Saudi religious police patrol public morals

January 09, 1993|By New York Times News Service

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- Two bearded men, their robes flowing 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.

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 expanded steadily the scope and power of the religious police in the last 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.

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

Foreigners living in Saudi Arabia, without family connections to get the authorities to intercede on their behalf, often bear the brunt of the police's activities. Police officials acknowledge that a few abuses do occur, but they deny that there is any widespread mistreatment.

Most Saudis, especially women, have had encounters with the religious police, who stop them if their ankles are visible beneath the mandatory long black robes. The round-the-clock patrols make sure shops close in time for daily prayers and check to see that only married couples are sitting in the special partitioned family section in restaurants.

Teams of religious police officers destroy home satellite dishes, which bring uncensored Western television broadcasts into Saudi homes, and Mutawin leaders have pushed through a ban on importing new satellite dishes.

For young men and women, social life often becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the roving bands of religious policemen.

Students from King Abdel Aziz University hang out at the Sulaimaniya shopping mall next to the campus. The mall, considered by the religious police to be one of the city's incubators of sin, is frequently raided by special squads.

Offenders can get anything from a warning or a fine to jail terms, depending on the severity of the offense and their past record.

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