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Religious police feel the heat

Feared and loathed by many Saudis, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice gets a little disciplining of its own.

Saudi members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, attend a training course in Riyadh. (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The news startled many Saudis.

Abdul Aziz Al-Humain, president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — known unfondly here as the religious police — apologized to a young man for an altercation with commission agents who accosted him after alleging that he’d kissed his wife in public.

Al Humain also removed the commission’s spokesman for publicizing the charges, which the 27-year-old man heatedly disputed, and for releasing the alleged offender’s name to the press.
Many Saudis, unaccustomed to the commission admitting mistakes, were pleased. The mid-March episode carried a clear message: Saudi society is changing, so the commission has to change too.

“This signals a new era because in the past [the commission’s behavior] would have been OK,” said Al Riyadh newspaper reporter Khaled al Awfi, who covered the incident. “But now under Al Humain’s lead, this was considered unacceptable.”

The kingdom is feeling the pull of two social tectonic plates slowly grinding past each other. One is comprised of Saudis who want to create a more open, modern society. The other is made up of those who want it to stay the same and reject anything even remotely associated with foreign behavior.

The commission is the vanguard of the latter group. Long a fixture here, its agents are feared and disliked by many Saudis for interfering in people’s lives on the pretext of upholding Muslim values and virtue.

Easily recognized by their long beards and calf-length robes, they monitor public places to make sure unrelated men and women do not mix and that stores close during prayer times. They also seek to enforce the puritanical ethos of Saudi Arabia’s predominant Wahhabi version of Islam, which frowns on movies, singing, dancing and uncovered women’s faces.

In recent years, the commission’s authority has increasingly been questioned not simply because of the inconveniences they impose on the public, but also because of incidents in which Saudis lost their lives while in custody of the religious police or fleeing them.

In 2002, they were widely blamed for contributing to the deaths of more than a dozen girls when they impeded the entry of firefighters to the burning girls’ school.

In another tragic case a year ago, two boys and two girls were killed when their speeding car crashed in Medina. The foursome, apparently fearful of being caught violating the ban on mixing, were trying to escape commission agents.