RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The news startled many Saudis.
Abdul Aziz Al-Humain, president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — known unfondly here as the religious police — apologized to a young man for an altercation with commission agents who accosted him after alleging that he’d kissed his wife in public.
Al Humain also removed the commission’s spokesman for publicizing the charges, which the 27-year-old man heatedly disputed, and for releasing the alleged offender’s name to the press.
Many Saudis, unaccustomed to the commission admitting mistakes, were pleased. The mid-March episode carried a clear message: Saudi society is changing, so the commission has to change too.
“This signals a new era because in the past [the commission’s behavior] would have been OK,” said Al Riyadh newspaper reporter Khaled al Awfi, who covered the incident. “But now under Al Humain’s lead, this was considered unacceptable.”
The kingdom is feeling the pull of two social tectonic plates slowly grinding past each other. One is comprised of Saudis who want to create a more open, modern society. The other is made up of those who want it to stay the same and reject anything even remotely associated with foreign behavior.
The commission is the vanguard of the latter group. Long a fixture here, its agents are feared and disliked by many Saudis for interfering in people’s lives on the pretext of upholding Muslim values and virtue.
Easily recognized by their long beards and calf-length robes, they monitor public places to make sure unrelated men and women do not mix and that stores close during prayer times. They also seek to enforce the puritanical ethos of Saudi Arabia’s predominant Wahhabi version of Islam, which frowns on movies, singing, dancing and uncovered women’s faces.
In recent years, the commission’s authority has increasingly been questioned not simply because of the inconveniences they impose on the public, but also because of incidents in which Saudis lost their lives while in custody of the religious police or fleeing them.
In 2002, they were widely blamed for contributing to the deaths of more than a dozen girls when they impeded the entry of firefighters to the burning girls’ school.
In another tragic case a year ago, two boys and two girls were killed when their speeding car crashed in Medina. The foursome, apparently fearful of being caught violating the ban on mixing, were trying to escape commission agents.
“People are changing,” said Saudi journalist Najah Al Osaimi. “They used to believe in what the [commission was] doing. But now they lost their credibility. Now, we use our brains.”
Apparently hoping to defuse growing public anger, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz replaced the former commission president with Al Humain during a cabinet reshuffle in February.
Those who favor reducing the commission’s authority or giving it new duties — like running campaigns against illegal drug use — were heartened by the king’s move and by a trend of loosening the gender segregation that has impeded cultural events in the past.
For the first time, this year’s national celebration of Saudi culture, the Janadriya Festival, had family days, which meant that Saudi husbands and wives could attend the event together.
Women also had much easier access this year to the Riyadh International Book Fair, where they ambled from booth to booth amid throngs of other human beings who happened to be male.
At a Riyadh conference on child abuse, men and women sat on different sides of the auditorium, without a screen separating them. And a princess who addressed the conference covered her hair but not her face.
Then, in a country that has no movie theaters, the government held its first film festival last year in Dammam. People of both genders attended, but sat in different halls.
In December, a Saudi-made comedy was screened several times over a week in Jeddah. Male viewers sat separately from the women, who were in the balcony. But everyone was in the same auditorium. Popcorn was sold.
All this has encouraged people to increasingly challenge what they view as unreasonable demands by the commission. The Saudi Gazette recently reported that Saudi taxi drivers in the southern town of Taif have threatened to take the commission to court for harassing them when they drive female students to school.
And some members of Shoura Council, an advisory body, recently criticized the behavior of some commission agents, in particular for rummaging through people’s cellphones. They called for the organization to be restructured.
The commission and their powerful clerical supporters are fighting back.
In January, several agents rushed into a hall at Riyadh’s Yamamah University where representatives of 35 British universities were talking to prospective Saudi students. The agents ordered the British women reps to leave.
At the Riyadh book fair, one commission agent reprimanded two male authors after they said "thank you" and waved at a female author when she signed her book for them.
“His conclusion was that saying ‘thank you,’ which everyone in the world says, became forbidden in the law of the commission,” said one of the male authors, Abdullah Al Thabet, as he recounted the incident. “This is not in Islam at all. The Prophet [Muhammed) used to say ‘Hi’ to ladies and shake hands with them.”
And commission agents recently entered Riyadh shops selling abayas, the long flowing black robes all women must wear in public, to confiscate all the garments sporting sequins or color.
Last month, 35 ultra-conservative clerics publicly demanded an end to music on television and a ban on women appearing on television and in newspapers.
"We have noticed how well-rooted perversity is in ... television, radio, press, culture clubs and the book fair," the clerics stated, according to The Associated Press. "No Saudi women should appear on TV, no matter what the reason."
Despite its recent public relations setbacks, the commission is not about to disappear. Many Saudis still regard it as an essential element of a true Islamic society, and approve of much of what it does. One need only read the comments to a recent story about its actions to see that support.
The group’s new spokesman has promised a gentler, kinder commission, saying it will not tarnish people’s reputations as it enforces rules for society. “We appreciate the attention of the media, and we see it as an incentive for us to evaluate and improve our work,” said spokesman Abdulmuhsin Al-Qaffari.
“We care about improving our image,” he added. “But we care even more about improving the reality of what we do, and for this development steps will be taken soon.”
For more dispatches on the changing face of Saudi society: