THE RELIGIOUS POLICE: From BRAVELY ENDURING VIOLENCE TO POLITICALLY PROMOTING VIRTUE
The near-disappearance from public life of the once-prominent religious police, or more technically, the Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, maybe the most startling recent change in Saudi Arabia. This transformation has left just the slightest formal traces.
The committee is a statutory organization that has developed alongside the Saudi state to support Saudi rulers in religious policing in the truest sense of the word. At its height, the committee supervised public behavior to ensure righteousness and orderliness as understood by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious heritage.
The committee’s name is derived from verses in the Quran that provide general guidance for Muslims on how to encourage virtue and discourage immorality. The Saudi interpretation drew on traditions that saw this responsibility as a specific governmental duty for Muslim rulers rather than just an individual duty. Saudi Arabia was one of the few societies to dedicate a particular organization to that function and staff it with people willing to be trained and present themselves as stern enforcers of public morality. And for a while, these officials did impose, frequently coercively, Muslim religious sensitivities.
The committee made sure that men and women did not interact socially, that stores were closed during times of prayer, that women (and men, but with fewer restrictions) were dressed modestly, and that art was not present in public areas. Potential rule offenders were cajoled, reprimanded, patrolled, encouraged, and (if necessary) compelled before being caught and jailed.
Then, in 2017, these final symbols of power were eliminated—or rather, redirected through alternative systems. Currently, committee members are unable to arrest or detain individuals they discover on their own. As an apparent attempt to align their actions with those of other state agencies, they are required to send the situation to the police or public prosecutor instead.
Islamic financial organizations are being reorganized to better fulfill this new function and propagate the idea that religion should be subordinated to public order. This message aims to allay international worries regarding Saudi religious activity worldwide as well as to persuade home audiences. There are definite indications that the sector is now getting more precise instructions from the top of the Saudi state, despite the fact that the interaction between the religious and charity spheres has always been complex both locally and globally.
New laws were passed even before the Vision 2030 initiative was unveiled in 2017 to bolster state control over the administration and distribution of Islamic financial assets such as endowments, zakat, and private charity donations. 57 The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has enhanced its own oversight over charity donations made to mosques and Islamic organizations in addition to strengthening nonreligious governmental management and monitoring. 58 In place of a paradigm of primarily Islamic generosity, the state’s official policy has broadened the use of Islamic levies outside of the religious sphere and in accordance with a strategy of sustainable development. The Ministry of Finance’s stated economic objective is to expand the non-profit sector’s contributions to the nation’s gross domestic product, particularly those of its religious subsector.
FIGHTING POLITICAL ISLAM AND REDEFINING SAUDI IDENTITY: THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
With regard to the Ministry of Education and the educational system, the Saudi leadership has changed the nation’s religious establishment in a more overt and combative manner. This holds true for religious topics in particular (in ways that overlap with the duties of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs). In order to modernize the nation, improve governance, and better prepare students for the job market, high officials do not pretend to be tinkering with minor issues here but rather are initiating significant reforms. Such changes are eroding the established and required centrality of Wahhabism, religious professors, and classes in religion at all levels of the national educational system.
However, even in this case, the changes underway are not portrayed as a rejection of the past but rather as a return to it: a means of eradicating foreign influence, not the genuine Saudi view of Islam. But despite what the official rhetoric suggests, the predicted scope of this transformation may eventually be far wider. It is yet unknown how far the Saudi government will be able to go with these measures or how much of an influence they will actually have once they start to have an effect.
The Ministry of Education has made it obvious in its discourse that it wants to eliminate any intellectual sway or Muslim Brotherhood supporters among Saudi professors. The Saudi government defines Muslim Brotherhood influence as the source of extreme religious interpretations in formal curricula and classroom instruction in order to forward its reform goal. This dynamic has even impacted the information covered (and ignored) about topics unrelated to religion. Even while several topics, including philosophy, the arts, and women’s studies, are now authorized, the state still has a significant impact on how they are taught. Wahhabi is the term used by foreign reporting and academic literature to describe such religious influence on education, but this is not how the Saudi authorities frame the situation.
According to the Saudi state, combating extremism, so-called deviance, and terrorism is synonymous with combating the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, rebelling against the authorities and the idea of a revolution are wholly alien to Saudi Arabia and the purportedly correct version of Islam that its leaders uphold.
An increased focus on national identity, rather than only Islamic identity, goes hand in hand with the change in religious instruction. Or, to put it more precisely, there is a need that Saudi Arabia to be viewed as a country rather than associated with Wahhabism. In order to downplay the existence and significance of the Wahhabi founder, history is being rewritten in textbooks and remade through cultural initiatives. The history of the state is now intended to focus on the military victories and Ottoman-style state creation headed by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who also gave the nation its name.
The Saudi government’s strategy has changed over time. The Ministry of Education withdrew books from school libraries and curricula in 2015 rather than removing teachers who were thought to be pro-Brotherhood. After the crown prince and the minister of education openly condemned the infiltration of Brotherhood doctrine into the Saudi educational system in 2018, it then took action against some teachers. The Ministry of Education then said that a committee would be in charge of suspending educators, including university professors, school administrators, and teachers, as well as revising curricula that demonstrated or supported extremist viewpoints, such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As part of the campaign against political Islam in Saudi Arabia’s educational system, hotspots with ties to the religious establishment have also been targeted in the nation’s Islamic colleges. A new director of the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh was selected by the monarch in 2019; this director was the first to come from outside the religious establishment. 88 The dean of the Sharia Faculty at the same university was fired for reportedly inviting a professor who was thought to be a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood to the institution. 89 University professors who teach religion are being included in the politically motivated detentions of religious public leaders who are suspected of extremism.
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