The assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed Thursday shocked everyone and exposed the new direction that Al Qaeda is taking. Fortunately the only fatality was the terrorist himself.
Since the news got out there has been this outpour at not only the political but also at the cultural and social level. On Facebook, one Saudi suggests that all men dressed like muttawa should be stopped and questioned. On a more serious level, major newspapers include articles that only begin with the assassination attempt and from there the authors and comment posters criticize the whole religious fundamentalist movement within the country concerning education, human rights and domestic tourism.
In Al-Watan today, Abdulla Al Fowzan, has an article in which he respectfully tells off the Grand Mofti, (the highest rank in sheikhdom) for saying in a speech he gave last month that the monarchy and sheikhs are in an exclusive partnership in leading the country. Al Fowzan basically analyzes the comment and rejects it. He criticizes the religious leaders for being stagnant in keeping up with the needs of the people and times. He ends the article with the opinion that sheikhs are only one small facet of our leadership and other facets should include all other factions of our society. I’m writing this at 8 am so the article has only been online a few hours and yet people are posting their comments. Two so far linked fundamentalists to the ban on women selling lingerie. And of course you have a few of sheikhs’ supporters who predictably accuse Al Fowzan of going against Islam.
Since March the religious puritans have been getting louder and more powerful; more muttawa raids in malls, cancellations of plays and festivals, and even statements by high-ranking officials that were obviously made only to appease these fundamentalists. The assassination attempt has empowered people to speak out. And so has apparently turned the tide in favor of the average Saudi, even if only temporarily.
We’ve all heard or read about the strict laws and forms of punishment in Saudi Arabia. The most notorious of which is cutting off the hands of thieves. But many people don’t dig deep enough to know that a thief has to steal a substantial amount to get that punishment. No one gets their hand cut for petty theft, but when you have a gang who goes around robbing houses, then that punishment comes onto the table. In all my years here, I’ve only heard about it happening once. A friend of mine had their apartment robbed. Jewelry, TVs, computers and everything of value was taken. Eventually the robber was caught and my friend’s father was asked if he would forgive the robber or not. His refusal to forgive him contributed to the judge’s decision to have the thief’s hand cut off. I don’t know the details such as whether or not the thief had a previous history of stealing. I do know that this type of punishment does not happen often. Another instance is one time my husband and I met a real estate agent to show us a house we were interested in. This guy was a young apparently healthy Saudi guy and one of his hands was cut right at the wrist. Both my husband and I did not say anything so I don’t know if it was cut off as punishment or due to an accident or illness but I bet lots of people wonder when they meet him.
The punishments that are most newsworthy when it comes to Saudi Arabia, are the ones given to people guilty of khilwa (unrelated man and woman alone together) and extramarital sex. A punishment for khilwa is common and we’ve all come across muttawas trolling coffee shops and restaurants searching for pairs who seem too happy to be related. But what happens after they are caught? I don’t know about expatriates but with Saudis, the man and woman are separated at the spot and questioned to see if their stories correspond. Questions like name, relatives’ names and even color of furniture, address, employment and all other things married couples naturally know. If they fail the test or refuse to cooperate, they are taken to the local muttawa center. The girl’s father is summoned and the guy is locked up usually after being given a few slaps and punches. The girl is handed over to her father (if he’ll take her) and the guy is later released after they put his information into the system. He is then required to show up in front of a judge, usually two weeks later to take his sentence. How he appears at the sentencing decides his fate more than anything else. The way he dresses and addresses the judge has more influence than the number of times he has been caught, how and where he was caught…etc. His best bet is to dress like a muttawa, start to grow a beard, hold his head down and look remorseful. He should also tell the judge that since the incident, he has become a born again Muslim. If he could get an established muttawa from a mosque to vouch for him, then he might be lucky enough to be let go with a warning. Otherwise he will most likely be sentenced a number of lashes across the back.
Extramarital sex on the other hand is extremely serious and at the same time very hard to get convicted for. In the Holy Quran, it states that four witnesses to the act have to be found for it to be punishable. Here, unless a person has confessed or made a tape it’s unlikely to be considered as extramarital sex. Even if an unrelated couple checks into a hotel together, they will only be convicted of khilwa. In cases where a confession is made, then other things come into play, such as was it consensual or rape and whether either of them was married at the time. Infidelity is an automatic death sentence. Singles are imprisoned and whipped.
Young Saudis have their ways to get around these laws. One that I heard of is that they go in groups. Another is that the guy takes his sister along and voila it is no longer a khilwa.