The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia

The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia

by Andrew Hammond


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745332697
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 11/13/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Andrew Hammond is a senior correspondent for a global news agency, currently based in Dubai. He is the author of What The Arabs Think of America (2008) and Popular Culture in the Arab World (2007), and was the agency bureau chief in Saudi Arabia for several years.

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The Religious Society

It was early evening in May 2007 when 28-year-old Salman al-Huraisy was sitting with relatives and friends enjoying homemade alcohol in his mudbrick home in the poor Uraija district of Riyadh. Suddenly they found themselves besieged as some 30 members of the vice squad – a force of religious zealouts called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – stormed their home from all sides. The mutawwa'een, or the 'volunteers', as they are commonly referred to, were coming through the front door, jumping down into the back yard from the roof and the walls and climbing through the windows. They began beating the group with sticks then dragged twelve of them off to a nearby office of the Commission. The beatings continued, but it was Salman, 28 at the time, whom they accused of selling alcohol and drugs, who attracted their wrath. He was beaten to death over two hours in front of his family's eyes.

I managed to arrange a meeting with the family in Riyadh several weeks after the tragedy. What they described was abuse of an underclass that is easy prey to God's warriors on the streets of Saudi Arabia. Uraija is a district with a reputation for being a den of poverty and crime. There are many like this in Riyadh and Jeddah where the various layers of Saudi Arabia's underclass huddle together: pilgrim overstayers and other migrant labour, non-tribal Saudis referred to as khudeiri who have trouble obtaining passports or getting full access to health, education and other benefits accorded to 'pure-bred' Saudis and the dark-skinned Saudis of African origin who were officially emancipated from slavery in the 1960s. Deprived from enjoying the fruits of petrodollar wealth dispensed by the ruling family, many have turned to crime. Drugs and prostitution are rife in some districts of Jeddah, in particular, where police sometimes fear to tread.

The family talked of the hysteria of the army of zealots when they descended upon their home. I met the family in Riyadh several weeks after the tragedy. 'They called him black, "You black, you slave!" But we're not living in the age of slavery any more, slavery ended. These are people who I don't think have much awareness and they should not represent this body', said Ali, one of Salman's seven brothers. 'They arrested, insulted, and then they gave their verdict about the person and implemented it. That's the result, that someone died.' Khaled al-Kaabi, a family friend who was also there, described their attackers' state of frenzy. 'They got into the house from the roofs of neighbours' houses, forced the door open and then handcuffed us all together. They were beating with sticks, and legs and fists, and stamping on us. They were in a frenzied state, hitting randomly, but mostly they were hitting Salman', he said. 'They said, "You're mukhannatheen ['homosexuals'], you're slaves, this is your level." They called us fasaqa ['depraved'], fussaq al-ard ['the depraved of the earth'], kuffar ['infidels'] – insulting stuff that you shouldn't say.' His father described the state of the body when it was finally released to the family for burial: 'He was so badly beaten it was hard for us to recognise him. There was a crack in his skull, his right eye was popped out, his jaw was broken, and there was another opening in his belly. His mother could not absorb the entire thing and she fainted in the washroom ... I feel disturbed by what they did. They have no conscience, otherwise they wouldn't have done this. They could just have knocked on our door and asked me to hand anyone over.'

The family raised legal action, leading to the first ever trial of Commission individuals. An autopsy report established severe head injuries as the cause of death, but still the two men charged in the murder walked free because the Sharia court judge said murder was a premeditated crime that in this case evidenced no sign of intent on the part of the mutawwa'een since the means used to cause violence to the victim – hands and various forms of stick or baton – are not lethal. The Commission defended itself, saying some of those involved in the raid were not proper members on its payroll. 'The verdict was based on the jurisprudential argument that [a blow to] the head cannot cause death and that the hand is not an instrument that can cause death, therefore it cannot be premeditated murder', lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem reported. Such is the Saudi justice system, however, that no charges of manslaughter or even accidental killing were pressed against the men. The judge simply considered that in beating Huraisy up these defenders of the faith had no intention to kill him, therefore they were not legally culpable or responsible for his death. 'They say it was an unintended mistake – does an unintended mistake lead to someone's death? They didn't just incapacitate someone, they crushed a life', Ali says.

What struck me was how sanguine and composed the family were about such a tragic and senseless experience. 'If alcohol was the reason for coming and it was done in a legal manner, we wouldn't have a problem. The problem is the way they behaved. There were violations – the biggest one being beating someone to death', Ali said. 'I know my brother drinks alcohol. I can't deny it. But they say he promoted it and there's a difference between consuming and promoting. We don't object to the system, which is above everyone, and everyone must behave according to the system. But while the system has its obligations from us, it also guarantees us rights.' The religious police were implicated in the deaths of several others in 2007 and the subject of heavy criticism of liberals in the press who would love to get rid of it. It has been drummed into generations of Saudis in the central part of the country where the body has its historical origin that the religious police are their protection force from sin: the saying goes, 'Let there be a mutawwa' between you and God!' The state also employs the force as a key element in its social policing and its rhetoric allots it a lofty place in the structure of the Sharia state. For these reasons ordinary Saudis tend not to engage in easy abuse of the Commission. So Ali chose his words carefully, focusing on the language of rights that in practice doesn't work with people who see themselves doing God's work in a system they believe is God's model for human society. Its members should at the very least carry identification cards with them, Ali said: 'There should be regulation of their actions and appropriate guidelines, and they should deal with people on the basis of equality. It's a respected institution that serves society and helps people to do what's right. But the problem is individuals and I hope they are a minority – I'm sure they are a minority.'

The exhortations of the priestly class to adhere to Wahhabi orthopraxy dominate public space in Saudi Arabia. In the cities, large electronic billboards look down upon motorists, urging the faithful to remember God amidst advertisements for luxury cars, takeaway food and holiday destinations. Mosques number in the tens of thousands, since any room in any given building may be given over to daily worship with nothing more than a few carpets or rugs on the ground and space in front for a prayer leader, or imam, to stand. Loudspeakers broadcast the call to prayer to every corner of lived urban space, as they do in other Muslim countries. Imams have been known to use laptops to read their sermons. The various channels of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab news and entertainment network MBC carry ads that call on the modern young Gulf Muslim to perform his daily prayers. At every turn, technology is mobilised to maximise the reach of Saudi Arabia's religious orthodoxy. 'The modernizing – that is Westernizing – wealth has not led to Westernization of social structures and values. In fact, in some cases modern technologies such as closed circuit TVs, computer technologies, and telephones, enforce an already predominantly gender-segregated society, where men can communicate via various channels without actual human contact', one study of opposition movements that evolved in Saudi society in the 1990s observed. The trend has continued, inexorably. Satellite television, the DVD, talkback radio, mobile phones, the internet, the webcam, blogs and chatrooms have all presented, each in their own way, a challenge of some nature or another to the imposing structure of morality constructed by and maintained by the Wahhabi clerics, who are at home with the putative postcolonial dichotomy thrown up between tradition/modernity because they are able to moderate it, and ensure their position.

More than just a reminder and an exhortation to remember Islam, religion in Saudi Arabia is a set of institutions which function in coordination to maintain moral order and social control. The religious police are only one element in this array of bodies that form the Wahhabi religious establishment – thousands of religious scholars who have studied at education institutions such as the Imam University in Riyadh. The clerics man the morality police, thousands of mosques, the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice, much of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education, and a host of bodies such as the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, charity organisations, and others. The religious police, or mutawwa'een (sometimes more ominously known simply as al-hay'a, 'the Commission'), drive around the streets with megaphones, exhorting men to pray during prayer times. They trawl the ubiquitous shopping malls to make sure shops stay shut at prayer time and check that men keep their distance from unrelated women. Their remit to interfere is extensive and, with the backing of the interior ministry, has increased with the development of the modern Saudi state. Abdulaziz set the body up the in 1902 immediately after his forces took Riyadh. His mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullatif Al al-Sheikh was tasked with gathering a volunteer force to maintain public morality, and the body was extended in time to all the Najd and the Eastern Province and furnished with its own administration. A separate body dealt with the Hejaz cities until 1976 when King Khaled unified them and raised the Commission's director to the level of cabinet minister. Abdulaziz defined its functions in 1925 as ensuring men prayed the five prescribed prayers and closed their shops, encouraging people to acquire more knowledge about Islam and to pay Islamic alms, and keeping people away from 'usury, cheating and injustice'. In 1980, following an attempt by disaffected Wahhabi activists to stir a revolt against Al Saud by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Commission was given the green light to step up its monitoring of society; the Basic Law promulgated by King Fahd in 1992 referred to the work of the Commission in its list of the state's basic duties (which also included 'call people to God'). A cabinet regulation subsequently formalised the body as an apparatus of social control complementing the policing functions of the interior ministry, though it answers directly to the king and its director is an official of state at the level of minister. Eager to prove its worth, the Commission boasts on its website that it handles over 300,000 cases a year, which can involve anything from alcohol, to being together with an unrelated woman, to 'sorcery' (an anti-sorcery unit was established in 2009; the punishment can be death).

