The New Statesman reports that Saudi society is beginning to rebel against the country’s infamous religious police, or mutawwa'in, which have long served as enforcers for the seriously-named Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice:
…public outcry has encouraged others to come forward and protest abuse by the committee. The most prominent case has been that of a 50-year-old Riyadh woman who was kidnapped, along with her daughter, by two committee members who then crashed her car. As a result, three lawsuits have been lodged against the committee, which has never been legally challenged before.
Established as part of the pact between the religious establishment and the House of Saud, the mutawwa'in have symbolised the quid pro quo arrangement of Saudi Arabia – religious sanction in exchange for religious influence. Their special status has protected committee members from criticism and given them virtually unlimited power. Even as recently as 2003, the editor of a prominent Saudi newspaper was fired for daring to challenge the committee.
Yet in the past few weeks, outrage against the committee has burst forth from almost all corners of Saudi society. Editorials critical of the religious police have abounded, even in the historically censored Saudi press. A controversial online poll on the mutawwa'in, conducted by the Saudi-owned news outlet al-Arabiya, attracted the highest number of votes since the website was founded. Almost 35 per cent of respondents supported dismantling the committee.
As one Saudi blogger who runs a satirical site called the Religious Policeman [muttawa.blogspot.com] puts it: "They are the no-hopers, the social misfits, the failed imams . . . ugly in nature, ugly in behaviour." Indignation is so high that there have been physical attacks on the religious police, with 21 incidents reported last year.
Official critiques of the police have also been forthcoming. The National Society for Human Rights, officially sanctioned by the rulers, has taken the committee to task. A recent report by the group condemns various mutawwa'in practices, including "humiliating people during interrogation" and "beating people and using force to arrest suspects". Dr Muhammad al-Zalfa, a member of the advisory Shura Council, recently lashed out at the committee, saying: "Those who make mistakes must be punished, and we must lift the religious, political and social immunity off them."
…the outcry has clearly had an effect: the interior ministry recently published a directive pointedly reminding committee members to transfer suspects to the police, rather than holding them in detention centres. The committee has also hired a public spokesman for the first time and established a legal department to be known as the "Department of Rules and Regulations" – moves that illustrate the extent to which the committee has lost its infallible status…
Five years ago, the mutawwa’in prevented a group of schoolgirls from exiting a burning school in Mecca because they weren’t wearing the proper religious dress, a move which was defended by the House of Saud even after 15 of the girls were killed and 50 others injured. Catholic priests—there are 100, 000 Catholics in SA—have been arrested for saying mass. And in May of this year, a man was beaten to death for being suspected of having alcohol in his home.
Time reported this month that a campaign is sending text messages to a million Saudis to declare that “2007 is the year of liberation”. Without being there, it’s impossible to sense what’s prompting this change in SA—it’s more than just the internet and technology—but it’s worth tracking whether a refomation of the religious police will actually be realized, if , according to al-Watan columnist Khalid al-Ghanami, everyone will realize “that such practices, which did not bother many people in the past, are by no means acceptable today."