A virtuous piece of Saudi society is in need of reform

Reform of Saudi Arabia's controversial religious police is overdue and welcome.

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Reform is coming, finally, to the controversial Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which is sometimes called the Mutaween, the "volunteers". The committee will still be able to pull over anyone driving under the influence of alcohol, but will no longer be able to break into a citizen's home to arrest him while he's drinking.

The time is ripe. Many Saudis consider the committee to be even tougher than Sharia law, which forbids spying and invasion of the privacy of the home. And the new chief of the committee, Sheikh Abdullatif Al Alsheikh, seems to be the man for the job. He is an academic and the grandson of the founder of the religious reform movement that created the kingdom.

Radicals regard him as too tolerant, but tolerance is what the committee needs in these changing times. The newly appointed leader has published, in a widely circulated paper, his opinion that men and women should be allowed to mix in public, and that what is proscribed is being together in private.

Reform such as that can ease the strain between the committee and citizens. Saudis are conservative; if a Saudi man were drunk in public, he would admit that the committee had the right to act. But numerous problems have arisen when the committee's men enter homes by force to catch people drinking.

Many such committee cases begin this way, escalate to fights, and end in court and in prison. Sheikh Al Alsheikh seeks to tackle such differences.

To understand the committee, we must understand the country. The kingdom's nucleus is religious; without the da'wa, the call, there would be no state or royal family. A US-educated Saudi bureaucrat, sitting in his Riyadh salon, could rattle off reasons why the committee should be abolished: even in licentious New York, he would say, those who harass women sexually are arrested and treated harshly.

And state media could assume the first of the committee's duties, for scholars and muftis speak around the clock on TV and radio, guiding people in their religious duties.

These arguments seem logical, but to policy-makers the committee is concerned with guidance, enlightenment and da'wa, the spirit of which has endured since the first call 250 years ago.

The committee cannot be abolished; it is associated with the foundation of the country, stemming from Sheikh Al Alsheikh's grandfather's call for the virtuous to reform others.

A century ago young Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, used the language of Islam to address the desert Bedouins, who believed in the da' wa but were poorly educated. He brought in mutaween to teach them to perform prayers in mosques, collective spirit, and the virtues of jihad and death for Allah. They were taught that they were followers of true Islam while others, despite having mosques and sheikhs, were deviant. This helped them to fight the country's unification battles.

When jihad ended, the new state was born. Life became softer. With education, radio and newspapers, children learned new ideas. Coastal cities were the most problematic. People there, open to the world through the sea, tended to listen to music, smoke, deal ingenuously with non-believers and travel.

The mutaween became an official committee intended to ensure that everyone attended prayers. A mutawa would call out names to identify those absent from prayer. Then came investigations into each absence: illness or laziness? The task expanded to include tracking down smokers and people who listen to music.

The committee came to overlap with other state organs. Books and magazines cleared by the Ministry of Information would be confiscated by the committee, with no compensation to bookshops. The Ministry of Commerce and the Customs Authority levied an import duty on tobacco, but the Committee banned it.

Officials untangled these thorny issues, but there were no general rules dividing powers in such cases. Naturally, this was intentional. The committee is annoying but beneficial; even some citizens who file complaints against it are terrified at the idea of its absence.

The mutaween were once older men, walking the streets, calling people to prayer, telling them to turn down their radios or asking women to cover their faces. Now, with cities growing, the committee has vehicles with loudspeakers. Younger men started joining during the awakening after Juhayman Al Otaybi's 1979 capture of the Grand Mosque.

The Saudi state, blaming the Juhayman movement on the openness of the middle class and the educated, granted the committee more powers and more fear-inducing black vehicles (they're now white), more communications equipment and more jobs and money.

The committee started tracking down the corrupt "in their dens". It has indeed exposed pornography networks and liquor-sellers but has also invaded people's privacy. It has arrested married couples, and brothers picking up sisters from school. Some overzealous mutaween believe people are guilty until proven innocent.

All this flows from the old perception that preserving a virtuous society, according to traditional criteria, is vital: Saudis should be better than others, for they are the true Islam.

It is time to redefine "true Islam" according to more tolerant criteria. This must be done without damaging the fabric of the society. It will also accomplish the wish of King Abdullah who said: "The kingdom is part of the modern world and cannot dissociate itself from it."

Jamal Khashoggi is editor-in-chief of the planned Alarab news channel

On Twitter: @JKhashoggi