Saudi Arabia: Religious Police Bring Mobile Mosques to World Cup Cafes

Now at a World Cup game near you, in Saudi Arabia: "mobile mosques," courtesy of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Their agents, known commonly as the religious police, have been rolling out prayer rugs on cafe sidewalks, oriented toward Mecca.

The "mobile mosques" are specially-designed trucks, equipped with faucets for ritual washing and microphones mounted for the preaching imams.

The World Cup has been so popular -- in Islam as in other parts of the world -- that the commission has had to innovate. With the obligatory sunset prayer coming right at game time, they bring prayers to throngs of soccer fans who would rather watch a match than go to a mosque.

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Analysts say the trucks show a sharp change -- and a lighter touch -- for Saudi Arabia's religious police, an ultra-strict corps infamous for harassing women and flogging those accused of immoral behavior.

Over the past ten years, as reform has slowly rolled through the conservative country, the powers of the religious police have largely been curbed -- most notably, they can no longer make arrests without the presence of a civil officer. The "mobile mosques" are a sign the religious police are operating under the new norms.

"[They] are trying to adjust to the new realities, and finding creative ways so that they don't miss the train," said Dr. May Al Dabbagh, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Dubai School of Government.

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"The debate about the role of the religious police has changed. The diversity of opinions about what they ought to do or ought not to do, what kind of privileges they should have has reached the highest levels, from the Shura Council to the Internet chat room. It's definitely a good thing."

New Rules of Engagement

On one side of the debate is the belief that the religious police shouldn't exist, that police should only enforce civil law, leaving people to police their own morality. At the other end, Al Dabbagh says, is a fierce insistence that the state should regulate personal behavior, with a government entity that patrols for public virtue. The general view is that the religious police have at times abused their power, to the point that they need to rethink their rules of engagement.

In the past, religious police have punished people for everything from Christian worship to Barbie dolls. There was a case this year in which a couple was prosecuted for sitting down to coffee at Starbucks. Most recently the police filed charges against young Saudis who took part in an MTV documentary about life in the Saudi kingdom.

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But the most extreme case came in 2002, when a school fire killed over a dozen women and girls in Mecca -- and religious police barred firefighters from the burning building because the women weren't covered in Islamic dress. Since then, many Saudis have grown bolder against what they see as repression. In several cases this year, women have beaten up and shot at religious police officers who approached them for alleged breaches of morality.

Along the way, the religious police have begun to be held accountable for excessive force. Saudi human rights lawyer Abdulrahman Al Lahim was the first to take the religious police to court, in one case alleging the arbitrary arrest of a woman and her daughter in 2004, and in another accusing police of beating a man to death in 2007.

The change in public attitudes has changed in the tone of public life -- no more of the fear that would follow as religious police patrolled shopping malls, accosting women for showing too much hair through their headscarves.

'Most people would agree that walking in a mall or in a public space is a fundamentally different experience than it was in the past,' said Al Dabbagh. 'There is a lot of positive energy in terms of changing things.'