Many of you reading may have never set foot in Saudi Arabia before. Some of you may never set foot in Saudi Arabia. Some of you however may know of someone, a friend perhaps, or an acquaintance or a relative that has. The reason most Westerners are drawn to such a country is due to their massive wealth, and high salaries. The nation is oil-rich, and unlike many Arab countries, has a high standard of living, for which it also provides free education and healthcare. So basically, it’s money that attracts. For those that live there, however, there is a flipside. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, with King Abdullah as the current head of state. The country itself, and two of its major cities, Mecca and Medina, are sacred in Islam for being the birth and resting place of the prophet Muhammad. With the country enshrined in Islamic tradition, also comes a society where moral absolutism informs virtually every facet of public life, and in some instances, the incursion on the private life of the individual. Saudi society is dominated by a strain of Islamic teaching known as Wahabbism, or Salafism, which is also a branch of Sunni Islamic thinking. The creed originated in the 1700’s, and emphasizes tawhid, or unity of God, so to speak. It could be considered an early model for what we today percieve as Islamic fundamentalism. It is opposed to the veneration of images, saints, and icons, which it sees as heretical and an act of apostasy, taking on a very ‘with us or against us’ philosophy. In an interview with a Shi’ite Muslim, Ali Al-Ahmed, he explains the ideology as such;
“They are either kafirs, who are deniers of God, or mushrak, putting gods next to God, or enervators, that’s the lightest one. The enervators of religion who are they call the Sunni Muslims who … for instance, celebrate Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, and do some stuff that is not accepted by Salafis.
And all of these people are not accepted by Salafi as Muslims. As I said, “claimant to Islam.” And all of these people are supposed to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed. And we have several clergy — not one Salafi clergy — who have said that against the Shi’a and against the other Muslims. And they have done it in Algeria, in Afghanistan. This is the same ideology. They just have the same opportunity. They did it in Algeria and Afghanistan, and now New York. …”
This code informs the moral and educational codes of Saudi society. This essentially means that non-Muslims are prohibited from practicing their faith publicly. To boot, there are no churches or other temples in Saudi Arabia, only mosques.
Even in civil court cases, where a Muslim is entitled to full damages, a Christian or Jew may only recieve one half. Anyone outside of that is only entitled to one-sixteenth of what a Muslim is entitled to. Law is enforced by the Mutaween, a religious and moral police who enforce law in accordance to Wahabbist teachings.
This means the strict enforcement of gender segregation in public (unless the woman is a spouse or relative), the public veiling of women, and to make sure that products such as alcohol and pork (forbidden by the Koran) are not in possession. Violations of such laws can lead to physical punishment such as lashing, or even in some cases, the death penalty.
This has been taken to such a literal extent, that even the use of profane language and the utterance of ‘Allah’ within the same speech led to the detainment and the death penalty to a Turkish barber, Sabri Bogday, who spent a year in jail, only to be spared and released in 2009 when both Turkish and Saudi heads of state intervened;
“Bogday, from the southern Turkey’s Hatay region, arrived in Jeddah 11 years ago and opened a barbershop.
According to reports, the barber argued with his neighbor, an Egyptian tailor, and was arrested after the tailor told police that Bogday was involved in blasphemy.
After Bogday had been held in prison for a year, the Egyptian who made the allegations against him disappeared.
The barber’s family called on Turkish authorities to intervene in order to commute the death penalty. Then, President Gul wrote a letter to King Abdullah and requested a pardon for Bogday.”
Some, however, have not been so lucky. In the case of the Mutaween, their authority has been used as an excuse to abuse their powers. In one instance in 2008, a member of their authority, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice killed his own daughter, cutting out her tongue and burning her. Her crime; conversion to Christianity.
In 2007, a young man was also beaten to death by members of the Mutaween on suspicion of possessing alcohol. Whilst it is a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia to possess alcohol, the only authority the Mutaween technically have is to hand the suspect or offender over to the civil police force, though the bureaucracy and red tape clearly leaves a loophole by which a blind eye can be turned.