Celebrating Saudi Arabia’s National Day

In case you missed it, September 23 was Saudi Arabia’s National Day, the oil-driven nation’s 4th of July. Not surprisingly many people, proud of their country, took to the streets to celebrate. But what is good for the state is not necessarily seen as good for the faith, especially in the conservative Wahhabi/Salafi variety that weds tribal origin with a dogmatic theology. The tension between a strict form of Islamic practice and the diversity that instills cultural practices has always been a problem, perhaps even more so with the wealth economy that the current generation of Saudi youth has grown up in. In 1927 King Abdul Aziz established the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and The Prevention of Vice. In short this is known as the “religious police.” For those less familiar with Islamic doctrine, this relates back to the classic Quranic principle of al-amr bi- al-maʿruf wa-al-nahy ʿan al-munkar, generally translated as commanding right and and forbidding wrong. There is a long history about the use of this penchant phrase, analyzed in detail by Michael Cook in his Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a work of over 700 pages.

Abdullah Hamidaddin has written an interesting commentary on a recent tragedy on the Saudi National Day in which a car of religious police chased a vehicle that apparently was thought to contain two drunken men. In the chase the car careened off the road, killing the driver and his brother. The religious police fled the scene, but the chase was captured on a cell phone video. When the video was posted to social media, there was an outcry to rein in the zealous religious police. In this case it turned out the men had not been drinking.

What were these “thought police” thinking? I say “thought” rather than “religious” police, because the very nature of the committee leads to a kind of witchcraft mentality. First the zealous but state-sponsored forbidders of wrong assumed there was a wrong. Forget the legal principle of witnesses. In this case the forbidders thought it would be a good idea to chase a car they assumed was being driven by a drunken man. Then, when the car they were chasing crashed, off they rushed. Here is where one might ask, “What would Muhammad do?” I doubt that Muhammad would have chased such an individual in the first place, but I cannot imagine that the Prophet would not come to aid of a fellow Muslim, no matter what minor sin the man was suspected of.

The history of this committee suggests that commanding the good rather than persuading someone why something is good is a poor strategy in the long run. Similarly, forbidding the wrong becomes unwieldy when the meaning of what is “wrong” is stretched to just about anything that zealous people do not like. Take, for example, the wearing of Guy Fawkes masks. Due to the movie “V for Vendetta”, it appears that a number of young people were buying such masks to wear on the national day. The “thought police” confiscated the masks on the market. I find it ironic that there should be such concern over an English political terrorist from the 16th century when Saudi money has bankrolled many terrorist plots killing and maiming fellow Muslims in multiple countries. The mask is but a symbol, and one about which most wearers probably did not know the actual story, but a suicide vest is a lethal weapon. Which is more dangerous? Which is really wrong?

And if a Saudi citizen was thinking of singing or dancing (both practices that are common in the media) to celebrate the national day, here was this warning from the thought police:

Turki al-Shalil, a spokesman for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice religious police, said in a press statement on Monday that violators will face “disciplinary actions.”

The major problem with thought police, whether the Saudi variety or the Iranian variety that makes sure women’s hair is not exposed, is that it is a losing battle over time. Cultural practices, even those that are manufactured as historical when they are not, can never be frozen in time. Those zealots who think they are somehow recreating the time of the Prophet clearly do not have a clue of what life was really like in 7th century Mecca and Medina. It may be possible to check and stop behavior deemed irreligious when it is out in the open, but simply driving it underground (which is inevitable wherever thought police try to suppress what people say and do) is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. There is a profound truth in the Quranic (Al-Baqara, 256) verse that states “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Coercion is not genuine and it will only invite rebellion. The Quranic verse suggests that the truth is clear enough that an individual can decide for himself or herself.

I do not wish to add yet more commentary to the comprehensive study of the “commanding right, forbidding wrong” principle, except to note that persuasion is a much surer path than zealous snooping. The principle itself can be seen either as a defense mechanism for a fledgling community or as a general guide, but in either case there is a need to interpret exactly what is right and what is wrong. The Quran notes that it is wrong for a woman to go about and not cover up her “zayna”, but if a woman is seen in this state the proper response of a man given in the same text is not to lock her up in a cell and call her a slut, but to avert his eyes. I would expand the notion of no coercion in matters of religion to sexual arousal as well. A woman whose appearance is found to be sexually enticing by a man is not an open invitation to force her to have sex any more than a Christian or a Jew (in Quranic terms) should be forced to be a Muslim.

A final thought about thought police. It is better to stop assuming and judging what others are thinking, as though anyone has the same knowledge of a person’s worth as Allah does, and focus on persuasion rather than a rush to punishment. Two young Saudi men are dead because some zealots thought chasing a driver they could only assume was drunk over-reacted. Even if they were drinking, death is not the proper punishment even by strict Wahhabi terms. Think about that.

Daniel Martin Varisco