June 10, 2005
Conservative Islam is the foundation of Islamic radicalism, which is Islam carried to a murderous extreme. This movement is weakening in the place where it originated; Saudi Arabia. One of the most telling signs has been the decline and fall of the religious police. The Mutawwain -- national "religious police" or "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice" has long been a force in Saudi Arabia, acting against any perceived "un-Islamic" behavior in an attempt to preserve religious purity (e.g., it's better that women should burn to death in a fire than that they appear without their veils). Over the past few years, however, the Mutawwain have come under increasing pressure. Long regarded not only as arbitrary, but also corrupt, the organization is under investigation by the official state prosecutor, and its budget and personnel have been cut repeatedly; from over 2,000 officers just five years ago, there are now apparently only some 700 left.
The weakening of the Mutawwain's power has led to modest, but real changes in public behavior in Saudi Arabia, and led to calls for even more liberalization, including the suggestion that perhaps "some" women might be permitted to drive vehicles without a male family member present. Naturally, this does not play well in the country's conservative religious circles, including the largely Islamist-leaning clergy, who still benefit from considerable government funding. The more radical religious elements are already at war with the Royal family, claiming that it is a gang of "apostates." So far Saudi security forces have been successful in keeping threats from the country's religious right more or less under control.
Perhaps because of increasing government pressure, the Mutawaaini ("Religious Police"), have been increasing harassment of foreign Christians in Saudi Arabia, particularly those from countries that are either Moslem or have large Moslem minorities, such as Pakistan or India. This plays well with the conservative religious faction in Saudi Arabia, and provides the Mutawaaini with some leverage against government efforts to curb their activities. The official Saudi Arabian policy toward non-Moslems is that so long as they don't make any overt displays they are free to practice their religion privately. Some Christians, especially those belonging to Evangelical groups, have been pushing the limits of this policy, and even attempting to proselytize, which plays right into the hands of the Islamist element in the country.