Saudi Religious Police Arrest Man for Helping His Neighbor

By Patrick Goodenough | August 7, 2007 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Members of Saudi Arabia's controversial religious police have arrested a Nigerian man who converted to Islam for being alone with a woman he was not married to or related to. It happened after the African man helped the sick woman by taking her to hospital.

The incident, reported in Saudi media, comes at a time when the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is under unprecedented scrutiny over abuses committed while enforcing the kingdom's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Arab News reported that Ibrahim Mohammed Lawal, a Nigerian student of Islam in Riyadh, learned that his 63-year-old neighbor was in need of medical attention and took her to hospital.

While checking on her condition several days later, he was arrested by members of the plain-clothed vice squad, known in Arabic as the muttawa or muttaween.

The reports said the man, who had been in custody for "50 days and counting," said all he wanted to do was to return to his home country.

The U.S. government considers Saudi Arabia a key Mideast ally, although the State Department's scrutiny of the kingdom's religious freedom practices -- a requirement of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act -- raises serious concerns each year.

The muttaween and its methods feature prominently in the department's annual reports on international religious freedom. The sections on Saudi Arabia recount harassment, raids on private residence, and arrests for such "violations" as possessing non-Muslim literature, holding non-Muslim worship services, or promoting interpretations of Islam more moderate than that promoted by the kingdom's government.

In its most recent annual report, covering 2006, the State Department said there had been fewer reports of abuses than in previous years. It cited a government decision in 2006 to "put into place policies to limit harassment of religious practice and curb violations" by members of the force.

Abuses by muttaween members also have received more prominence in Saudi media, as a result of two recent deaths in detention court cases, and calls inside the country for reform are growing.

Last week a court acquitted three members of the force charged in the death of a man who was in custody, accused of associating with a woman who was not a relative.

Arguably the most controversial incident involving the muttaween occurred in 2002, when 15 schoolgirls died in a fire after members of the force prevented them from fleeing their burning school, and interfered with rescue workers, because the girls were not dressed modestly enough.

The case caused an outcry, but a subsequent government investigation cleared the muttaween.


Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow