Saudi religious police caught between hate and adulation

A station of the religious police in Saudi Arabia was stormed by a group of people angered by the detention of one of their relatives by the official enforcers of Islamic behaviour and morality in the kingdom, according to local media. 

Several members of the religious police, known as haiya, suffered injuries in the attack, which happened in the capital Riyadh. A regular police patrol came to the rescue of the haiya men, arresting a number of the suspected assailants.

Saudi religious police being schooled. [Insta Blogs] 

Saudi religious police being schooled. [Insta Blogs] 

The incident highlights hostile sentiment among a section of Saudi society towards the haiya’s role, which has excited more and more controversy over the last years. The incident is symptomatic of a growing assertiveness among Saudis who question the basic tenets of life in the country, especially the central role of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi doctrine with the haiya as one of its icons.

Epitomizing this trend is Raif Badawi, a Saudi activist  who was arrested in June 2012 after criticizing the country’s clerics on his Saudi Arabian Liberals website. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. 

Since the 1940s, when the haiya was established, Saudi Arabia has experienced dramatic changes, giving it access to all the material trappings of modernity. An emerging generation of Saudis is subject to a host of new influences, from the internet to youth-led Arab uprisings, yet trapped in traditional tribal structures and norms of a strict religious ideology.

The Saudi capital Riyadh. 

The Saudi capital Riyadh. 

From this friction between tradition and modernity three main types of Saudis have emerged. The first are liberals like Badawi opposed to the haiya; the second are traditionalists defending the religious police’s role in upholding their version of morality and the third are militants who are even more conservative than the haiya. The three types, with their largely incompatible views, are equally vociferous on social networking sites. Of course many Saudis, those who are less vocal, do not fit into these easy categories.

Reactions to the attack on Twitter reflected this friction.

The Arabic hashtag #anattackonthehaiyainriyadh has drawn mixed comments.

Al-Saki, with 13,000 followers on Twitter, slammed the haiya, dismissing it as “a small party that targets people in the name of the promotion of virtue but still gets a lot of sympathy”.

Jameel Otaibi, with 31,000 followers on Twitter, is among voices calling for the scrapping of the haiya. In a string of tweets, he displays his clear antagonism towards its members. Supporters of the haiya say he deleted a tweet in which he openly called for people to carry arms to deter haiya members. 

"The bullies [haiya members] are the ones who attacked and today they refused to appear before the prosecution," Otaibi wrote.   

Dr Salman, who identifies himself on Twitter as a Saudi thinker, [@AHaoi] wrote “what do you expect of a nosy group who checks what cloak your wife wears, your son’s hair and your good looks and even the henna on your grandma’s hands.”

Saudi journalist Qenan al-Ghamdi with over 43,000 followers accused Haiya members of having a “Daesh mindset”—Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

“Daesh is nested in every home and in most minds and souls and the state and decision makers did not give this matter the attention it deserves. Most haiya members have a Daesh mindset,” Al-Ghamdi wrote.

Roya al-Ghamdi, [@Greeneys_99] with 78,000 followers, wrote “in response to attacks [committed by haiya members] protected by religious immunity, there will be more and more attacks in retaliation; violence begets violence; we reap what we sow.”

But the haiya seems to draw as much sympathy as criticism.

FawazALGhamdi, with nearly 13,000 followers, wrote “incitement to kill army personnel is equivalent to incitement to attack  haiya members—they are both official bodies.”

Musaid Bin Hamad al-Kathiri, with 21,000 followers, wrote in defence of the haiya “an indisputable fact: our liberals have an issue, not with the haiya, but with the religious notion of the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.”

Khalid Ibn Aber al-Anzi designated graphically as enemies of the haiya “debauched people”, “sorcerers”, communists represented by the flag of the former Soviet Union, Iran represented by its flag, singers and performing artists and [Arab] “satellite channels”.

A Twitter user with 283,000 followers, who satirises Saudi liberals under the name AboShalagh al-Liberali [@AboShlah5Libraly] urged people to report to the police “anyone who supports or justifies attacks on any official authority”.

A song dedicated to haiya members offered support but advised them “not to scare” people. The song made the round on Twitter with its title “O Haiya member don’t be scary” used as a hashtag.