Today, clerics are a constant presence on television, both state and private. They offer legal opinions and advice to the faithful on how to live the a proper Muslim life, in accordance with the Quran and the Sunna, or example of the Prophet Mohammad, codified in the schools of Islamic Sharia law and administered since then by the clerics who preside as judges in Sharia courts. The Islam of the clerics is highly legalistic, concerning itself with orthopraxy and the minutiae of daily life. They will be on hand during Ramadan to advise on the rules over the month of fasting. The faithful will enquire whether it is acceptable to swallow saliva during daylight hours, or whether the clerics prescribe performing special evening prayers called witr, an open-ended prayer time after the fifth Maghreb prayer. 'The witr prayers bring blessings from God, and the Prophet said they can be done any time between the evening and dawn prayer', Sheikh Saad bin Nasir al-Shathri explained to a caller. But he said only one of the four schools of Sunni Islamic law deems witr obligatory and it is not the one followed in Saudi Arabia. The injunctions of clerics form the backdrop to every life; Saudis and Arabic-speaking Muslim residents may not follow every clerical ruling, and Saudis will pick and choose among them to find the sheikh that appeals to them the most, but the clerics are in essence an extension of the Sharia law they both safeguard and embody. Since Muslims gather around the television in the evening after breaking their fast at sunset, Ramadan is a key time for advertisers to win lucrative consumer spending. 'Brands use messages that portray them as reminding people that "this is what you should do", that this is the month of faith', a Lebanese advertising executive in Riyadh says. The state-run Saudi Telecom, for example, airs ads instructing Saudis how to be better Muslims during the holy month and encourages viewers to send text messages of prayers to mark the two major religious festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Malaysia's Proton car is touted to Saudis as 'the number one Islamic car in the market'.

While some Saudi scholars such as Salman al-Odah have spread their influence through television – televangelism has been a noted phenomenon throughout the Arab region since the 1970s – others have used literature. The publishers of popular cleric Ayedh al-Qarni's La Tahzan (Don't Be Sad) claim to have sold over 2 million copies. A self-help guide for the believer, it offers close-up details on how to live a happy life of faith. They should steer clear of romance and forbidden love, thank God after drinking cold water and clean their teeth with the miswak plant; they should avoid too much sleep, too much laughter and gaining weight; they should take the family out for a trip at least once a week but not clutter the desk with papers; they should avoid the poison of books by atheists. Sadness, Qarni says, is not something Sharia wants for you. Though life will come with some sadness, it will disappear in paradise; the Prophet's companions were happy because they knew him and his message; the duties of faith will keep the believer too busy to indulge in a deeper sadness. Depression is the lot of unbelievers. '... how sad life is without faith; what eternal curse afflicts those who are outside God's path on earth ... After the experience of centuries, the intellect has concluded that idols are superstition, infidelity is a curse and atheism is a lie; that the prophets were true and God is the truth ... with power over all.'

Modern media has revolutionised the access that clerics have to the public, so that Saudis can find the view of their favourite sheikh on thousands of websites, as well as through television, radio and newspapers. The question of whose fatwas (clerical opinions) to listen to is a crucial one throughout the Muslim world. Modern Arab states have sought to control the clerical opinions flowing to the people through appointing a leading fatwa-giver, or state mufti. In Egypt there is a state-appointed fatwa-giver (the Grand Mufti), who heads a body of clerics involved in that task, as well as the nominally independent religious seminary and university Al-Azhar, an institution which Nasser essentially nationalised in 1961 by decreeing that its rector would be a presidential appointee. In Saudi Arabia a king-appointed mufti heads the Council of Senior Religious Scholars. In 2007 the mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh launched his own website, The mufti inevitably offers opinions that suit the policies of the rulers, and this has created much tension in the modern state. Television, in particular, has had an enormous impact on Saudis. State television, although it is trying to be more open (employing women broadcasters post-9/11) devotes considerable space to the ulama. Satellite television has seen a plethora of religious channels spring up in recent years to counter the sweeping influence of Arabic music video channels and other entertainment coming from Lebanon and Egypt via Saudi-owned pan-Arab channels. 'Before, anyone who wanted a fatwa would find a sheikh in a mosque. Now he watches the satellite channels', says Hassan al-Buluwi, a former manager of Saudi religious channel al-Majd. 'With a mosque sheikh, the fatwa was limited to no more than 500 people. On satellite television it reaches millions.' Clerics are looking to maximise their reach and impact through whatever means they can, be it television, internet or the mosque. King Abdullah made a belated attempt to control the fatwa market with a ruling in 2010 specifying only the clerics of the senior clerical body as those qualified to issue such religious opinions. The situation reminded me of an Egyptian music executive who once commented that music is such an obsession in the Arab world that it is virtually 'coming out of the taps': in Saudi Arabia, it is religion that flows like tap water.


Excerpted from "The Islamic Utopia"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Andrew Hammond.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1: The Religious Society
2: Government in the Sharia state
3: The Warrior King and His Priests
4: Segregated nation
5: The Illusion of Reform
6: Foreign Policy Adventurism: Iran and Palestine
7: The Saudi Cordon Sanitaire in Arab Media
8: Controlling Mecca: In the House of God

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