Saudi Arabia's draconian religious police, part of the country's previously untouchable religious elite, have come under an unprecedented barrage of criticism in recent months. Known as the mutawwa'in, these foot soldiers of the Committee for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are tasked with meting out punishment to those they believe transgress their strict interpretation of Islam. Their broad purview, ranging from ensuring modest dress to preventing the illicit mingling of men and women, has made them a much-feared fixture of the kingdom. It should come as no surprise that this group provided inspiration for the Taliban.
But a series of recent reports exposing mutawwa'in abuse is slowly beginning to erode the committee's edifice of impervious power. One victim, Ahmed al-Bulawi, was arrested and killed by committee members for "illegal seclusion" with a woman in his car; it transpired that he was working as the woman's driver. Another victim, Salman al-Huraisi, died after the mutawwa'in brutally beat him while detaining him on suspicion of possessing alcohol.
The public outcry has encouraged others to come forward and protest abuse by the committee. The most prominent case has been that of a 50-year-old Riyadh woman who was kidnapped, along with her daughter, by two committee members who then crashed her car. As a result, three lawsuits have been lodged against the committee, which has never been legally challenged before.
Established as part of the pact between the religious establishment and the House of Saud, the mutawwa'in have symbolised the quid pro quo arrangement of Saudi Arabia - religious sanction in exchange for religious influence. Their special status has protected committee members from criticism and given them virtually unlimited power. Even as recently as 2003, the editor of a prominent Saudi newspaper was fired for daring to challenge the committee.
Yet in the past few weeks, outrage against the committee has burst forth from almost all corners of Saudi society. Editorials critical of the religious police have abounded, even in the historically censored Saudi press. A controversial online poll on the mutawwa'in, conducted by the Saudi-owned news outlet al-Arabiya, attracted the highest number of votes since the website was founded. Almost 35 per cent of respondents supported dismantling the committee.
As one Saudi blogger who runs a satirical site called the Religious Policeman puts it: "They are the no-hopers, the social misfits, the failed imams . . . ugly in nature, ugly in behaviour." Indignation is so high that there have been physical attacks on the religious police, with 21 incidents reported last year.
Official critiques of the police have also been forthcoming. The National Society for Human Rights, officially sanctioned by the rulers, has taken the committee to task. A recent report by the group condemns various mutawwa'in practices, including "humiliating people during interrogation" and "beating people and using force to arrest suspects". Dr Muhammad al-Zalfa, a member of the advisory Shura Council, recently lashed out at the committee, saying: "Those who make mistakes must be punished, and we must lift the religious, political and social immunity off them."
Government officials have dismissed the recent allegations as "fishing", in the words of the ultra-conservative interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, "for any mistakes . . . and trying to magnify them". But the outcry has clearly had an effect: the interior ministry recently published a directive pointedly reminding committee members to transfer suspects to the police, rather than holding them in detention centres. The committee has also hired a public spokesman for the first time and established a legal department to be known as the "Department of Rules and Regulations" - moves that illustrate the extent to which the committee has lost its infallible status.
Although the relationship between the palace and the Wahhabi elite is far from broken, it looks like the religious police are one of the first victims of an emboldened Saudi public. Their daily work in Saudi Arabia still continues, but as the Saudi al-Watan columnist Khalid al-Ghanami argues regarding their excesses: "Everyone must realise that such practices, which did not bother many people in the past, are by no means acceptable today."