Vice Squad


SINFUL PLEASURES: Risking the wrath of the religious police, a woman in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, loosens her veil to eat an ice cream


Thursday, Jul. 26, 2007

TIME Magazine

On a hot and humid evening two months ago, a dozen police cars rolled up to the simple Riyadh residence of Salman al-Huraisi, a 28-year-old hotel security guard. The policemen stormed into the house, breaking down doors, tearing through personal belongings and crying, “God is great!” Then they arrested al-Huraisi, along with 10 other family members. His alleged crime: consuming and selling beer.

Al-Huraisi’s visitors were members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, a 10,000-strong force called the Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice. Back at the commission’s local headquarters, events took a tragic turn: al-Huraisi died in custody, after allegedly being beaten. According to family lawyer Maher Al-Hamizi, the autopsy report said his skull was split open and an eye dislodged from its socket. Speaking to Time, the dead man’s father, Mohammed al-Huraisi, a 73-year-old retired messenger, called for justice for the three commission members who he claims murdered his son. “I knew my son was dead due to the merciless beating,” he says in a soft but defiant voice. “I demand that they be executed.”

Fueled by the al-Huraisi case and other allegations of abuse, an unprecedented backlash is stirring against Saudi Arabia’s feared religious police, or mutaween — Saudi slang meaning “pious ones.” After years of acting as if it were above the law, the commission, which was established in 1926, now faces the prospect of having its considerable powers curbed. Prosecutors launched a high-profile investigation into al-Huraisi’s death, and Saudi media reports say they are preparing to put one commission member on trial for his killing.

Meanwhile, another trial is already under way in the city of Tabuk, where the family of a man who died of an apparent heart attack in the commission’s custody is likewise demanding a death sentence for four mutaween allegedly involved in his detention. Ahmed al-Bulawi died after being hauled into a local commission headquarters for being in a car with a woman who was not his close relative; the mutaween apparently acted too hastily, since it turned out that he was employed as the family’s driver.

Commission officials have declined to comment while these legal cases are pending, but Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud said in a press conference that “initial investigations prove that the commission did not do anything to cause their deaths.” Nayef rebuked the commission’s critics, claiming they were “fishing for any mistakes … and trying to magnify them.”

When the deaths of al-Huraisi and al-Bulawi hit the newspapers, Saudis were shocked, yet not entirely surprised. The morality police, whom Saudis sometimes derisively refer to as the “Taliban,” are notorious for committing excesses in their fervor for enforcing the Kingdom’s puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam. Typically, squads of mutaween patrol streets and shopping malls, caning shopkeepers who fail to shutter their doors at prayer time, scolding women who allow flesh to show from under their mandatory black gowns, and lecturing adolescent boys caught following or talking to girls. By the commission’s reckoning, its members “correct” the behavior of 800,000 people a year.

Frequently, however, the mutaween have gone further: from barring shops from selling roses and teddy bears on Valentine’s Day to verbally abusing, physically assaulting or effectively abducting women deemed to be committing sins. Some Saudis, only half jokingly, refer to the mutaween’s behavior as “state-sponsored terrorism,” on account of the fear that their combination of religious intolerance and violence inspires.

The backlash against the mutaween began with the case of Umm Faisal (her full name hasn’t been made public), a 50-year-old Riyadh woman who endured a harrowing evening at the hands of some mutaween after arriving in her car at an amusement park to pick up her sons one night four years ago. Accusing her of indecency, two commission members allegedly ejected her driver, took Umm Faisal, her daughter and an Indonesian maid on a wild ride and eventually crashed her car. Outraged by her treatment, Umm Faisal sued, seeking compensation for damage to her car and for emotional trauma. When a religious court rejected her claims against the mutaween last year, she sued again in a civil-style court, which is scheduled to hear her appeal in September.

Umm Faisal’s defiant, one-woman stand is helping spur the unusual public debate about the mutaween’s role and actions. Saudi newspapers and blog sites have been filled with reports and commentaries on the subject. A campaign using text messages sent to mobile phones is calling on a million Saudis to declare that “2007 is the year of liberation” from the mutaween. Apparently responding to the discontent, the Shura Council, a quasi-legislative body that advises the monarchy, recently rejected requests to give the commission a 20% pay raise for its members and funds to open additional offices around the country.

Some of the discontent has been unruly. Last year, according to Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan newspaper, there were 21 recorded instances — including a number of shootings and stabbings — in which people attacked mutaween. Just four years ago, the government pressured al-Watan to fire its editor after it published articles criticizing the Wahhabi establishment and holding the mutaween accountable for alleged abuses. Nonetheless, others are speaking up, too, and the outcry is intensifying the pressure on King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud to act against the mutaween. A new nongovernmental organization, the National Society for Human Rights, issued a report in May that amounted to a stunning public rebuke of the commission. It accused the mutaween of making unwarranted arrests, forcing entry into private homes, damaging personal property such as computers and mobile phones, beating and humiliating suspects, and compelling confessions. Two months later, the Interior Ministry warned the commission against violating regulations that require mutaween to immediately hand over to the regular Saudi police anyone accused of morals offenses.

But few Saudis are convinced that such decrees will put an end to the commission’s excesses, given the light slap on the wrist it has received for past breaches. The most scandalous case in recent years involved the deaths of 15 Saudi girls at a school in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in 2002. Eyewitnesses said that when a fire broke out, mutaween refused to allow the girls to flee, or rescuers to go inside, on the grounds that the students were not wearing the required garments to preserve their modesty. The government, however, absolved the commission of blame.

Saudi sources have told Time of numerous other instances of disturbingly routine abuse. One involved a female Shi’ite Muslim student at King Saud University in Riyadh who was allegedly badly beaten last year for being in the company of a Sunni Muslim boy. Because Wahhabi doctrine regards Shi’ites as infidels, they have frequent run-ins with the mutaween over their religious practices. Non-Wahhabi Sunnis also regularly run afoul of the mutaween, who — in accordance with Wahhabi doctrine — bar them from celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday or performing certain rites during burials.

Though the Saudi economy is dependent on their skills, foreigners are not above the scrutiny of the mutaween, either. The religious police have raided Westerners’ home churches (formal churches are forbidden in the Kingdom) to break up Christian services. Foreign residents complain of other incidents in which they have been singled out, including the case of a 25-year-old Mongolian woman who was accosted at a glitzy Riyadh shopping mall. Although the woman was clad in an abaya, a full-length black gown, a gesticulating mutawwa seemed bothered that her face and ankles were not covered, too. He shoved her into a taxi, pawed her robe open and denounced her as a Filipina gahbah (Filipina prostitute). She was interrogated, forced to confess and sent to a prison for women. There she might have remained if not for the connections of her British husband, who was able to convince Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh, to have her released.

U.S. officials told Time of a more notorious incident, which occurred in 2003 when Jeanna Abercrombie Wynn-Stanley, then the U.S. consul general in Jidda, incurred the wrath of the religious police while waiting to enter a restaurant in Riyadh. Conservatively dressed, but not in the standard attire of Saudi women, Wynn-Stanley was harangued by a mutawwa, so she pulled out her Saudi-issued diplomatic identity card. The mutawwa’s response was to throw it on the ground and grind it into the pavement with the sole of his shoe, a gesture considered a grave insult in Arab custom. The U.S. embassy lodged a formal complaint with the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

The fact that the mutaween have long acted with this kind of impunity makes many Saudis skeptical that the ruling al-Saud clan will hold them accountable to the rule of law. Such a move would entail taking on the overall religious establishment, which controls the mosques, the judiciary and various education departments as well as the morality police. That would be difficult to do, says Saudi political analyst and author Mai Yamani, because the religious establishment, led by the descendants of the founder of Wahhabism, is effectively a partner in ruling Saudi Arabia. Yet Yamani is encouraged by the escalating public demands for the religious police to be more transparent. “It is not the beginning of the end, but it’s the beginning of the pressure on the royal family to address this threat,” she says. “Before, there was secrecy. The state could keep the excesses secret. Now everything is debated.”

Not necessarily by the mutaween, however. While commission officials have proved increasingly willing to give statements to the Saudi press and have even acknowledged that individual commission members can make mistakes, they repeatedly turned down Time’s requests for interviews. Contacted at the organization’s headquarters in Riyadh, the commission’s director general Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith and his public-relations officer cheerfully offered a gift of a handful of books in Arabic, including an official history of the commission, a collection of Saudi fatwas (religious rulings) and an Islamic calendar. But al-Ghaith declined to comment on the case of Salman al-Huraisi or those of other alleged victims of the commission’s moral zeal. “Sorry,” he explained. “We have our regulations.”

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3 Responses to “Vice Squad”

  1. November 28, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    These are clear examples of excesses – atrocities and brutalities – or abhorrent and barbarous human crimes committed in the name of religion. What a great pity! Watch Muslims! This is surely not Islam.

  2. November 28, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    According to my understanding of the situation,

    The Saudi regime is using aggressive forms of brainwashing to change the very way Muslims think and feel, even many Muslims consider Wahabism an extremist sect, but its followers like Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud, insist that they are simply practicing the “true” Islam under their military dictatorship.

    The Wahhabi ideology is inbred to the power of the Al Saud, the doctrine itself is basically a violent and a ruthlessly bullheaded doctrine, and the Saudi government is funding radical Wahhabi preachers and schools that are training new generations of Muslims to hate the Jews and America.

    It’s really sad but true

  3. January 7, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing
    this article and also the rest of the website is also very good.

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