Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Saudi religious police `overdoing it'

PRAY OR PAY Backed by the government, squads of bearded men roam the kingdom armed with sticks or whips, forcing Saudis and foreigners alike to go to the mosque


Word that authorities were coming spread through Riyadh's rundown, busy Batha market. Merchants hastily dropped their shutters. Some shoppers hid, some ran, some were caught.

It wasn't a narcotics bust or one of the widely publicized Saudi government raids on terrorists. This was a sweep by the muttawas, or religious police, rounding up Muslim men -- Saudis and foreigners alike -- and forcing them to go to the mosque at prayer time.

The muttawas, backed by the Saudi government, say they are simply working for Islam. But some see them as symbols of intolerance that can breed extremism, and their methods and philosophy are coming under scrutiny as Saudis confront terrorism at home.

Ghassan Ahmed, a 32-year-old Saudi businessman, said the muttawas were "there to punish and not protect."

"It's because of people like these that Saudi Arabia gets a bad image outside. They have turned our beautiful religion upside down," he said.

Abdumohsin Addawood, a political analyst at Riyadh's Imam Mohammed bin Saudi Islamic University, said "interaction and dialogue" was needed to curb some overzealous muttawas. But he said the entire system shouldn't be thrown out.

"If we go to the roots of Islam, there should be people trying to remind others of the virtue of doing right, because people tend to be lazy and forget," Addawood said. "The role of the muttawas is to advise or remind and not to force, but unfortunately some are overdoing it."

Muttawas are easy to spot with their untrimmed beards and calf-length robes adopted from the times of the 7th century Muslim prophet, Muhammad. Officially, they are agents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose chief has Cabinet rank. Officials of the committee could not be reached for comment for this article, despite repeated calls from The Associated Press.

Law of the land

* Alcohol is strictly off limits in Saudi Arabia.

* Men and women who are not related are not allowed to mingle in public.

* Women are not allowed to drive.

The influence of the muttawas is rooted in the special relationship between the Saudi royal family and the religious establishment. An alliance between the Saudi dynasty and Sheik Mohammad Abdul-Wahab, the 18th century founder of the country's strict Islamic doctrine, helped bring the Al Sauds to power.

"There is nothing wrong in guiding and showing people the right path," said Mohammed, a 22-year-old Saudi who is studying religion in hopes of becoming a muttawa. He gave only his first name, for fear speaking publicly about the muttawas would ruin his chances of becoming one.

That path, according to the Saudi version of Islam, is a narrow one.

Men must go to the mosque to pray five times a day. Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, which has no movie theaters. Women -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- have to cover themselves from head to toe in public. Unrelated men and women are not allowed to mingle in shops, restaurants or on the streets. Women cannot drive, and can only be driven by a relative or a professional driver. The sexes are segregated in government establishments such as schools and workplaces.

Muttawas, armed with knowledge of Islam and sometimes with sticks or camel-hide whips, roam in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Those who have run afoul of the muttawas say they cannot be reasoned with or bribed, only endured.

"Every time I see them I just make a run for it," said Farid, a 27-year-old electronics salesman from Bangladesh who has a shop in Batha market.

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