With youth pounding at kingdom's gates, Saudi Arabia begins religious police reform
Saudi Arabia's religious police force is infamous for patrolling streets and shopping malls to enforce Islamic conduct. With an eye to restless youth, the kingdom's aging king has ordered reform.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
You may have heard about the case last month of three young men from the United Arab Emirates deported from Saudi Arabia for being â€śtoo handsome.â€ť
The kingdomâ€™s religious police, the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, made that call.
Known to most Saudis simply as theÂ Haiâ€™a, or â€śthe commissionâ€ť, its employees, called â€śHaiâ€™a men,â€ť patrol Saudi streets, shopping malls, and other public spaces in their short whiteÂ robes,Â untrimmed beards, and traditional Saudi headdresses to ensure that businesses close five times a day during prayer time, that women do not drive or mingle with unrelated men, and to enforce a host of other religious edicts that characterize Saudi Arabiaâ€™s Wahhabi Islam.Â
As 89-year-old Saudi King Abdullah celebrates his eighth year on the throne (according to the Islamic calendar), one of his most challenging tasks is to reform and modernize the Haiâ€™a.
Like other countries in the region, Saudi Arabiaâ€™s bulging youth population is pounding at the gates, concerned about jobs, education, and housing. Two-thirds of the kingdomâ€™s subjects are under 29, and they are more willing to challenge authorityÂ than the generations before them.Â In recent years, there have been an increasing number of confrontations between Haiâ€™a men and Saudi youth. A number of physical assaults and fatalities attributed to Haiâ€™a men, widely publicized on Twitter and Facebook, have inflamed public opinion.
Shortly after Arab Spring revolutions overthrew several neighboring governments, King Abdullah decided that, along with a $130 billion stimulus package, he would appoint a new head to reform the Haiâ€™a and improve its public image.Â
He chose Sheikh Abdul Latif bin Abdel Aziz Al al-Sheikh, a direct descendant of the 18thÂ century theologian who founded Wahhabi Islam and established its alliance with the House of Saud.Â
Sheikh Abdul Latif was an unusual choice.Â Though other members of the Al al-Sheikh family occupy many of the kingdomâ€™s top religious posts, he is considered to be a liberal. He has been active inÂ theÂ campaign to end child marriages. His wife works in the health ministry, his sister is dean of the women's section at Riyadhâ€™s King Saud University and his daughter goes to university, unusual roles for female Wahhabi aristocrats.Â
Relative Sheikh Abdel Aziz ibn Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, the kingdomâ€™s grand mufti and highest religious authority, is more typical. He has stated that girls are ready to marry by age 10, and that all churches on the Arabian peninsula should be destroyed.
Sheikh Abdul Latif holds the rank of cabinet minister and reports directly to the king. His agency employs more than 4,000 â€śfield officersâ€ť and is said to have another 10,000 administrative personnel. His 2013 budget is $390 million, an increase of $35 million from 2012.Â The task of bringing change to the police force is likely to be formidable:Â HisÂ reform-minded predecessor lasted less than three years.Â
Since taking office, Sheikh Abdul Latif has identified five areas theÂ religious policeÂ should focus on: preserving Islam, preventing blackmail, combating sorcery, fighting human trafficking, and ensuring that no one disobeys the countryâ€™s rulers.
One of his first moves was to announce that community volunteers could no longer join Haiâ€™a men on their rounds. Volunteers used to join Hai'a officials as they pursued, chastised, and interrogated miscreants, considering it a religious duty.Â
He has also encouraged hisÂ stern and sometimes menacing field officers to â€śapproach people with a smile.â€ť Haiâ€™a men may no longer use their private e-mails, cellphones, or social media accounts to receive and act on anonymous tips.Â He also created a â€śHuman Rights Divisionâ€ťÂ within the police forceÂ to respond to complaints, with a link on the Haiâ€™a website to an online incident form. The link does not appear to work.
He affirmed that one of theÂ police force'sÂ most important functions remains rooting out sorcerers. A white phone on the Haiâ€™a homepageÂ links to 41 hotlines dedicated to reporting black magic. Saudis are serious about this, as numerous beheadings prove.
The website lists dozens of tip lines in each province, has online forms for the public to report un-Islamic behavior, and uses Facebook. It also used Twitter until last week, when Sheikh Abdul LatifÂ declaredÂ that anyone using Twitter â€śhas lost this world and the afterlife,â€ť the latest in a series of attacks by Saudi government officials on the social networking site. Haiâ€™a webmasters are still removing Twitterâ€™s blue bird logo from the website.
Despite these initiatives, itâ€™s not clear that Sheikh Abdul Latif controls his notoriously recalcitrant agency. Last spring he banned Haiâ€™a men from conducting high-speed car chases in pursuit of violators, long a sore point with the Saudi public. But several months later, Haiâ€™a men caused the death of a young father and badly injured his wife and children doing just that.
One problem is the Haiâ€™a does not have aÂ proceduralÂ manual. In fact, Saudi Arabia has no written penal code. Saudi judges interpret broad principles of Islamic law as they see fit.Â
The Haiâ€™a acts similarly, but goes a step further. Haiâ€™a men often invoke the Islamic legal concept ofÂ sadd al-dharaâ€™i, â€śblocking the means to evil.â€ťÂ According to this novel view, not only can Haiâ€™a men intervene to stop un-Islamic behavior, they can stop acceptable behavior that might lead to un-Islamic behavior. Hence, men can be â€śtoo handsome.â€ť
An incident last year illustrates the pushback Haiâ€™a men now get from Saudi youth. Haiâ€™a men told a young woman to leave a Riyadh mall because she was wearing nail polish. SheÂ scolded them, and uploaded a video of the incident to YouTube that garnered almost 3 million views.
But judging from the thousands of â€ślikesâ€ť and dislikesâ€ť on the video, public sentiment ran more than 3-to-1 against her. Many Saudis thought she was at fault.
Author and former freelancer for the Monitor Caryle Murphy, who published a book earlier thia year on Saudi youth, was surprised at how many young Saudis she met â€“ even those educated in th West â€“ who defended the Hai'a's mission.
"If it's gone, that means the country is Westernized, so we should keep it," one Saudi studying in the US told her. "But they should be nice to people."
The Saudi king showers the Haiâ€™a with resources while seeking to rein it in. He is expanding the Haiâ€™aâ€™s staff, building expensive new â€śguidance centers,â€ť and purchasing fleets of new GMC SUVs for the Haiâ€™a men. But in January, the Saudi cabinet ruled that Â Haiâ€™a men may no longer interrogate suspects or determine the charges against them. They may still arrest people, though, for offenses like practicing witchcraft and consuming alcohol, and they continue to enforce the ban public entertainment, women driving, and other religious rulings.Â
If women are ever permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, an avalanche of new religious rulings for the Haiâ€™a Â to enforce will almost certainly accompany the move. Already, King Abdullahâ€™s 2012 decision to allow women to work in retail shops has increased the Haiâ€™aâ€™s workload. New regulations require all women working in stores to wear theÂ niqab, or face veil, and shops must erect a 5.25 foot partition separating male and female employees.
Partly to address all these new demands, Sheikh Abdul Latif has announced that for the first time in its history, the Haiâ€™a will begin recruiting women â€“ a move that is sure to be interesting in an agency devoted to gender segregation.Â
*Louise Lief, the former deputy director of the International Reporting Project, is a writer in Washington.