Sheikh Suleyman Tuwaijri
JEDDAH, 4 March 2007 In an interview with Arab News, the director of the Madinah branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Suleyman Tuwaijri, highlighted the good work that the government-run organization carries out in the Kingdom and among other things dismissed Western media allegations that the commission deprives women and non-Muslims of their rights and freedoms.
Sheikh Suleyman Tuwaijri spoke about the highly controversial allegation that the commission denies women their rights. "The commission takes great pains to protect women from being deprived of their rights, and guarantees them total security. It strongly intervenes when men try to harass them or tempts them to gratify their undignified impulses. The commission gives utmost importance to protect women's rights and freedom that are accorded to them by the Shariah," said Tuwaijri.
However, the director added that there are some things, which "are mistakenly claimed to be part of women's freedom such as the immodest exhibition of their body and some other activities considered beyond the permissible limits of moral regulations fixed by Saudi society and the Shariah."
Speaking about this, Tuwaijri said: "They are in fact violations of the rights of other members of society who want to live in a morally chaste and unpolluted environment. Saudi society, unlike other societies, is a society that is keen to steer away from sexually provocative situations."
He added: "Even the Western civilization admits that freedom should have some checks and balances. An individual's freedom should not transgress into the freedom of another and he or she should respect social values."
With human rights groups having visited the Kingdom at the end of last year, the head of the commission commented on a 2005 human rights report that said outrages against non-Muslims in the Kingdom were on the increase.
Describing the report as one fraught with errors, the director said that the report was made without ascertaining facts and without establishing the credibility of sources.
"Non-Muslims undoubtedly have the right to seek legal help in the Kingdom if anyone infringes on their legal rights," he said. "We demand those who made the charges against us to prove their claims. On the other hand, I assure you that some non-Muslim expatriates in the Kingdom have sometimes dared to violate and abuse Islamic sentiments at public places. Such people could be penalized according to the law of the Kingdom."
Sheikh Tuwaijri added that such "timely action" is thus interpreted as "aggression against their religious freedom while their own action amounted to an aggression against the rights of Saudi society."
Before giving further details on the work that the commission carries out, the director wanted to remind readers that the institution represented by the commission is not a novel idea that has emerged in recent times.
"Although known by different names, this kind of institution was present in Muslim societies in bygone days. The corrective and guiding duty was discharged by an official called 'Amil Souk' in those days. It became a government department during the reign of the second Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar Al-Mansour (died in 775 AD)," he said.
The modern Saudi commission was established in AH1345 (1927) by King Abdul Aziz, who appointed a senior religious scholar and some assistants to undertake the duty of promoting virtue and preventing vice in Riyadh during the early period of his rule.
In its present form, the commission is a government organization responsible for the social and religious "Islah" (rectification and reform) of Saudi society. "Its head who has the rank of a minister is answerable directly to the king."
The commission undertakes primarily the role of correcting, guiding and protecting society from evil influences that allow society to diverge from a Shariah-based lifestyle," said Tuwaijri.
Speaking about the commission's penal action, Tuwaijri said: "The commission takes the appropriate penal measure on the basis of the prescribed instructions for that purpose in a scenario where advice, guidance and taking an undertaking (not to repeat the error) fails. If the offense is very serious, the violator is handed over to the police."
In its role as a guiding agency the commission also organizes lectures at places such as schools, hospitals and jails. "It distributes books and pamphlets besides participating in exhibitions with special stalls to enlighten the public about the functions of the commission. It also sets up youth camps in cities, rural districts and remote areas besides organizing contests for schoolchildren with the aim of popularizing the commission's aims and objectives," said the director.
The commission also strives to detect and pre-empt vice. "It is with this aim that its field staff makes constant rounds in streets and public places looking for violations that come under its jurisdiction. Its officials often inspect shopping centers for banned items and irreligious activities and celebrations," said Tuwaijri.
He added that the role of the commission could be divided into five tasks:
First, taking steps to prevent the growth of deeds and ideologies that pollute the pristine Islamic religious faith, including the prevention of polytheistic trends, innovations and magic. Secondly, maintaining the practice of religious rites in society by insisting on the prompt observation of prayers collectively at mosques, fasting during Ramadan and respecting all visible symbols of religion. Thirdly, maintaining a sense of morality among people and protecting the honor of women by protecting them from being violated or harassed. As part of this function, the commission insists women do not display their beauty in a prohibited manner. It also takes steps to prevent the occurrence of adultery, prostitution, sexual perversion etc. Fourthly, protecting the sanity and soundness of the human mind and intellect by preventing the manufacture and circulation of narcotics and intoxicants. Fifthly, protecting the cultural and ideological identity of society by taking steps to keep deviant books, magazines, publications, tapes and other material from the reach of the public. Such material also includes obscene and pornographic material.
"Society reaps a lot of benefits from the work that the commission carries out. More importantly, the commission strives to spare society from divine punishments as Muslims believe that negligence in fulfilling the commands of the divine law invites Allah's anger and consequential miseries and punishments both in this life and the hereafter," said Tuwaijri.
The director further clarified that the commission is different from the police in the sense that its goal is to see the reformation of people. "The commission keeps a check on criminal violations primarily from a religious point of view and therefore, deals with violations within the stipulations set by the Shariah and makes full use of the potential to give advice and guidance," he said.
He added: "The commission perceives, like the Shariah, that punishment is not the objective in itself but basically a means to achieve the correction and reformation of people who are erring. Punishment is only handed when it is known that society and the person concerned are going to benefit."
