Thursday, October 4, 2012

Saudis to Rein In Religious Police

For awhile now I've been covering the sometimes deadly antics of Saudi Arabia's anti-witchcraft squad, the so-called Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. At first some of the stories were amusing, but they rapidly devolved into classic witch persecutions similar to those going on in parts of Africa and Asia. In Saudi Arabia they were all the more terrifying because they carried the government's stamp of approval. It seems, though, that even the Saudis are becoming fed up with this out-of-control organization. The committee's new chief has pledged to limit some of the civil liberties abuses for which the group is well-known around the world.

“The new system will set a mechanism for the field work of the committee’s men which hands over some of their specialisations to other state bodies, such as arrests and interrogations,” Al-Hayat daily quoted religious police chief Sheikh Abdullatiff Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh as saying. Agents of the body known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will also be banned from carrying out “searches without prior approval from the governor,” he said.

Okaz daily also reported that the religious police agents will be prohibited from “standing at the entrances of shopping malls to prevent the entry of any person,” referring to attempts by agents to ban women who do not comply with the Islamic dress code and unmarried couples from entering malls. Relatively moderate Sheikh, appointed in January as the new chief of the religious police, has raised hopes that a more lenient force will ease draconian social constraints in the Islamic country.

While the article makes no mention of witchcraft prosecutions, I'm hoping that these new policies also mean that people will be freer to practice alternative religious beliefs without fear of arrest and possible execution. Saudi Arabia so far has a pretty dismal record in that department. I would certainly expect that the limitations on searches and so forth will make such cases more difficult to pursue, and hopefully that means we'll be seeing a lot fewer of them. Of course, even one instance of religious persecution is still one too many, and in that regard the anti-witchcraft squad has a long way to go.

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