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Big Saudi Brother

Religious police in Saudi Arabia appear to have circulated pamphlets which call for retaliation against feminist protesters and their families

THE 50 Saudi women who participated in the November 6th drive-in demonstration are now in danger of death. An unsigned proclamation circulating throughout the kingdom accuses them of having renounced Islam, an offense which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. A second pamphlet lists the names and occupations of the women's husbands or fathers, and calls upon ``every Muslim to cut out the roots of this evil plant before it spreads to every part of our holy land.'' A third leaflet asserts that the drive-in was part of a conspiracy between the American and Saudi governments to change Saudi Arabia into a secular state. These leaflets seem to be very widely distributed, since I have received copies of them from several sources. These circulars are apparently the unofficial work of the mutawaeen, the morality police. Only the mutawaeen or the Saudi police would have the information in the leaflets - the names and occupations of all the protesters, those of their male relatives, and the descriptions of their cars. Further, I have a copy of a signed eyewitness account of their arrest by one of the mutawaeen who arrested them, Abdulla Braik al Motairi. The remarks he reports the women making after they were taken into custody correspond to those quoted in the pamphlets. There is one important omission, however. Although both accounts report the women ridiculing the mutawaeen, Motairi's report states that Dr. Hesa al Munif said that the women would be guided in their religion by the Islamic scholars at Al Azhar (the 1000-year-old religious university in Cairo), not by Bedouins with beards (i.e., the mutawaeen), which clearly shows the women were not objecting to their religion but rather to some of its local interpreters. Last fall, the Saudi government also appealed to the Al Azhar scholars rather then local ulema (or clergy) for permission to invite non-Muslim troops into the kingdom.

Even in Motairi's hostile accounts, the women's courage is impressive. Dr. Fatin al Zamel refused to acknowledge the authority of the mutawaeen to arrest her, insisting that the women would leave their driver's seats only under the orders of a regular Saudi traffic policeman. They further insisted on being taken to the regular police station rather than that of the mutawaeen. And Motairi reports that as the protesters were being driven to the police station, they were given the chance to stop at the women's center in Olaya, where they could have taken refuge without the male policemen being able to pursue them. Motairi relates that the women decided against this because ``it would be cowardly.''

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The charges against the women's husbands have disturbing implications concerning the Saudi understanding of the American presence and the possible future dissolution of Saudi society. The protesters and their relatives are alternately called ``red communists'' and ``dirty American secularists,'' without any sense that these epithets might be contradictory. For example, Dr. Khaliq al Abulyaha, a political science professor, is identified as a ``communist and Shiite'' whereas Dr. Fahd al Jaber, the head of al Takhasosi Hospital, is called an ``American sympathizer'' and an ``advocate of vice.'' Ludicrous as these charges sound, they are no laughing matter in a society which places such great emphasis on reputation and family honor.

THE accompanying analysis claims the drive-in protest ``is a blow to the very foundations of our country,'' and ``religious leaders have been silenced ... to protect the internal front from a struggle between us and the dirty secularists and Americanists.'' It claims that ``secularists'' in high positions instigated the protest at the behest of the US. The leaflet concludes:

1. ``This incident is a test by the secularists. If we do not respond, they will repeat it with greater magnitude.

2. The state will be victorious over the will of the religious leaders and those fallen women will return to their jobs at the universities to encourage our young women to follow their example if we do not take strong measures.

3. If we do not respond, the secularists will intensify their activities, because the American government has promised them election to a secular parliament to be installed after the American Gulf War.''

Although these allegations cannot be taken at face value, they are illuminating. Listed among the ``secularists'' are Hamad al Murzouki, head of the crime division of the Ministry of Interior, Ghazi al Kousaibi, columnist for the Saudi newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat and ambassador to Bahrain, and Mohammed Isa Al Rasheed, a colonel in the Saudi army. This also reveals the power of the mutawaeen in slandering such highly placed people. It is unlikely that they would dare to do so if they did not expect considerable public support.

Finally, the fact that the mutawaeen attempt to discredit the protesters by identifying them with America shows the degree to which the American deployment is resented. If America were perceived as Saudi Arabia's defender, ``American sympathizer'' would not be used as a term of abuse.

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This backlash against the protesters may be a spontaneous mutawaeen criticism of the Saudi government. However, it may also be regime-inspired and intended to keep the religious fundamentalists and the liberals from uniting against the regime, a favored government tactic. The leaflets do create the impression that if it weren't for the protection of the Saudi government, everyone on the list would be killed. It may be one of the few ways of keeping thousands of well-educated, sophisticated people loyal to an absolute monarchy.

However, the more immediate problem is that in a country that the US is defending, more than a hundred people may be killed simply for being associated with the cause of women's rights.

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