Islamic 'religious police' try to keep Saudis on the straight and narrow

January 06, 1993|By New York Times News Service

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- Two bearded men, their robes flowin as they strode briskly past shoppers in the Basateen Mall, cornered a middle-aged woman whose loose strands of hair fell across her face.

"Cover up, woman!" one shouted, as heads turned and the woman's three grown daughters huddled around her.

Women nearby quickly adjusted their tarhas, the head coverings worn by women in Saudi Arabia, and others scurried into stores displaying gold bracelets and stacks of imported Italian and German household appliances.

For Saudi Arabia's religious police -- officially known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice -- it was a typical encounter in a day's work of patrolling the city in specially marked jeeps and on foot. While the startled woman and her daughters said later that they viewed the incident as harassment, these official guardians of religious purity regarded it as one more small victory for Islam.

"Crime is derived from a mutation of human morals," said Abdullah al-Mohammadi, the director of the religious police in Jidda, "and if we can protect and promote moral behavior, crime will not be able to take root."

The religious police, or Mutawin, wear short, coarse white cotton robes and sandals, all part of an effort to shun vanity. They look like desert nomads who have stumbled unexpectedly into the 20th century. But they are at the heart of a fierce debate about the country's future, one that pits a mostly Western-oriented elite against those who want a stricter Islamic state.

In an effort to draw the Muslim fundamentalist opposition into the system and bolster its own religious credentials, the government has steadily expanded the scope and power of the religious police in the past few years. But at the same time, the government is often wary of the organization, which is known to include fundamentalist sympathizers.

"It does not bode well for those of us who want to see liberal, democratic reforms," a newspaper editor said.

The religious police have a broad sweep in a country dominated by Wahabism, a puritanical sect of Islam embraced by the ruling Saud family and most of the population.

Theaters, many Western publications and alcohol are banned. Foreign publications allowed inside the country have advertisements for alcohol or pictures of women blacked out and offending articles torn from the pages. Women and men are segregated in workplaces, restaurants and schools. Adulterers are stoned to death and convicted murderers are beheaded in public.

While the society's severity stuns many Westerners, those charged with its maintenance say it is already too liberal.

"We are fighting against an infusion of vice," Mr. Mohammadi said. "Magazines and papers, even shirts, are imported with sexually arousing pictures. We have a big problem with illegal pornographic videos. And a few of the foreigners who come to work have evil intentions, such as prostitution."

The religious police, who are often accompanied by uniformed policemen, are viewed by many young Saudis with open hostility.

"They are our enemy," a university senior said. "They are a burden on the society. They are trying to force us to go backward and they have too much power."

But the religious police point to the security in Saudi Arabia, where violent crime and theft are rare, as examples of their effectiveness.

"In the United States you have children shot in school," said Khalid Ashoor, a member of the religious police. "No one can walk the streets in safety. There are drugs everywhere. Maybe you should look to our system as an example of how to avoid these things."

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