Saudi media are looking at the appointment of Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Sheikh as the new head of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and is finding a lot to like. Asharq Alawsat‘s profile, [See link] notes him as more liberal than many on women’s issues, including employment, but also stretching to the hijab and child marriage. He has spoken openly and since his appointment about employment issues; we’ll have to see how he acts on the others.
Saudi Gazette reports that he’s already instituted a change in the way the Commission will react to reports of misbehavior: It will ignore anonymous complaints.
RIYADH – The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a) will not respond to reports unless the person making the complaint identifies himself or herself and the information is verified, said Sheikh Dr. Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Aal Al-Sheikh, General President of the Hai’a.
He also said that the Hai’a will only deal with reports that fall under its jurisdiction.
Hoaxes and false reports were the main cause for criticism of the performance of the Hai’a staff, Aal Al-Sheikh said in a statement.
He said the Hai’a was striving to change its image, adding that he sought the cooperation of all Hai’a staff in achieving this objective.
Back to Asharq Alawsat, where Hussein Shabokshi see Al-Sheikh as a breath of fresh air inspiring the Commission, an organization that the majority of Saudis believe necessary to their society. He compliments him for taking action in barring volunteer mutawwa as a critical step in fixing the organization’s image and function. He notes, too, that the Sheikh is aptly named, too. Abdullatif means ‘Servant of the Kindly’ [God] while his surname indicates his descent from Muhammad ibn ?Abd al-Wahhab, eponymous founder of the conservative trend of Islam followed by the Saudi majority.
Shabokshi writes that as Saudi Arabia finds its way through a period of major reforms, in society as well as law, it’s critical to have leaders capable of dealing with change. He squarely puts Al-Sheikh in this column.
A new chapter in the history of the Hesba
Talking or writing about the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [CPVPV] in Saudi Arabia is an extremely complex and thorny issue due to the common understanding that criticizing – or even expressing an opinion about – this organization represents an objection to religion itself. Hence, whoever ventures to discuss this matter is exposed to a volley of accusations, as is often the case. The CPVPV, or the “Hesba” as it more commonly known, is an organization that is unique to Saudi Arabia. With a few exceptions, no other country in the world has a similar institution or organization. This organization was established shortly after the unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and soon became part of the state’s administrative tools regulating public affairs.
The CPVPV has undergone various phases of development and expansion to its mandate. Saudi society has changed over the years, witnessing a sharp increase in its population, as well as different lifestyles appearing on the scene. In addition to this, the youth have begun to interact with public life; women have become more open to the idea of employment, whilst there has also been a sharp increase in the proportion of foreign labour. Accordingly, demands were made for these new developments to be taken into account, and for a change in how the CPVPV dealt with such issues. The CPVPV was previously a sitting duck for anyone wanting to criticize Saudi Arabia. Violations committed by certain members of the CPVPV would be viewed as part of a general flaw in Saudi society, whilst the most common description of the CPVPV in the western media is “religious police”, with all the unacceptable scornful connotations attached to this.
[NOTE: Just for the sake of clarity: The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has several names used in common speech. The more common ones include: The Commission, Haya or Ha’ia, mutawwa/mutawwaeen or mutawwa’in, and religious police. Disfavored by the organization, but widely heard nonetheless, is ‘vice cops’. In his article, Shabokshi uses a term, Hesba, which I’d not previously encountered. Its meaning is clear enough, though. It’s an alternate spelling of hisba, the principle of ‘enjoining virtue and forbidding what is wrong’ through which the Commission draws its raison d’être.