Long-bearded and short-robed, the men of the matawain prowl the shopping centers, restaurants and public parks of Saudi Arabia in search of sin.
At the modern Akariah mall, they chastise and wave camel whips at a black-cloaked Saudi woman whose face is exposed. Across town, they shave the head of a Filipino chauffeur because his hair is too long. Outside the Saudi capital, they insist on the arrest of three Australian nurses for allegedly drinking alcohol, holding them for four days in a crowded prison crawling with rats.
Such is the work of the matawain, or “religious police,” the guardians of public morality in Saudi Arabia. They are the powerful, dreaded enforcers of religious law and social custom based on a puritanical form of Islam that is observed here.
Officially known as the Committee for the Commendation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, they are the most visible symbol of Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist religious foundation--and the cultural icon that outsiders find most jarring to watch and most difficult to understand.
“The matawain . . . serve as a safeguard that is sure to prevent deterioration and protect society from corruption,” said Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Said, the recently appointed director of the virtue and vice committee.
“We firmly believe that ours is the true religion and therefore we must always endeavor to uphold its pillars.”
For the matawain , an institution that traces its roots to the days of the caliphs and is a cornerstone in a Koran- based legal system, these are complex times.
First they had to cope with the presence of half a million American and European non-Muslim troops sent to Saudi Arabia to fight the Persian Gulf War.
Then, they were frustrated by orders not to harass American women soldiers who violated local customs by driving cars and exposing their elbows. Their frustration was often vented on Saudis.
And now, questions are being raised in high places about the purportedly abusive practices of some of the matawain . Their new leader, a highly regarded theologian appointed late last year by King Fahd, is speaking out about adjusting a few things.
Said suggested shaping the organization into a more professional morals squad committed to teaching by example, not by harassment. Many of the more heavy-handed tactics, it is argued, are the work of vigilante, self-proclaimed matawain that officials cannot control.
“The promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice is the duty of every capable Muslim who knows right and wrong, good and bad,” Said said in an interview with the daily newspaper Al Riyadh.
“It can never become meddling in the affairs of others, as long as the matawain act responsibly and do not exceed their authority, which is what is required of them at all times.”
Because the king’s very legitimacy is so wrapped in the mantle of religion, it is unlikely that he could act very forcefully to curb the matawain’s activities, say Saudi and foreign analysts.
Nevertheless, observing how Fahd deals with them, how he reins them in on some issues but relents on others, is a study in the way the king carefully manipulates diverse factions and interests in Saudi Arabia--always with the single goal of retaining power and preserving the kingdom’s placid stability.
The alliance between the ruling House of Saud and the religious right wing dates back centuries. In the 1700s, the Abd al Wahhab tribe, founders of a purist interpretation of Islam, joined forces with the prominent Saud family. Together, they fought to spread their religion and their influence over the nomads of the Arabian Peninsula, eventually conquering the sites of Islam’s holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina, and establishing what is today the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In the 1920s, during the infancy of the kingdom, the matawain served as missionaries for founding King Ibn Saud. They promoted the Muslim way of life among Bedouin tribesmen and evolved into a corps of paid civil servants who enforced the strict tenets of Wahhabism, especially against the corrupting influence of modernization and the West.
Today, with a hefty government budget, the matawain are as active as ever.
Moving from place to place in white four-wheel-drive vehicles, the religious police are recognizable by their distinctive dress: They wear the same white thobe that all Saudi men do, but theirs is shorter, reaching about mid-calf. They wear the red-and-white checkered head cloth, but without the circular black band that other Saudi men use to keep it in place.
Many carry camel whips, which they sometimes use to thrash the man or woman who is caught breaking a law. Others merely counsel or verbally admonish the violator. They often patrol their turf in the company of a uniformed police officer for added authority; they can recommend, but not carry out, arrests.
The matawain are thought to number about 50,000, with their ranks swelled in the last few years by younger, better-educated fundamentalists trained at the Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University.
