The introduction of Saudi Arabia’s mutawwa’in or religious police to  Malaysia  will be a great setback to human rights, social tolerance, multi-religious goodwill and national unity as well as frighten off foreign investments

Media Conference Statement 
- launching of the second phase of “No to 911, No to 929, Yes to 1957” People’s Awareness Campaign in the Bukit Bendera  parliamentary constituency 
by Lim Kit Siang

(Pulau Tikus, Penang,  Saturday): Malaysians both in Terengganu and in the country must be concerned by the announcement by the PAS Terengganu Mentri Besar, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang that the state government would set up its own enforcement unit to impose the Islamic laws in the state as the hudud laws passed by the State Assembly on Monday provided for their own courts, prosecutors and enforcements officers.  

This follows the directive by the Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Norian Mai and the circular to all district police stations in Terengganu by the Terengganu police chief SAC I Othman Talib not to extend any assistance to the enforcement officers of the state Religious Affairs Department with regards to implementing the state hudud laws, including making arrests and putting suspects in police lock-ups on behalf of the state religious authorities. 

As Hadi had mentioned Saudi Arabia as a country to be emulated for  exemplifying a country which is safe, peaceful and crime-free as a result of the implementation of syariah criminal law, is he thinking of importing the Saudi Arabia religious police, the mutawwa’in, into Malaysia?

The introduction of Saudi Arabia’s mutawwa’in or religious police to  Malaysia  will be  a sad and tragic day for Malaysia for it will represent a great setback to human rights, social tolerance, multi-religious goodwill and national unity for our plural society as well as frighten off foreign investments.  

The mutawwa’in or the state-sanctioned religious police in Saudi Arabia imposes a reign of terror in Saudi Arabian society and epitomizes the fundamental flaws of a  country where, in the words of Amnesty International(AI), “Every day in Saudi Arabia the most fundamental human rights are violated, yet this fact is rarely publicized”.

The image of the human rights situation and the “criminal justice system without justice” in  Saudi Arabia is powerfully summarized by one of the numerous recent AI reports on the country as follows:  

“Secrecy and fear permeate every aspect of the state structure in Saudi Arabia. There are no political parties, no elections, no independent legislature, no trade unions, no Bar Association, no independent judiciary, no elections, no independent human rights organizations.  The government allows no international human rights organizations to carry out research in the country and it ignores requests by such organisatiosn for information. It has effective control over all kinds of information: there is strict censorsbhip of media within the country and strict control of access to the Internet, satellite television and other forms of communication with the outside world. 

“Anyone living in Saudi Arabia who criticizes this system is harshly punished.  After arrest, political and religious opponents of the government are detained indefinitely without trial or are imprisoned after grossly unfair trials.  Torture is endemice. Executions, flogging and amputations are imposed and carried out with disregard for the most basic international fair trial standards.”

It is in such a backdrop of a wasteland of human rights that the mutawwa’in or religious police could strike such fear and wreak such terror among the 22 million people in the Saudi society.  

Malaysians will still remember the horror of reading from the morning newspapers  the tragic fire at a girls’ school in Mecca in March where 15 girls died because the mutawwa’in, the Committee to Propagate Virtue and Prevent Vice, barred male rescuers from entering the burning building and stopped fleeing girls from leaving because they didn’t wear veils. 

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to walk in the street without being in the company of an immediate male relative (Mahrim), or to mix with men of no immediate family relationship.  Breaching these codes could give rise to suspicion of prostitution and may result in arrest, brutality, and torture by police, particularly the mutawwa’in, who patrols the streets monitoring, among other things, women’s conduct or dress or behaviour.  

In Saudi Arabia, the mutawwa’in also police public display of religious icons and public worship or practice of religions other than Wahhabi Islam, and has the authority to detain Muslims and non-Muslims for up to 24 hours for offences such as indecent dress and comportment, although this 24-hour  limit is not strictly observed. 

The United States Human Rights Report 2001 on Saudi Arabia in its section of “arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”  states:

 The Mutawwa'in reportedly detained young men for offenses that included eating in restaurants with young women, making lewd remarks to women in the shopping malls, or walking in groups through family-only sections of shopping centers. Women of many nationalities were detained for actions such as riding in a taxi with a man who was not their relative, appearing with their heads uncovered in shopping malls, and eating in restaurants with males who were not their relatives. Many such prisoners were held for days, sometimes weeks, without officials notifying their families or, in the case of foreigners, their embassies.

In its section on  “Arbitrary interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence”, it states:

“Mutawwa'in practices and incidents of abuse varied widely in different regions of the country, but they were most numerous in the central Nejd region. In certain areas, both the Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed, abused, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners. The Government requires the Mutawwa'in to follow established procedures and to offer instruction in a polite manner; however, Mutawwa'in did not always comply with the requirements. During the year, the Government neither criticized publicly abuses by Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes nor sought to curtail such abuses.

“Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social behavior included the closing of commercial establishments during the five daily prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict norms of public dress, and dispersing gatherings of women in public places designated for men, as well as preventing men from entering public places designated for families. Mutawwa'in frequently reproached citizen and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes and arrested men and women found together who were not married or closely related.”

Malaysians, regardless of race, religion or political beliefs, must be very wary about the introduction of the Saudi mutawwa’in into Malaysia’s plural society, which will change the texture of national life especially with regard to social tolerance and inter-religious harmony and goodwill.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman