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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Interesting Journey of the Religious Police

October 30, 2014


The officers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice are known by many names, some less favoured in official Saudi circles than others: the Haia (the Committee) and the Mutawa (the pious) are the most popular. Among expatriates, especially non-Muslims, the Haia are often seen as the bugbears, the big bad wolf, the killjoys.

Anecdotes about them of varying accuracy abound, particularly among those who have never encountered them: these are the stern-faced guys who wander around the shopping malls looking for women whose heads are not covered, who whack any exposed female ankles with sticks. They try to catch unmarried couples canoodling in cars and parks. They pounce on shops rash enough to sell red roses on Valentine’s Day. They investigate reports of sorcery (here’s a case featured in today’s Saudi Gazette). They have long beards, short thobes and no igal (the black cord that surrounds the gutra – the traditional headdress).

Stories of their more eye-catching activities are gleefully leapt on in the foreign media to support the narrative of Saudi Arabia as a country of extremists who wish to recreate the morals and behaviours of the early followers of the Prophet Mohammed. Recently the western press was excited by the story of the British expatriate who was set upon by a trio of over-enthusiastic members of the Haia for the “offence” of attempting to pay for goods in a female checkout line at a supermarket. The resulting ruckus in the car park led to blows. The British guy, a well-known personality in Riyadh whose wife is Saudi, had to be extracted from the situation by British Embassy staff.

It’s not just the expatriates who have uncomfortable encounters with these moral guardians. Over the past few years there have been some famous incidents where the bitten have bit back. A video of a Saudi woman giving a religious policeman a piece of her mind went viral on YouTube. There have been cases where enraged citizens have assaulted officers whom they considered to be carrying out their duties with undue enthusiasm, and there was widespread condemnation when religious policemen chased a car that subsequently crashed, killing its occupants.

Saudi officials are well aware of the damage to the country’s image that over-officious Haia members can cause. Over the past couple of years, Abdullateef Al-Asheikh, the latest head of the Committee, has gone to some lengths to curb the excesses of his charges. The Haia is active on the social media putting its best face forward, and Mr Al-Asheikh is regularly featured in the daily newspapers explaining the mission and policies of his institution. Members who exceed their remit are punished, as was the case with the incident in Riyadh – the officers who assaulted the British man were promptly relieved of their duties.

Mr Al-Asheikh’s efforts have not been unopposed within the ranks of the Haia, as he himself acknowledges. Only recently he was subjected to verbal abuse by a couple of disgruntled members while he was praying in the mosque.

International concern is less of a worry to the Saudis than controversy among the people themselves. Decades of foreign disapproval of the ban on women driving have not any difference to government policy – the ban remains. And the Haia likewise remains firmly in place. In fact its raison d’être still has wide support among ordinary citizens, as does the ban on women drivers.

But if a recent article in the Arab News is anything to go by, it is evolving. And on face value, some of its less controversial initiatives would not be out of place in western society. The article talks about blackmail, an activity that’s frowned upon more or less everywhere, as the writer points out. The main point of the piece is that blackmail by women is on the increase. Up until now a typical case in Saudi Arabia might occur when the blackmailer has evidence that a person is breaking a social taboo – taking part in an illicit relationship, for example. Sometimes the offender has been the other party in that relationship, which has ended. He or she wants revenge by shaming the other.

Money is not always the motive. Sometimes it’s the illegitimate desire for what the Saudi media delicately call “intimacy”. The blackmail device might be compromising photos or videos, though not necessarily the kind of stuff that would have the FBI applying for arrest warrants in the US. An innocent picture of a boy and a girl in each other’s company can be enough. Public exposure of a dangerous liaison can bring shame not only on the participant but on the person’s entire family – a powerful incentive to use any means necessary to avoid that outcome.

So the Haia has set up a new department to combat blackmail. Its role is not to prosecute the perpetrators but to expose them and hand them over to the police. As the article points out, the pervasive presence of the social media makes it easier for people to blackmail others without leaving their own homes. And apparently women are susceptible to being used by blackmailers to do their dirty work on their behalf:

Wafa Al-Ajami, family consultant and lecturer in the Sociology Department at Imam Mohammad ibn Saud Islamic University, commented that females were most easily used by blackmail perpetrators to do their work for them due to their tendency to be taken for granted in both public and private life.

“This is why they fall victims of blackmails. But all of us as humans in general, and females in particular, should make a good balance between emotions and reasonable thinking, between our instincts and our needs from one side, and our faith, Islamic creed and traditions from the other side.”

She said that blackmail actions began to rise to the surface in society recently due to modern communication devices and mobiles with their high capabilities to take photos and visual and audio recordings.

Note, incidentally, the implication that women find it harder to control their emotions than men – a thought that might raise a few female eyebrows in the west!

All this reminds me of a time when in the west blackmail on moral grounds was a powerful weapon in the hands of more than just grubby lowlife looking for a fast buck and maybe an interesting social encounter.

One of the Soviet Union’s most effective methods of recruiting spies was through “honey traps” that would catch adulterers and homosexuals in flagrante. They then threatened them with exposure unless they parted with state secrets. Their efforts were only successful because society frowned on homosexuality and adultery, just as Saudi society disapproves of “illicit” relationships today.

These days being gay – or a heterosexual with a wandering eye – would not be considered so much of a security risk in the west. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public admission that he’s gay follows that of Lord Browne, former CEO of BP. However Browne only came out after he failed in a legal attempt to prevent a former lover from outing him. He promptly resigned his position. That was in 2007. Seven years later, Cook has no intention of doing the same. Yet the threat of sexual exposure remains. If the modern-day Russian FSB were to target paedophiles, for example, no doubt they would reap rich dividends.

Just as the moral climate has changed in the west since the days of the Profumo scandal and the USSR’s successful recruitment of the homosexual British admiralty clerk, John Vassell, will social mores and laws change in Saudi Arabia such that there will no longer be a role for the Haia?

Not, I suspect, if the Haia have anything to do with it. But I can see them evolving into a more traditional vice squad, concentrating their efforts on drugs, prostitution and other activities that vice squads everywhere exist to fight. However, this being Saudi Arabia, religion will remain at the core of their mission, and their efforts are bound to reflect the beliefs of the more conservative elements in society for as long as those beliefs are shared by a majority. In the Kingdom anti-social behaviour is almost impossible to divorce from the dictates of Islamic faith, even if some argue that Islam is used as a cloak to wrap around social conventions that are based in culture and tradition rather than religion.

But perhaps some of their activities that are seen as somewhat bizarre in the secular west, such as the fight to stamp out sorcery, will take a back seat as the attitudes of succeeding generations change. Saudi Arabia may have an entrenched and powerful conservative establishment today, but as thousands of young men and women return from foreign study through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, some at least bring with them different values and a willingness to challenge the old ways. The campaign among women to be allowed to drive has not slackened off, even if the confrontational tactics of yesteryear – women getting behind the wheel in defiance of the authorities – have been replaced by more subtle tactics of persuasion.

In the short term, the malign presence near its border of the self-styled Islamic State is likely to deter the government from approving any radical social change that might provide moral ammunition to IS supporters within the country who seek to recruit young Saudis to their cause.

But should the Islamic State lose its influence by implosion or military defeat, expect the slow beat of change brought about by King Abdullah to intensify, and quite possibly the role of the Haia to be curtailed.

One of Mr Al-Asheikh’s other recent initiatives has been a training programme to improve his people’s skills in dealing with the public, which will hopefully lead to less instances of angry young men barking in disapproval at their hapless targets.

And on the social front, changes that might appear trivial to external observers but are important to the beneficiaries are being introduced despite fierce opposition from the conservatives. For example, the government has approved the creation of sports clubs for women. In a country with high levels of female obesity and associated medical issues such as diabetes, that is a significant move.

But the nation’s moral guardians are unlikely to fade away any time soon, even if their kinder, gentler face results in the world’s media having less of an opportunity to take what many Saudis consider cheap pot-shots against their country. The odd thing is that despite their efforts to keep the good citizens of Saudi Arabia on the right path, all manner of on-line videos and satellite TV stations showing morals and behaviour that would make the average Haia member’s hair stand on end are freely available to view. Perhaps it’s a case of look but don’t touch. Just one of the contradictions of this fascinating country.

In any case, sorcerers, unmarried romantics and would-be blackmailers would be well advised to tread carefully for some time to come.

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