July 6, 2007:
last two years, the Saudi Arabian government has been under increasing pressure
to disband the religious police (the mutaween). But the royal family has to
move carefully in curbing the worst excesses of the religious police. Doing
something serious to shut them down would anger the religious
ultra-conservatives. Moreover, a large part of the ruling elite, including many
in the royal family, shares those conservative views.
A year ago the government
began curbing the powers of its religious police, fearing that these guardians
of correct Islamic behavior, were becoming more a source of irritation for most
Saudis, and not much help in fighting Islamic terrorism. Known officially as
the Central Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,
they have had police powers since 1979, after Islamic radicals tried to
overthrow the monarchy by seizing some Islamic shrines in Mecca. This rattled
the Saudi family, and they cut a deal with the religious establishment. In
return for keeping Islamic radicals under control, the clerics could use the
mutaween to enforce conservative dress and lifestyle codes on the Saudi people.
The mutaween quickly became unpopular, as they would sometimes beat young women
they believed were acting in a scandalous fashion (showing ankles, too much
face or shape, and so on). The mutaween also raided homes suspected of having
alcoholic beverages, or forbidden videos.
As the Saudi people lost
much of their enthusiasm for strict lifestyle rules over the last three
decades, the mutaween got more strict. Since the mutaween had police powers,
they would often arrest people, and hold them without notifying anyone. People
would literally disappear into mutaween jails. Eventually, family members could
find out where their son or daughter was, but only after appealing to a
government official or member of the royal family.
A new generation of kids,
exposed to MTV and a wide array of foreign videos, were less tolerant of
mutaween discipline. The Shia minority (actually a majority in some areas along
the Persian Gulf coast), got increasingly harsh treatment from the mutaween, as
Saudi Islamic conservatives considered Shia to be heretics. So does al Qaeda,
an organization that was popular with many mutaween.
There are some 4,000 full
time mutaween, and over 10,000 part-time volunteers. It's the part-timers that
are the most troublesome. These young louts (many of the volunteers are
unemployed, poorly educated, and have serious attitude problems) are the cause
of most problems. Demands to simply disband the mutaween have been refused. The
religious establishment is too fond of the mutaween to allow that. So instead,
the plan is to apply stricter standards to those selected to be full, or
part-time, mutaween, and enforce stricter codes of conduct on the mutaween.
The royal family remains
a major backer of the mutaween, because these religious police are seen as
protecting Saudi control of their kingdom. To that end, mutaween have been told
that Islamic terrorists are un-Islamic, and should be treated as such. This
resulted in the round up of some Islamic terrorists, despite the fact that al
Qaeda and the mutaween share many values. But the mutaween agree to protect the
Saudi family as part of their job. As long as they do that, the Saudi
government will continue to tolerate the mutaween, even if an increasing number
of Saudis don't.