(Waridaad) - From The Economist print edition
IT IS not easy being a religious policeman. The 5,000-odd agents of Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (commonly referred to as the Haya, or Commission) carry a heavy burden of responsibility. Not only must they do things such as make sure shops close for the five daily prayers, enforce modesty of attire and strict separation of the sexes in public, prevent sorcery, and round up bootleggers and drug dealers. They must also impose summary new bans, such as recent ones against trading in pet cats and dogs in the port city of Jeddah, and against barbers offering Western-style haircuts that “imitate unbelievers” in Medina, Islam's second holiest city.
Lately, their lot has grown harder. A spate of public complaints about the religious police's excessive zeal, exacerbated by press reports of several citizens dying while in their custody, has put the commission on the defensive. At least one Saudi has dared, for the first time in the kingdom, to demand compensation in a civil suit against the Haya. She charges that agents accosted her and her daughter outside a shopping mall, accused them of being underdressed, dragged their driver from his seat and, while commandeering the car to drive the accused women to vice-squad headquarters for questioning, drove so recklessly that they crashed into a lamppost, injuring the passengers. On internet chat sites and even in newspaper columns, some writers have even suggested that the Commission be abolished.
Things have not looked so bad for it since 2002, when its agents were widely reported to have blocked exits to a blazing girls' school, on the ground that the fleeing pupils were improperly attired. Fourteen girls died as a result. Afterwards, tiresome rules were imposed on vice-squad agents. They were told to wear badges while on duty, discouraged from carrying sticks, and required to surrender all apprehended suspects to ordinary police. Many even had to endure training sessions in how to be polite to the public.
Yet by most accounts those rules have not proved too restrictive. The mutawaeen, as the agents are known, can count on many unofficial helpers to tip them off. The regular police generally sympathise with their fellow law-enforcers and can be conveniently slow to arrive when called to pick up suspects. Haya supporters have fended off harsher legislation that would have required mutawaeen to wear uniform, as well as calls for their duties to be defined within specific limits.
Some Saudi liberals hope that renewed pressure for reform will bear fruit. They note that, over the decades, things once banned, such as riding bicycles or smoking cigarettes, have come to be overlooked. Yet the commission has good reason to be confident of its future. For one thing, its mission of promoting virtue and preventing vice, while perhaps not well defined, remains a scriptural Islamic injunction. In a state that proclaims the Koran as its constitution, this cannot easily be dismissed. For another, the Haya's existence helps solve two pressing social problems: high unemployment and a very large surplus of graduates in religious studies.