When the virtue police come a-pokin’

Whatcha gonna… whatcha gonna do… whatcha gonna do when the Virtue Cops come for you? Run? Hide? Feel guilt running down your face and drop to the ground asking for forgiveness in front of everyone? Or would you transform into a drop-kicking-iron-fisted UFC fighter and beat that officer to the ground? That’s what one Saudi woman elected to do when an officer from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (known on the streets of Saudi as haia (pronounced haiy-ya)), stopped her at an amusement park in Al-Mubarraz to investigate her male companion.
The woman’s decision to pull out her karate-chop action “HAI-YA” against this officer highlights the public’s frustration with how “moral law” enforcement officers have corrupted the checks and balances system of moral behavior in Islam, leaving the public outraged and humiliated, rather than “morally cleansed” as planned.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is an agency within the Saudi Arabian government, which oversees the application and enforcement of Islamic Sharia law. Dr. Fadhel Alha of the Department of Islamic Preaching and Communications at the University of Riyadh writes in an excerpt on the Committee’s website:

“There are those who say that we must leave people alone and not interfere in personal matters of virtue from which they refrain, because this conflicts with their individual freedom which is set out in Islam. Those preaching this approach quote the words of Allah in the Koran: ‘There is no coercion in religion…’”

Continuing with:

“Second, the personal freedom granted by Islam to the Muslims lies in [Allah’s] liberating them from enslavement to men. This does not mean that man is liberated from enslavement to the God of these men…”

“Third, the verse ‘There is no coercion in religion’ does not mean that everyone can do what they want and refrain from doing what they don’t want, or that no one is entitled to require them to do the good that they have abandoned or to refrain from the evil that they do. The meaning of the verse… is that a person must not be forced to convert to Islam…”

If morality and ethics could only be preserved through tactics of fear and intimidation, then there would be no space for mercy in the theology and practice of Islam. While actions and accountability are fundamental to Islam, so is mercy, in all its forms. Guarding and upholding morality is a main element of the religion, through methods of teaching and demonstration. Not only have the mutaween (religious police) neglected this deep-seated principle of Islam, but have over-stepped Islamic principles of reason and mercy in several instances, with shallow justifications for their actions.

The woman’s response was a reaction to a history of abuses of power by this religious force that consists of over 3,000 officers plus volunteers. Accompanied by a police escort, these officers patrol the streets to “correct” dress code violations, signs of homosexual behavior, and monitor the closing of shops during prayer times. They have the authority to order the arrest and detention of violators. In one of the most tragic events of the Kingdom that took place in Makkah in 2002, the mutaween were responsible for the deaths of 15 girls when they prevented their escape from a burning school building. They went so far as to “[beat] young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya (a long, loose robe).”

Another incident occurred last month, where a woman was assaulted by the mutaween when she was turned in to headquarters by a man who claimed that that she was a “runaway;” in fact, she was actually traveling from Jeddah to Tabuk to visit her son. The man who turned her in had offered a ride to the local bus station, but took her straight to the police station instead. Reports say that she was beaten in the station precincts, while the man was set free. The man’s own motives should have been questioned as Sharia-compliant however, as he was hoping to gain a financial reward- a common tool and weapon of madness favoring the religious police, who stand open to citizen’s reports of moral deviance. This type of “community policing” leaves wide discretion to ordinary citizens, and creates a strong incentive to profile people based on suspicion and misguided intentions.

Whispers of reform reveal a silver lining amidst a seemingly hopeless situation. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia have been drawing attention to cases that have come under the radar regarding abuses by the religious police. With the Saudi government’s decision to fire the National Director of The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and replace him with Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Humain, the people of Saudi Arabia can expect to see some improvement in this program.

It seems there is also an opportunity to change the image of The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Some in the public don’t mind the existence of the commission, but do feel that the actions are excessive and unjust most of the time. Even if there is a new director and revised training regulations set forth, incidents like the one described at the beginning of this article present a different picture happening on the ground. There is not only the question of whether tangible means can serve to correct actions guided by internal motivations, but also one of whether there is any “right way” to check people’s actions. The world has seen too much abuse of power and control by governments in Muslim countries in the name of Islam.

If there is room for reform, then there is an urgent need to go back to the basics – a return to literacy and knowledge about Islam – not just handing out a list of behaviors classified as “haram” (prohibited) to be handled by inept “protectors of the law.” Additionally, if the intention is to uphold Islamic tenets and values, then institutions like this agency must apply mercy, and keep in mind the words of an early Muslim, Hamdun al-Qassar: “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.”

(Photo: Joseph Reyes)
Shazia Kamal is a writer and activist in interested in social justice issues living in Los Angeles, CA.


  • Saadia says:

    It is surprising that we don’t often hear about the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and similar agencies in Muslim countries talking about things like sex trafficking of girl-slaves to rich mavens or the more severe human rights abuses that may not be visible on the street but which occur.

    Or do they address these issues?

    Why have governments and people forgotten verses in the Quran which says that Prophet Muhammad was not sent to morally police anyone?

    This was the Prophet after all, and like earlier ones, he was on a much higher moral level. If he was discouraged from policing and harassing based on superficial notions of social virtue, nitpicking on the little things, then why are such agencies and police officers allowed? Instead the Prophet not only addressed but was greived by oppressive circumstances and human rights abuses at the time of Jahaliyaa (darkness, ignorance) in Arabia.

    Dr. Fadhel of the Department of Islamic Preaching and Communications seems to not have addressed this point.

  • Saadia says:

    Moreover, the U.S. does trade with Middle Eastern countries, a good reason to understand the historical, cultural, and religious sentiments of the region and be sensitive to global and universal notions of justice. But this diplomacy shouldn’t mean that there is a blind eye towards problematic issues even though it takes cautious but courageous personalities to implement (quicker) reforms within their own societies.

    The U.S. is looking towards alternative and environmentally friendly sources of clean energy. According to an economics book I’m reading, it would mean that it is better for oil producing nations to diversify their investments towards other industries and towards educating their workforce, which can also empower women and their rights. I am suggesting a common prosperity as these countries develop or recover from war.

    Although I have experienced some very nice amenities in places like Dubai and Bahrain, Middle Eastern oil producing nations with religious police have a business and lifestyle interest in placing more emphasis on addressing the very severe crimes, having more environmentally-friendly industries, and expanding cultural accommodations for business travelers and tourists (although there are many benefits already.)

  • katseye says:

    @Saadia, I agree with all of your comments. I share similar sentiments. I wonder if money in Saudi Arabia, like other nations, can buy off the Vice police?

    I also agree with the ideas you expressed in regards to trade and energy. Unfortunately, the United State’s behavior in it’s quest for economically viable energy (which is questionable) has soured our political partnerships globally. The US has become a pariah due to it’s hypocrisy toward human rights and dignity in it’s hunger for all things material.

    I used to feel, because Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country, a duty to defend it against the xenophobes and islamiphobes. Now, I don’t care for their opinions as much as I care for the women and men who suffer at the hands of a hypocritical system-be it the vice police who baton women or government sponsored militia’s that attack female demonstrators. In the end, my dream job would be to work for a lobbying firm that strictly attempts to reconfigure the congressional focus on the litmus test for USAID.

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