When the men from the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice arrived unexpectedly at a shopping mall in Jeddah, the trendy Saudi youth in their Western-style attire were seized with fear.
The religious force is notorious for beating up and arresting men and women in Saudi Arabia for what they perceive as immoral behaviors as well as Western ways of behaving or dressing up.
But this time, the bearded men of the religious police had totally different intentions. They just wanted to engage in a game of bowling with a group of youth at the mall in the Saudi coastal city, the local daily Al-Watan reported on Tuesday.
The newspaper said that high-ranking officials from this police force, who turned out to be talented bowlers, won the game against the young group of bowlers. They all engaged in a friendly conversation, Al-Watan added.
This unusual event raised questions in the kingdom about whether the morality police widely viewed as austere and brutal are trying to spruce up their public image by engaging with young people.
The few thousand clerical policemen, known in Arabic as Mutaween, have come under a lot of criticism lately for their extreme policing ways in implementing the laws of Islam in a country where the strict and puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is prevalent.
Officially recognized by the Saudi government, the religious police can raid private homes in search for “sinners” drinking alcohol or engaging in banned sexual activities. They can stop men and women who are unrelated by blood or marriage for meeting in a public place. They can also imprison those who are caught failing to perform one of the daily five prayers of Islam.
In August, the religious police banned Saudis from walking their pets in public because, they said, young men were using their dogs and cats to attract women on the streets.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is trying to polish the image of his country as one of the most religiously strict places in the world. Today, an international interfaith meeting spearheaded by the kingdom is starting at the United Nations in New York to foster dialogue among different religious groups.
But the Saudi initiative has been regarded as hypocritical by some human rights organizations.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said:
“There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, yet the kingdom asks the world to listen to its message of religious tolerance. … The dialogue should be about where religious intolerance runs deepest, and that includes Saudi Arabia.”
The New-York based human rights watchdog said that Saudi Arabia does not permit its citizens or foreign residents to publicly practice any religion other than Islam.
-- Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photos: Officials from the religious police in Saudi Arabia bowled with a group of Saudi youngsters at a shopping mall in the coastal city of Jeddah. Credit: Mosaab Matbakani / Al-Watan of Saudi Arabia