Their duties include making sure businesses close for prayer time, that women are properly covered and that men and women who are not married or related do not associate in public.
“They do some very good things for society, like stopping drug abuse,” said Sultan, a government computer analyst whose comments echoed the mixed emotions many Saudis have regarding the matawain . “But they’ve done some bad things for religion. They teach Islam by force, and that is not Islam.”
Some Saudis say the matawain perform a needed task, ridding the streets of crime and making Saudi cities among the safest in the world. Even the Saudis for whom the West is a giant playground want to come home to an outwardly pious homeland. The more dramatic matawain exploits are isolated incidents committed by an overzealous handful of “free-lancers,” say defenders of the system.
Others--afraid or unwilling to challenge the religious establishment--find the morals police a nuisance that must be accepted.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait last Aug. 2, and as allied troops poured into the desert kingdom, contact between the matawain and American soldiers and journalists gave rise to an entire body of folklore. Everybody had a matawain story, and some took on mythic proportions.
Once in Riyadh and again in Jidda, men purporting to be matawain scaled the walls of two separate homes where private parties were being held and alcohol allegedly served. Both affairs were hosted by foreigners, with businessmen and diplomats in attendance, and some of the guests were reportedly roughed up. In one case, a member of King Fahd’s entourage was reportedly caught in the raid.
After fundamentalists labeled as prostitutes a group of Saudi women who drove automobiles in a demonstration for greater rights, the king briefly jailed some of the most vocal conservatives and ordered the matawain to keep a low profile. At the same time, he appointed Said to fill a vacancy at the helm of the matawain .
No one in the religious world could challenge Said’s credentials, and his authority would likely be respected because many of the younger fundamentalists had been his students at the Islamic University.
In the months that followed his appointment, Said went on Saudi television and into the press to promise that his agents would not violate the sanctity of Saudi homes “on mere suspicion.”
The challenges posed by the matawain mirror the transformation that the fundamentalist community has undergone.
Since 1979, when Islamic fundamentalists seized power in Iran, King Fahd and the Saudi royal family have kept a wary eye on the newer generation of activist true-believers who are filling mosques and law schools throughout the Mideast.
It is when religion is used as a platform for politics that Saudi rulers are most likely to act. Some officials are concerned that young radicals could attach themselves to the matawain, capturing an organ of the state for their own purposes.
“They (religious fundamentalists) have a long social agenda that they’ve been working through,” said a member of the Royal Family who also holds a leading government position. “The concern is that in 10 years, when they succeed with their social agenda, they’ll jump over to a political agenda.”
Conservative religious factions are both the backbone of the king’s power and the greatest potential challenge to it.
The younger faithful “are trying to teach society how to reject change. Their target is not the government. Their target is society,” said Fahd A. Semmari, a historian at the Islamic University.
“The government lets them speak out about their views,” he added. "(But) if he (the fundamentalist) goes beyond the line, he will be stopped. He is still (made to function) inside the system.”
Most significant to the king’s mind may be the resentment building among Saudis and other Arabs who seemed to be feeling the brunt of matawain wrath. Reform of the religious police was one of 10 demands made in a recent letter addressed to the king by 43 businessmen and intellectuals.
One evening early this month on the second floor of the Akariah shopping mall, a Saudi woman dressed from head to toe in a traditional black abaya, or cloak, was surrounded by three matawain who waved their arms and scolded her “shame.”
“If you cannot be modest you should return to your home,” one shouted at her, apparently because her face was not covered. A second matawah beat his camel whip against the hard floor, as other shoppers scurried away, nervously pulling their veils tighter
“I am Saudi,” she shouted back. “I know what to do. I know how to cover myself.”
As the staccato clicking of the whip reached a crescendo, the woman defiantly continued to shop. An enraged matawah stormed from store to store, ordering the proprietors not to do business with the woman.