By SEWELL CHAN
APRIL 15, 2016
Saudi Arabia announced steps this week to rein in its religious police, which is responsible for ensuring morality, piety and adherence with Islamic law but has become the target of mounting criticism in recent years.
The most significant change states that members of the religious police are to work only during office hours, and that they do not have the right to pursue, arrest or detain members of the public. They are, instead, directed to report violations of Islamic law to the civil police.
In addition, the government directed the religious police to be “gentle and kind” in its conduct, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad — a repudiation of the heavy-handed (and, critics say, occasionally hypocritical) approach that the religious police, most of them young men, have often taken.
Though the steps have made headlines, experts cautioned that their significance might be more symbolic than practical, coming as the kingdom faces weightier problems, like the ideological threat posed by the Islamic State, rising frustration among the young, and the disappearance of cushy jobs that oil revenues once made possible.
“Let’s not forget that the hai’a is a government institution,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics who has written several books on Saudi Arabia, using an Arabic term for the religious police. “Its members are paid government salaries. They play an important role in controlling society, in spreading fear, in making people worry about their behavior all the time in public places, and sometimes even in the privacy of their homes.”
Professor Rasheed said the overhauls appeared to reflect a balancing act by King Salman. Abroad, he has not wavered from the kingdom’s support for the strict and austere Salafist and Wahhabist strands of Sunni Islam, which the Saudis have been financing and exporting for decades, and which bolster its professed role as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina.
But at home, Professor Rasheed said, the king has tried to tolerate, and even respond to, domestic critics. The Saudi newspaper Al Watan, based in Jidda, and two Saudi-financed newspapers, Asharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat, both based in London, have been increasingly taking note of abuses by the religious police, she said.
On social media, videos of excesses by the religious police have proliferated. One, in 2012, showed a woman defying an order to leave a shopping mall, telling members of the religious police that it was none of their business that she was wearing nail polish. Another, in February, showed a woman cowering on the ground after getting hounded for wearing athletic wear and sneakers.
Some of the reforms announced this week were not new, Professor Rasheed said, noting that members of the religious police typically work in tandem with the security services, and usually “do not go roaming the streets” on their own.
Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, noted that most Saudis were under the age of 30 and concentrated in cities, and that many had expressed increasing irritation about the religious police.
“The social media videos have been quite embarrassing, and have mobilized people, especially young people, around these issues,” Professor Haykel said. “Young women are irritated to no end by the religious police. The government in Saudi Arabia is responsive to public sentiment, even though it’s an autocratic regime.”
He added: “Having said that, are these permanent changes? Unlikely. If the regime wants to boost its religious credentials, it could reverse course and unleash the religious police on society. It’s a lever that can be turned on or turned off.”
The religious police, founded in 1940, are formally called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Even before the social media videos, the police had been criticized for excesses.
In 2002, 15 girls died in Mecca after the police prevented them from fleeing a burning building because they were not deemed to be appropriately covered.
In 2007, the religious police beat a man to death in Riyadh on suspicion of selling alcohol, leading to a rare lawsuit, filed by his aggrieved family.
And in 2013, two young men died when, pursued by the religious police, their car drove off a bridge in Riyadh. They had reportedly been singing patriotic songs to honor the kingdom’s national holiday.