Tuesday, September 9, 2008
"Modern" Yemen Gets new Police Division
No, they didn't get a brand spanking new SWAT division with high tech GPS and communication systems. They have instead allowed a Saudi style religious police division to form, all with the backing of 2000 clerics and tribal leaders. Look for the Islamic police to soon hit a town near you. As they are already in the U.K. and Sweden.
Hat tip to the European Alliance for Rational Thought.
The Egyptian crooner Ehab Tawfiq has bedroom eyes, smouldering good looks and a voice that enchants Arab audiences. Sadly he won't be perfoming any time soon in Yemen, where he has been blocked by a controversial new Saudi-style "religious police" charged with enforcing austere standards of public morality.
Tawfiq sings catchily about love and relationships. But a concert he was due to give in Sana'a was postponed and then cancelled last month after a campaign by the country's newly-formed "virtue committee", which distributed posters and leaflets — and, say some, encouraged death threats and intimidation — condemning the handsome Egyptian for promoting "sedition, immorality and nudity".
For many Yemenis, and for women in particular, this was another alarming sign of the growth of Salafi extremism — an unwelcome import from neighbouring Saudi Arabia where the "mutaween" religious police are part of the scenery.
"These people scare the hell out of me," complained Nadia al-Sakkaf, the editor of the Yemen Times. "Yemeni youth are frustrated and depressed. There's nothing for them to do. And since when did we need to act against pop singers?"
The first signs appeared a few months ago in the Red Sea port of Hodeida, where young men and women began to be accosted by bearded vigilantes demanding proof that couples were related. A hotel disco and bar were closed down and several Arab women dancers deported. Daoud al-Jeni, a self-styled "virtue activist', described his mission as being to curb "obscenity and prostitution". Anti-vice teams, some armed with sticks, have also been operating in Aden, the former British colony in the south.
In mid-July the Authority for Promoting Virtue and Combating Vice — exactly the same name as used in Saudi Arabia for 80 years — was launched in Sana'a and quickly moved to pressure the authorities to raid and close down two Chinese restaurants that were allegedly being used for "immoral" purposes, including selling alcohol.
"This is a step backward for human rights in Yemen," warned Hurriya Mashour, the deputy head of the state-backed Womens National Committee.
Behind the "virtue committee", which supported by 2,000 clerics and tribal leaders, is Sheikh Abdel-Majid al-Zindani, (pictured above) a powerful Salafi figure who once taught Osama bin Laden and is accused by the US and UN of financing terrorism. Zindani is a charismatic preacher who claims to have found a cure for Aids and specialises in Quranic explanations for modern scientific discoveries. His Al-Iman university in Sana'a is seen as a hotbed of religious extremism.
Zindani and like-minded ulema, or scholars, have long demanded government action against "moral corruption", which in their book includes mixed dancing, alcohol, racy TV soap operas, fashion shows and even mannequins in shop windows. They have also opposed calls for a legally enforceable minimum age for marriage in a country where girls as young as 12, especially in villages, are frequently married off to older men.
The same group also condemned a proposal by President Ali Abdullah Salih for a 15% quota for women in parliament.
The government insists that it opposes the virtue committee. "The role of these people is only to guide, not to implement," Judge Hamoud al-Hittar, the minister for religious affairs, told the Guardian. "They won't close down any place or arrest or fine anyone. Their role is only to communicate to the competent authorities."
Still, there are strong suspicions, typical of the labyrinthine world of Yemeni politics, that Salih himself is quietly encouraging the idea — a devious way of appeasing Islamist opinion and splitting the opposition Islah party in the run-up to next year's parliamentary elections.
"The deal is that Zindani gets to push on with this for a while so Salih can look as if he's being sympathetic to his Islamist base," said a western diplomat. "Eventually, the government will have to move to reassert its role, but by then the committee will already have been set up and have carved out at least an unofficial role in policing so-called moral crimes."
Aid organisations working in the poorest country in the Arab world are also worried by the virtue committee, and especially about the setback it represents to the cause of empowering women, who are already battling 70% illiteracy and one of the biggest gender gaps on earth. "This is a country with so many serious problems and it has a terrible image," said one foreign development expert. "They are going to shoot themselves in the foot on this. This is not entirely different from how the Taliban started out and it would be a huge tragedy for the women of Yemen if they get caught in the political crossfire."
Ironically, the virtue committee idea appears to be taking off in Yemen just as the Saudis, angered by some high-profile excesses, try to loosen the stranglehold of their own mutaween, who police the ban on women drivers, on women travelling without a chaperone and whose latest activity is to enforce a prohibition on selling dogs and cats for domestic pets.
Yemen is a highly traditional Muslim country where most men wear tribal robes and carry curved jambiya daggers in their belts. But it has never been comfortable with the brand of dour Salafi/Wahabi fundamentalism promoted by the Saudi religious establishment. "If these vigilantes start approaching couples and asking them for their marriage certificates in Sana'a you will soon see jambiyas flying," warned a middle-class resident of the capital.
Arwa Othman, an author and folklorist who is defiantly bareheaded in a land where most women wear the hijab, is horrified by the virtue campaign and the zealots behind it. "This idea will kill this country," she says. "They've been talking about it for a long time in schools and mosques and in the army. Now they're in alliance with the government. These people appear when there is poverty and hunger and dictatorship. These are the right circumstances for extremists."
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