themselves with sufficient modesty. The mutawiyin even prevented firemen from rescuing the girls and kept the gates of the school locked—a common practice supposed to avoid immoral gender mixing.

The Saudi mutawiyin have generally made up their own rules. Their most infamous habits of interference with ordinary Saudis (as well as with foreign visitors) included demanding proof that mixed-gender couples were married or otherwise linked by family or blood ties, and preventing women from driving on the main roads. They do not monitor rural areas where women often operate cars and trucks, or special compounds where women drive, like that of the Saudi ARAMCO energy complex in Dammam and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), an ambitious, modern campus opened near Mecca in 2009. Wahhabi clerics and the mutawiyin oppose women driving on the argument that it encourages sexual promiscuity and prostitution. Yet thousands of Saudi women own cars and are forced to employ drivers. Women demanding the right to drive openly include  Manal Al-Sharif, creator of an organization, Saudi Women to Drive, and Najla Hariri, who took the initiative last year of driving at will around the more cosmopolitan port and commercial city of Jedda.

But the mutawiyin have busied themselves with other matters aside from gender mixing and women driving. They enforced mosque attendance at prayer times, and punished Muslims engaged in so-called “idolatrous” practices of which Wahhabis disapprove. The latter include praying in the direction of Muhammad’s sarcophagus in his mausoleum in Medina, where many foreign Muslims go for prayer during hajj pilgrimages.

The situation began to change slowly in 2005, when then-crown prince Abdullah, who already had a reputation for reformist aspirations and resentment of Wahhabi excesses, assumed the throne after the death of the enfeebled King Fahd, his half-brother. Once he gained power, King Abdullah sought to impose limits on the mutawiyin. In 2006, they were officially barred from conducting interrogations. But the morals patrols, although reporting to the king, pushed back, with support from the succeeding crown prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, a hardline Wahhabi, who died in mid-June 2012. In 2007, with Abdullah in power and Nayef as interior minister, the mutawiyin accumulated a series of new brutalities. These included the unpunished murders of Salman Al-Huraisi, who was beaten to death in his house for suspected possession of alcohol, and of Ahmed Al-Bulawi, who was caught riding without a chaperone in the car of a Moroccan woman—for whom he worked as a driver. In both cases, the families of the victims took the mutawiyin to court, and in both instances (as in others) charges against the mutawiyin were postponed indefinitely or dropped.

The year 2007 additionally saw the detention and beating of 18 Iraqi Shia hajj pilgrims, holding U.S. and British passports, for praying according to the Shia ritual, which differs in slight details from the forms of Sunni Muslim prayer. As the mutawiyin and their responsibilities became a field for confrontation between reformers and fanatics, King Abdullah achieved a minor victory by removing the right of the morals patrols to carry thin leather-covered sticks with which to beat alleged offenders, including women who allowed the all-covering black cloak known as the abaya to slip enough to reveal a a small area of their ankles.

Saudi sources warn that the hard-core Wahhabis will continue to fight King Abdullah’s reforms, as well as the measures introduced by Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh. 

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