Egyptian Islamists Demand "Morals Patrols"
by Irfan Al-Alawi
The radical Islamist Nour party, or "Party of the Light," has captured more than a quarter of votes in the post-Mubarak Egyptian elections. Nour, which ran second to the Muslim Brotherhood in the polling, is a Wahhabi party, reproducing the ideology of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, under the label of "Salafism." Its rhetoric presents "Salafism" as pure Islam unchanged by 14 centuries of Muslim history in differing lands and cultures worldwide. Nour is hostile to non-Wahhabi Muslims, repressive of women's rights, and discriminatory against non-Muslims.
The Saudi mutawiyin or "morals patrols" – sometimes miscalled a "religious police" – coordinated by the "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV)," are one of the most criticized institutions in the Saudi kingdom. Known as the "mutawiyin" or "volunteers," and as the "hai'a" or "the Commission," this militia is composed of at least 5,000 full-time members, assisted by thousands of more ordinary Saudis. They patrol Saudi cities enforcing the strictures of Wahhabi ideology. They descend on and harass women who are not fully covered below the ankle by the black cloak or abaya, and who go out in public without a face veil or niqab. They interfere with couples whom they suspect of being unmarried or otherwise unrelated. They prevent women from driving motor vehicles. They raid private homes looking for evidence of alcohol consumption. And not least, they disturb the prayers of Shias and Sunni Sufi Muslims whose forms of devotion are disapproved of by the Wahhabis.
The unexpected rise of Nour has left non-Muslim as well as Muslim commentators shocked and, in many cases, silent. But the Egyptian supporters of Wahhabism have wasted no time in demanding the importation of retrograde Saudi customs into Egypt. Egyptian Wahhabis have now called for the introduction of so-called "Morals Patrols" on the Saudi model.
As reported by writer Ramadan Abdul Qader in the Egyptian Gazette of January 2, a prominent local Wahhabi preacher, Youssef El-Badrai, called for the formation of a ministry to coordinate "morals patrols." According to El-Badrai, "This ministry could operate by making the Imam of each mosque, backed up by a police officer, responsible for ensuring that the Sharia [Islamic law] is applied in the streets."
In Egypt, so far, the incursions of the "morals patrols" in private and public life have been limited to statements like that of El-Badrai, and internet announcements calling for their establishment. Their mission is defined by proponents as the enforcement of Islamic standards of dress, the prevention of public gender-mixing between unmarried or otherwise unrelated men and women, and keeping businesses closed during Muslim prayer times. Their advocates have remained anonymous, although clothing shops and hairdressers report visits by alleged participants in the commission, preaching that their commerce is forbidden.
Although the Nour party itself has disclaimed a connection with the Egyptian project for "morals patrols," the defenders of the scheme, who have the Nour party logo on their website, have declared that the millions of votes cast for the Nour party prove that Egyptians desire such an organization supervising general behaviour. Al-Azhar, however, the world's leading Sunni Muslim university, has condemned the arrival of Egyptian "morals patrols" as a usurpation of Al-Azhar's standing as Egypt's sole religious authority.
Aside from Saudi Arabia, only Afghanistan under the Taliban and Iran have maintained "Islamic morals patrols," although attempts to spread the practice have been recorded in fundamentalist enclaves in Africa, Southeast Asia, and in Gaza. During the war in Iraq, Wahhabi interlopers tried to introduce the mutawiyin there, but the effect was to alienate Iraqi Sunnis. Last year, nevertheless, a similar Shia Muslim group, the so-called "Swords of Righteousness" appeared south of Baghdad.
Saudi "morals patrols" are also responsible for cultural vandalism, in which the Islamic heritage of the country has been devastated. The pretext – a key element of Wahhabism – is the claim that preserving or honouring architectural monuments, where Muslims may pray for intercession by sacred personalities from Prophet Muhammad to noted Sufi sheikhs, promotes polytheism, or worship of objects other than the divine creator. The result has been, among many such acts, the transformation of the house where Muhammad was born into a cattle market, and then a library, and finally a hotel and apartment complex.
Other such incidents have included the levelling of the house where the Prophet Muhammad and his first wife, Khadijah lived, and construction on the site of public toilets, followed by an automatic teller machine. The grave markers and domes at cemeteries in Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad's companions, successors, and later distinguished Muslims were interred, were removed after the Wahhabi seizure of the holy cities in 1925.
Wahhabi aggression became visible in Egypt soon after the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's government, when "Salafis" in Alexandria targeted 16 historic Sufi mosques for destruction. These included the city's most distinguished mosque, named for, and housing, the tomb of the 13th century Sufi Al-Mursi Abu'l Abbas. Born in then-Muslim territory in Spain, Al-Mursi was a disciple of, and successor to, the Sufi sheikh Abu'l Hassan Al-Shadhili, founder of the Shadhili Sufi order, powerful throughout North Africa, South Asia, the Muslim communities of the Indian Ocean, and Indonesia.
Egyptians are now hearing that the Wahhabis will cover pre-Islamic monuments with wax, or screen them from public view, and that Egypt's Pharaonic antiquities must be treated in a different historical context, with Islamists in power. The danger to Egypt's ancient cultural legacy, as well as to the tourism industry, is real. The world has not forgotten that similar demolitions were carried out by the Taliban against the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.
The Saudi "morals patrols" have considerable blood on their hands, including that of more than a dozen girls who died in a school fire in Mecca in March 2002. Attempting to escape the flames, the girls were pushed back into the burning building by mutawiyin who claimed they were concerned that the girls were insufficiently covered and could excite immorality among the civil defence personnel sent to fight the blaze.
The school fire was but one of many incidents of homicidal abuse by the Saudi mutawiyin. Since then, the so-called "Commission" has been the subject of several attempts to hold them legally responsible for the deaths of individuals -- both in their custody and in the victims' own houses -- in addition to countless assaults in public. Although in 2010, Saudi King Abdullah cut the financing of the mutawiyin, the 2012 Saudi budget included supplementary funding for them.