IF one were to read Joy C Raphael’s book Mutawas – Saudi Arabia’s Dreaded Religious Police without reading his introduction, one would take it as horror fiction. A kind of horror in which a man can be beaten nearly to death for making use of the public facilities near a mosque, only because he was a non-Muslim.
The list of don’ts is so long that it is even difficult to comprehend what life is for the people who live in Saudi Arabia and the millions of Indians who go there for their livelihood. Joy Raphael says he lived in that country for 14 years, working as journalist, in constant fear and prayed all the time that he be not the next victim of the mutawas. He described them: “Identifying the mutawas is easy. They dress in ankle-length white robes and chequred or pure white head-dresses without the circular black bands, which most Saudis wear. They wear leather sandals and sport long, untrimmed and uncombed beards.”
According to the author, the mutawas can enter any premises at anytime and search and take away people. He narrates the story of two Keralites, who were living in bachelor quarters. One of them, Murali, back from work cooked food and was watching a Malayalam movie, waiting for his friend to turn up. There was a knock on the door. When he opened it, he found two burly men, who pushed him aside to enter the flat. One of them squeezed Murali’s private part (to check if he had been aroused) and the other went to the TV to check the content of the film. They demanded to see the rest of the cassettes in his possession. As they were about to leave, as they found nothing ‘incriminating’ his friend Mohan came home. He had a video cassette in his hand. The mutawa men loaded it and to the misfortune of Murali and Mohan it turned out to be a blue film. They were kicked in the groin and thrashed all over and left with a warning.
In yet another bizarre case, an Australian couple was taking a stroll in the market in Riyadh. The woman was covered up to her ankle with abaya, (the cloth that envelops the whole body) and had a veil on her head. A breeze blew her abaya slightly and her legs were revealed below shin. Two men appeared from nowhere and threatened her for immodesty. When the husband protested, he was beaten up. Though the embassy intervened and a case was filed, for lack of identification nothing was done.
Not that identifying the culprits would have led to any good. The mutawas are protected by the state and they come under the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. They claim to be the followers of an extreme Islamist Abdul Wahab, or Wahabism. People are segregated as Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslims’ residence permit is printed in green while that of the non-Muslims are printed in brown. The author asks: There was an outcry when the Taliban asked the non-Muslims to wear a yellow band to distinguish them, but why is not anyone making any noise about this practice in Saudi Arabia?
Their activities are not targeted only at the expatriates. According to Joy, any couple seen in public would have to produce proof of their marriage, or else, they are liable to be picked up. He narrates the incident involving a Saudi couple. The woman was seven months pregnant and wanted to take a walk in the night. Her husband brought her to the city square and as the breeze was blowing, the woman lifted her veil from the face. Two men accosted them and asked them if they were husband and wife. When the man answered in the positive, he was asked for the marriage certificate. He had forgotten to bring it along. The couple were loaded into the SUV in which these mutawas travel and taken to the headquarters. They were kept in separate rooms and asked to answer questions like what is the colour of the paint in your room, the colour of the cushion in the sofas etc. After they were more or less certain that they were indeed married, the man was allowed to call his relatives, who had to bring the marriage proof to secure their release.
There are stories after stories, each more spine chilling than the other on the atrocities perpetrated by the mutawas in the name of religion. Tonsuring the head is one of the first things they do. They also take up thug’s jobs for sufficient money.
The book is a must read for all those who are going to Saudi Arabia because they had better be forewarned and for those not going also, because they can then savour the freedom and fearlessness we enjoy. It is an eye-opener book. One must thank Joy for writing this book, must be first time anyone has dared. It is only surprising that America, the greatest friend of the Saudis turns a blind eye. In fact, according to Joy, in October 1999, it issued an unofficial circular to all Americans, including soldiers in Saudi Arabia to follow the dictates of the religious police. Joy writes, “They are the bane of all expatriates in Saudi Arabia but you need to be doubly careful if you are a Hindu, a Sikh or a Christian. In which case, they will use every opportunity to coerce, cajole and bribe you to convert to their faith.” What a tragedy of a society!
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