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Some of the discontent has been unruly. Last year, according to Saudi Arabia's al-Watan newspaper, there were 21 recorded instances including a number of shootings and stabbings in which people attacked mutaween. Just four years ago, the government pressured al-Watan to fire its editor after it published articles criticizing the Wahhabi establishment and holding the mutaween accountable for alleged abuses. Nonetheless, others are speaking up, too, and the outcry is intensifying the pressure on King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud to act against the mutaween. A new nongovernmental organization, the National Society for Human Rights, issued a report in May that amounted to a stunning public rebuke of the commission. It accused the mutaween of making unwarranted arrests, forcing entry into private homes, damaging personal property such as computers and mobile phones, beating and humiliating suspects, and compelling confessions. Two months later, the Interior Ministry warned the commission against violating regulations that require mutaween to immediately hand over to the regular Saudi police anyone accused of morals offenses.
But few Saudis are convinced that such decrees will put an end to the commission's excesses, given the light slap on the wrist it has received for past breaches. The most scandalous case in recent years involved the deaths of 15 Saudi girls at a school in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, in 2002. Eyewitnesses said that when a fire broke out, mutaween refused to allow the girls to flee, or rescuers to go inside, on the grounds that the students were not wearing the required garments to preserve their modesty. The government, however, absolved the commission of blame.
Saudi sources have told Time of numerous other instances of disturbingly routine abuse. One involved a female Shi'ite Muslim student at King Saud University in Riyadh who was allegedly badly beaten last year for being in the company of a Sunni Muslim boy. Because Wahhabi doctrine regards Shi'ites as infidels, they have frequent run-ins with the mutaween over their religious practices. Non-Wahhabi Sunnis also regularly run afoul of the mutaween, who in accordance with Wahhabi doctrine bar them from celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday or performing certain rites during burials.
Though the Saudi economy is dependent on their skills, foreigners are not above the scrutiny of the mutaween, either. The religious police have raided Westerners' home churches (formal churches are forbidden in the Kingdom) to break up Christian services. Foreign residents complain of other incidents in which they have been singled out, including the case of a 25-year-old Mongolian woman who was accosted at a glitzy Riyadh shopping mall. Although the woman was clad in an abaya, a full-length black gown, a gesticulating mutawwa seemed bothered that her face and ankles were not covered, too. He shoved her into a taxi, pawed her robe open and denounced her as a Filipina gahbah (Filipina prostitute). She was interrogated, forced to confess and sent to a prison for women. There she might have remained if not for the connections of her British husband, who was able to convince Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh, to have her released.
U.S. officials told Time of a more notorious incident, which occurred in 2003 when Jeanna Abercrombie Wynn-Stanley, then the U.S. consul general in Jidda, incurred the wrath of the religious police while waiting to enter a restaurant in Riyadh. Conservatively dressed, but not in the standard attire of Saudi women, Wynn-Stanley was harangued by a mutawwa, so she pulled out her Saudi-issued diplomatic identity card. The mutawwa's response was to throw it on the ground and grind it into the pavement with the sole of his shoe, a gesture considered a grave insult in Arab custom. The U.S. embassy lodged a formal complaint with the Saudi Foreign Ministry.
The fact that the mutaween have long acted with this kind of impunity makes many Saudis skeptical that the ruling al-Saud clan will hold them accountable to the rule of law. Such a move would entail taking on the overall religious establishment, which controls the mosques, the judiciary and various education departments as well as the morality police. That would be difficult to do, says Saudi political analyst and author Mai Yamani, because the religious establishment, led by the descendants of the founder of Wahhabism, is effectively a partner in ruling Saudi Arabia. Yet Yamani is encouraged by the escalating public demands for the religious police to be more transparent. "It is not the beginning of the end, but it's the beginning of the pressure on the royal family to address this threat," she says. "Before, there was secrecy. The state could keep the excesses secret. Now everything is debated."
Not necessarily by the mutaween, however. While commission officials have proved increasingly willing to give statements to the Saudi press and have even acknowledged that individual commission members can make mistakes, they repeatedly turned down Time's requests for interviews. Contacted at the organization's headquarters in Riyadh, the commission's director general Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith and his public-relations officer cheerfully offered a gift of a handful of books in Arabic, including an official history of the commission, a collection of Saudi fatwas (religious rulings) and an Islamic calendar. But al-Ghaith declined to comment on the case of Salman al-Huraisi or those of other alleged victims of the commission's moral zeal. "Sorry," he explained. "We have our regulations."