DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In an incident that has reverberated throughout Saudi Arabia, two brothers, Saud and Nasser al-Qaws, aged 22 and 24, died last fall after their car was forced off a Riyadh bridge by members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police. The officers, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, allegedly objected to the patriotic songs the brothers were playing on the car stereo. They pursued the men at high speed, ramming their car three times before finally pushing it off the bridge. One of the young men was killed immediately; his brother died shortly thereafter.
Cellphone footage of the incident in September, captured by a passerby and posted online, caused a public outcry. Attempting to mitigate the fallout, Sheikh Abdul Latif bin Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, head of the religious police, went on a public relations offensive. “The truth is that the pursuit took place,” he told Al Arabiya TV. He condemned the incident and said an investigation was underway.
Long considered one of the country’s taboo subjects (along with any criticism of King Abdullah), the commission, also known as the mutaween, is now one of Saudi Arabia’s most controversial issues. Tapped to lead the force in 2012, Mr. Sheikh today finds himself facing both scathing public attacks and worsening internal conflict.
The government, for its part, is wary of clamping down on the mutaween for fear of inciting a conservative backlash and is walking a fine line between the religious police and an increasingly angry populace. While dismantling of the force is unrealistic, this delicate moment opens a window of opportunity for Saudis. By continuing to voice anger and disapproval, the public may provide Riyadh with the leverage it needs to demand police adherence to regulations already in place, and slowly weaken the commission’s influence.
The commission was formed in 1940 to enforce the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law. It began its rise to prominence in 1979, after religious fanatics seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, denounced the royal family and called for new leadership. In the aftermath of the bloody two-week siege, Saudi clerics were given plenty of funding and a free hand to regulate morality.
Today some 4,000 members of the mutaween patrol the streets, enforcing dress codes, the strict separation of men and women, the observance of daily prayers and other behavior that it considers to fall under the purview of Islam. Women, for example, are forbidden to drive.
Although the force was initially embraced by Saudis, who are still predominantly religious and conservative, a series of incidents has increasingly soured public attitudes toward it. In 2002 in Mecca, 15 girls died in a school fire, prevented from fleeing by mutaween who claimed the students were inappropriately covered. In 2007, a dozen mutaween entered a Riyadh family’s home and fatally beat a 28-year-old man whom they suspected of illegally possessing alcohol. The man’s death outraged Saudis, and a lawsuit was brought, one of the first instances of legal action against the force. The charges were subsequently dropped, but the suit helped open the door to criticism, including by the press.
Today, Saudi opinion of the commission is at an all-time low. Resentment grew last year when King Abdullah increased the force’s budget to $390 million. The spread of smartphones has made it easier to disseminate evidence of police overreach, and it is now more difficult for the force to sweep accusations under the carpet. Despite this, the fact that most cases brought against the commission still end in acquittals or dropped charges has done little to endear the religious police to Saudis.
Now, internal fault lines seem to be widening as well. Mr. Sheikh is increasingly coming under attack by the force’s more conservative members for being too liberal and too Westernized.
Shortly after taking over in 2012, Mr. Sheikh spearheaded a series of reforms aimed at bringing the mutaween in line. Volunteers were no longer allowed to join mutaween patrols; the confiscation of phones and other personal belongings was forbidden; workshops were introduced to teach mutaween how to deal with the public; the police could no longer receive funds from private businesses. Chief among Mr. Sheikh’s reforms was a ban on car chases — but the incident last September made it painfully clear that his orders were being ignored.
In a controversial October interview with Rotana, a Saudi TV channel, Mr. Sheikh admitted that one of his most trusted confidants had recorded their conversations for use against him. The interview appeared soon after reports surfaced in the press of an attempt to murder Mr. Sheikh in a hit-and-run, allegedly ordered by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Sheikh may not be able to rein in the mutaween, but there are signs that social media may be helping to counter the commission’s repressive regime. Saudis have thwarted several attempts to restrict phone and Internet use over the years, including a 2004 ban on camera phones (still forbidden in areas reserved for women only). The country’s current smartphone use is the third highest in the world. Despite strict regulations on Internet activity, Saudis are among the largest adopters of Twitter in the Arab world; 4.9 million Saudis were on Facebook as of early 2012.
Last October, a woman in Qassim, considered Saudi Arabia’s most conservative region, lashed out at a member of the religious police who demanded that she cover her entire face (she was wearing a veil that left her eyes exposed). “Don’t provoke me!” the woman retorted. “Do you think we don’t know our own religion? We know our religion, and covered up before you even existed. The full facial cover is not forced upon a woman!” A 42-second video of her response blew up on Saudi social media. Using the hashtag #Don’tProvoke, people tweeted messages of support, criticizing the officer for berating a modestly dressed woman, and for doing so in front of her children. The public outpouring was a rarity in a country where, when it comes to confrontations between men and women, it is generally accepted that women are to blame.
Her response highlighted the perception that the commission is an intrusive body that seeks to impose a narrow vision of religion on Saudi women. Equally noteworthy was her rejection of the officer’s definition of appropriate veiling practice. After years of relying on the teachings of a single religious authority, the websites and social networks the mutaween have fought so hard to repress have facilitated the spread of alternative views.
A nearly 75-year-old police force can’t be disempowered overnight, and those like Mr. Sheikh who attempt to liberalize it risk fomenting a dangerous backlash. But, aided by social media, the doctrinal foundations of the religious establishment are finally beginning to crack. A broad-based, grass-roots show of anger against the mutaween may be the push the government needs to finally weaken and perhaps eventually dismantle the religious police.
Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights advocate from Saudi Arabia, began a campaign in 2011 to let Saudi women drive.