Saudi Arabia’s religious police denied media reports on Wednesday that its president has been targeted with an assassination attempt. According to a spokesman who spoke to local news site Sabq, “the news in the way it was presented is untrue,” he said.
Al-Watan daily reported earlier today that Abdul-Latif al-Alsheikh has survived a recent assassination attempt. Citing unnamed “informed sources,” the newspaper said that he was targeted by a car that aimed to run over him after leaving the mosque where he prayed the dawn prayer.
The paper said the failed assassination attempt was carried out by a Saudi wing of the Muslim Brotherhood following al-Alsheikh decision to fire a number of senior officials from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) who belong to the wing.
Al-Alsheikh was appointed as president of CPVPV in January 2012 with a mandate to reform the feared the religious police, whose members patrol streets, shopping malls and other public spaces to ensure that genders are segregated and shops close for prayer five times a day.
News about alleged assassination attempt comes few days after two brothers where killed when a religious police patrol crashed into their car during a hot pursuit last week in the capital Riyadh. The incident led to criticism of the religious police in the country’s newspapers and social media.
However, conservative clerics like Nasser al-Omar have warned that any attempt at “weakening the commission will lead to the spread of vice in the kingdom.”
Lawyer Abdulaziz al-Gasim, who helped prepare new guidelines for the religious police, said during a television interview this week that such statements by conservatives show that there is resistance from within the organization to reforms proposed by al-Alsheikh.
“There is a large gap between leadership and the field workers,” he said.
Sit-ins and protests are described as types of terrorism in a new educational course offered to members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, al-Hayat daily reported on Monday. The 4-week course aims to “reject all types of terrorism, like sit-ins and protests, and their negative dangerous consequences that destroy individuals, society, nation and ummah through sedition and questioning the tenets of Sharia,” said sheikh Omar al-Dweesh, head of the Eastern Province branch of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Louise Lief provides a good overview of steps taken by the Saudi government to reform the notorious religious police:
The Saudi king showers the Hai’a with resources while seeking to rein it in. He is expanding the Hai’a’s staff, building expensive new “guidance centers,” and purchasing fleets of new GMC SUVs for the Hai’a men. But in January, the Saudi cabinet ruled that Hai’a men may no longer interrogate suspects or determine the charges against them. They may still arrest people, though, for offenses like practicing witchcraft and consuming alcohol, and they continue to enforce the ban public entertainment, women driving, and other religious rulings.
The talk of reforming CPVPV is often repeated every time the King appoints a new chief of the organization. One of the reasons why reform is an extremely difficult challenge is that many of CPVPV employees seem to believe that what they do is not merely a government job but rather a religious duty mandated by God. So despite these efforts to reform, misconduct continue to take place on the country’s streets all the time.
Take, for example, this story of a Saudi woman and her British husband who were accused of being unmarried outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina of all places. The husband writes:
My wife told the aggressive Mutaween that I would go and get the marriage certificate, which was only a few kilometers away in our hotel room. However, they kept hold of me and demanded that my tearful wife walk to the hotel to retrieve it. Here we were outside the Prophet’s mosque, being treated so shamelessly by a bunch of thugs!
While my wife was trekking back to the hotel, the Mutaween made several attempts to drag me in to one of their security cars. I constantly resisted, as I was innocent of all the things they were stupidly accusing my wife and me of having done. She returned, still in tears, an hour later with the marriage certificate. The Mutaween inspected the certificate and found that we were telling the truth.
As the Wall Street Journal noted in their interview with the religious police chief last October, “observers are skeptical of the durability of Mr. Sheikh’s reforms, predicting he will meet tough opposition from rank-and-file members of the Hia’a.” Based on recent incidents like this one, these observers are probably right to be skeptical.
I was leaving a restaurant with friends in Jeddah last October when a member from the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stopped me. He gave me a warning about the T-shirt I was wearing, then he let me go. My T-shirt had the face of Gandhi with a line of text underneath that said: “Give peace a chance.” Clothes with images on them, especially of humans or animals, are apparently a serious offense in the eyes of the morality police.
The Research and Studies Center affiliated with the Commission has recently published a study which concluded that at least 59 percent of Saudi youth engage in “undesirable and forbidden behaviors,” the Saudi edition of al-Hayat reported today. The newspaper continues to explain that wearing cloths with images on them tops the list of such behaviors, followed by wearing necklaces and bracelets. The afro hairdo came a close third.
The study recommended that the government should adopt an official concept of what they described as “foreign behaviors.” Because once such concept is officially adopted, it would be easier for the Commission to crack down on these behaviors. The study, however, did not offer any answers regarding if such obsession with social control would push our country over the cliff of sanity.
UPDATE: The Commission have denied that they have commissioned the study reported by al-Hayat. A spokesman for the Commission told Sabq that they have rejected this study that was conducted by a research center at King Saud University due to scientific errors. “Those who misled public opinion by promoting these numbers and publicizing these inaccurate studies must be held accountable,” he said. He added that the Commission would seek legal against those who published such information and attributed them to the Commission.
UPDATE II: Al-Hayat responds by publishing two photos. The first shows the cover of the study which clearly bears the name of the Research and Studies Center at the Commission. The other photo is a copy of a letter from the Commission’s vice president to academics asking them to review the study.
Saudi Arabia will curb the powers of its notorious religious police charged with ensuring compliance with Islamic morality but often accused of abuses, a newspaper report said on Wednesday.
“The new system will set a mechanism for the field work of the committee’s men which hands over some of their specialization to other state bodies, such as arrests and interrogations,” al-Hayat daily quoted religious police chief Sheikh Abdullatiff Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh as saying.
We’ve been reading stories about the religious police getting their wings clipped for years now. They have lost some power, but not much. Will the new regulations discipline its members and keep them accountable when they err? I, for one, won’t hold my breath. ♦
The work of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will not be complete until women join their force, CPVPV chief told Asharq al-Awsat Sunday. He emphasized that the work of CPVPV should be free of spying, chasing, volunteering or accusing people without a probable cause. Previous presidents of CPVPV also said nice things like that in the past. It did not fix the Commission. ♦