Counter-Terrorism: Reforming the Religious Police


July 21, 2006: Saudi Arabia is curbing the powers of its religious police (the mutaween), fearing that these guardians of correct Islamic behavior, are becoming more a source of irritation for most Saudis, and not much help in fighting Islamic terrorism. Known officially as the Central Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, they have had police powers since 1979, after Islamic radicals tried to overthrow the monarchy by seizing some Islamic shrines in Mecca. This rattled the Saudi family, and they cut a deal with the religious establishment. In return for keeping Islamic radicals under control, the clerics could use the mutaween to enforce conservative dress and lifestyle codes on the Saudi people. The mutaween soon became unpopular, as they would sometimes beat young women they believed were acting in a scandalous fashion (showing ankles, too much face or shape, and so on). The mutaween also raided homes suspected of having alcoholic beverages, or forbidden videos.
As the Saudi people lost many of their tolerance for strict lifestyle rules over the last three decades, the mutaween got more strict. Since the mutaween had police powers, they would often arrest people, and hold them without notifying anyone. People would literally disappear into mutaween jails. Eventually, family members could find out where their son or daughter was, but only after appealing to a government official or member of the royal family. A new generation of kids, exposed to MTV and a wide array of foreign videos, were less tolerant of mutaween discipline. The Shia minority (actually a majority in some areas along the Persian Gulf coast), got increasingly harsh treatment from the mutaween, as Saudi Islamic conservatives considered Shia to be heretics. So does al Qaeda, an organization that was popular with many mutaween.
There are some 4,000 full time mutaween, and over 10,000 part-time volunteers. It's the part-timers that cause the most problems. These young louts (many of the young volunteers are unemployed, poorly educated, and have serious attitude problems) are the cause of most problems. Demands to simply disband the mutaween have been refused. The religious establishment is too fond of the mutaween to allow that. So instead, the plan is to apply stricter standards to those selected to be full, or part-time, mutaween, and enforce stricter codes of conduct on the mutaween.
The royal family remains a major backer of the mutaween, because these religious police are seen as protecting Saudi control of their kingdom. To that end, mutaween have been told that Islamic terrorists are un-Islamic, and should be treated as such. This resulted in the round up of some Islamic terrorists, despite the fact that al Qaeda and the mutaween share many values. But the mutaween agree to protect the Saudi family as part of their job. As long as they do that, the Saudi government will continue to tolerate the mutaween, even if an increasing number of Saudis don't.




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