NEW DELHI: Recently, a video showing a member of the Saudi religious police preventing a veiled woman from entering a shop went viral. The woman’s crime? She was not wearing gloves. "Walk away... don't say a word... Put on some gloves," the religious police officer reportedly tells the woman in the city of Ha'il’s Barzan Mall.

Those familiar with the Saudi religious police, formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Vice and more commonly as the mutaween, should not be surprised. The Citizen carried an article on the organisation last year when it formed a special task force to track users of social media who were accused of “spreading vice and witchcraft.” The article is reproduced below:

“We will track down all those who are behind these accounts whether they are men or women…we are determined to eliminate these accounts before they become widespread and out of control,” said Ahmed Al Jardan, the Commission’s spokesman.

Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Twitter users relative to internet users in the world (1 in 4), and despite strict internet regulation, the conservative kingdom has about 7 million internet subscribers. A majority of these users do not own PCs but access the internet on their smartphones, with the country’s smartphone use the third highest in the world.

These internet users who the mutaween has committed to monitor for “vice and witchcraft,” have represented growing anger directed at the religious police. In October 2013, a video of a confrontation between a woman in Saudi Arabia’s conservative region of Qassim and the religious police went viral, with users attaching the hashtag #Don’tProvoke as a measure of support for the woman. The mutaween had demanded that the woman cover her entire face as she was wearing a veil with her eyes exposed. “Don’t provoke me!” the woman retorted. “Do you think we don’t know our own religion? We know our religion, and covered up before you even existed. The full facial cover is not forced upon a woman!”

This video is reflective of a changing public attitude, where the country’s religious and conservative population that initially supported the religious police has over the years developed a resentment toward it. A series of incidents, in addition to the proliferation of social media where these incidents are highlighted and a common ground of discontent is able to be constructed, have contributed to this change. In 2002 in Mecca, 15 school girls died in a fire as they were prohibited to escape by the mutaween who claimed they were inappropriately dressed. In 2007, members of mutaween entered a home in Riyadh and fatally beat a man whom they suspected of illegally possessing alcohol. This death caused an outrage and led to a lawsuit; the charges were eventually dropped but the incident and its aftermath represented criticism of the religious police in the public domain. Last year, two brothers died after their car was forced off a bridge in Riyadh by members of the mutaween who objected to the songs being played on the car’s radio.

The government however is hesitant to clamp down on the mutaween because of the reaction it may provoke amongst the more conservative classes. In a PR exercise, the force’s head, Sheikh Abdul Latif bin Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, has condemned recent incidents that have provoked public reactions - such as the brothers in the car in Riyadh - and promised an investigation. Sheikh has also admitted that the force contains “extremists” and has vowed to remove them. These statements, while attempting to address public frustration on the actions of the mutaween, have made Sheikh an unpopular figure amongst the force’s and government’s more conservative figures who have accused him of being too westernised and liberal.

After taking over in 2012, Sheikh initiated various reforms in the Commission. Volunteers were no longer allowed to join patrols; phones and personal belongings could not be confiscated; workshops on how to deal with the public were initiated; private businesses could not fund the commission; and car chases were banned - despite which the Riyadh incident took place resulting in two casualties.

The Saudi religious police are an interesting element of the relationship between politics and religion in Saudi Arabia. With institutions dominated by this political-religious confluence, including the print and television media, the advent of social media may emerge as the most genuine public sphere. This is evinced by the room for discourse and debate on social media, an example being a Twitter hashtag calling for the abolition of the religious police, which provoked a harsh response from the country’s more conservative internet users.

The emergence of liberal voices and the demand for change on social media platforms has also drawn attention from the country’s religious figures. Al Arabiya quoted Saudi Arabia’s Mufti, the country’s leading Islamic cleric, saying that social media networks like Twitter have become a “podium for spreading evil and bad ideas and exchanging accusations and lies” by many of their subscribers. “Many Twitter users in the kingdom are also fools who lack modesty and faith,” he said.

Resistance to this call for change, under pressure from conservative power factions in the country, will continue. The crackdown on social media accounts was announced in the same week that Riyadh passed a new counter-terrorism legislation. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the legislation defines terrorism as: “any act carried out by an offender … intended to disturb the public order…to shake the security of society… stability of the state… expose its national unity to danger… suspend the basic law of governance or some of its articles.” The legislation allows security forces to arrest and detain subjects for up to six months with the possibility to extend the confinement for another six months.

As internet surveillance and phone tracking are included in the new legislation, it reflects the Kingdom’s resolve to ensure that a space for public expression of discontent does not emerge.