Speaking about allegations that commission workers are unqualified, Tuwaijri wondered why some people express doubts about the qualifications of commission's officials when the Saudi government gives special attention to the training of its workers.
"The commission insists that its workers should be upright in character and scrupulously following Islamic values. Their criminal record should be clean for at least 10 years. They should hold a university degree in Shariah Law. After being recruited following a rigorous interview, they undergo strict training. There is a royal order to the effect that a commission worker should be terminated from service if he is convicted or comes under serious suspicion for involvement in a crime," he said, adding that several annual training and orientation courses are organized at three levels for all field and administrative staff.
"For instance, eight training courses were held in Madinah alone bringing the total number of guiding activities to 384 last year. The commission sends its workers to the Institute of Public Administration and to the Institute for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice at the Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah for higher education in this specialized discipline. Some of them are deputed for masters and PhD degrees at various Saudi universities," he said.
Speaking about non-Muslims in the Kingdom, Tuwaijri said that the religious minorities are given their religious rights. "The Shariah does not permit forcible conversion to Islam nor prevent anyone practicing their religious rites at their place of residence or privately without making it a public or collective event," he said.
"It is the duty of such people to respect Islamic symbols and to not publicly violate them. Foreign non-Muslims in a Muslim society should be careful that the practice of their religion is not carried out at the expense of the host society. It is the right of the Saudi society that non-Muslims respect its religious sentiments while visiting the Kingdom," he added.
Tuwaijri also highlighted the fact that the Kingdom's laws are based on Islam and that all Saudi citizens, without exception, are Muslim. "Non-Muslims have come to the country at their own volition on a temporary basis with the full awareness that they need to respect Saudi religious sentiments and social values. The Kaaba, to which all Muslims in the world turn to while praying, and the Prophet's (peace be upon him) Mosque are in this country. All Muslims aspire to visit this land where the two holy cities are situated."
Since the Kingdom is the Islamic holy land there are stipulations in what non-Muslims can do here. Islam is not against non-Muslims practicing their religion per se. If one was to travel to another Arab or Muslim country then one would find non-Muslims practicing their religion there. This has been the case throughout history and when Jews were expelled from Christian Spain, many of them took refuge in Muslim North Africa and the Ottoman lands.
In Saudi Arabia, being the land of the two holy cities, non-Muslims are categorically not allowed to build places of worship or publicly worship, although they may live here. This is no different to the practices of other major world religions who have similar practices. The Roman Catholic faith for example forbids non-Catholics from having their places of worship in the Vatican as this is considered to be a sanctified place.
Tuwaijri also denied that the commission infringes on the rights and freedom of people. "On the contrary it takes steps to guarantee rights of all people. That is why it intervenes when a person's right is being infringed on by another. For instance, when a woman is being lured by a man for some illicit purposes, and thus tempts the woman to violate the moral code, the commission takes action," he said, adding, "It cannot be called an act of depriving the people of their rights."
Another common perception about the commission is that there is a large gap between the body and the younger generation. The director denied there was a serious problem but admitted that some of the youths failed to receive the commission's message in the proper spirit.
"The commission has been striving to bridge this gap through the media and the Internet. It also makes periodic visits to schools and welcomes student delegations to visit its headquarters. The commission also organizes debates and discussion programs for the youth," he said.
He added: "However, it should be remembered that we have a controlling role in society and take an uncompromising stand against the passions of careless and rash youths who will, obviously, be unhappy with our ways."
Speaking about whether the commission arrests people on mere suspicion rather than concrete evidence, Tuwaijri said: "Arrests are made with sound evidence. If any official violates this principle in arresting then this is a crime that he would have to account for. Cases involving suspicion are always handed over to the police."
Denying the charge, particularly from the Western media, that the commission conducts itself in a violent way, the official said most of the violations reported by the commission are settled in a peaceful manner.
"This is clear from the commission's report last year showing that 94 percent of the violators caught were let off with some advice and preaching. A great number of the violations are disposed on the spot without any detention. The commission also endeavors to keep people away from crime by using methods such as the distribution of pamphlets and booklets, organizing contests, road shows and lectures," said Tuwaijri.
He added that the commission also organized a program entitled "Discover Your Fortune" for youngsters in Madinah during the summer. "All of these operations give an insight into how peaceful and civilized the methods adopted by the commission are and disprove the charge of violence against the commission," he said.
"The commission officials are, above all, civilians holding university degrees. They are not trained to use violence. It is illogical to assume that such officials resort to violent operational methods," the official said.
Tuwaijri added that the commission welcomes constructive and objective criticism of its methods and operations. "On the other hand, the negative criticism leveled against it without objectivity, from some countrymen driven by the ulterior motive of discrediting and destroying the commission, is because of their lack of interest in the welfare of their own country and society," he said.
"What they strive for is to disfigure the shining image of the country and mobilize international public opinion against Saudi society. Unfortunately such negative criticism draws greater attention of both the domestic and international media," he added.
Speaking on the achievements of the Madinah branch, the director said the officials of the branch caught 23,000 people involved in various violations last year. About 93 percent of the cases were settled at its offices while the remaining were handed over to other agencies concerned. Expatriates accounted for 68 percent of them. The commission also seized 40,000 pornographic or obscene materials over the past eight months. The department also organized 708 guidance programs besides distributing 3.5 million booklets and pamphlets.
Tuwaijri stressed the importance of improving the body. "The commission needs to further develop like any other government department. It should update its performance in order to keep pace with the changing times. The commission's head office is striving for it," he said
The director requested a fair and balanced approach when judging the commission instead of giving credence to hostile reports ignoring the positive aspects. The commission can be contacted via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
. or on fax 048362261.