While the effect of the anti-government Green Movement in Iran waxes and wanes, the morals patrols (mutawiyin) of the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom of Saudi Arabia have once again seized on the popularity of Valentine’s Day among young Saudi subjects as a pretext for a campaign against alleged idol-worship, paganism, and Christianity.
Already panicky over social stability in the kingdom, the Saudi Wahhabis displayed their habitually repressive attitudes with the coming of the dreaded Valentine’s Day. Worried that Saudi Muslims would be tempted to such “heretical” acts as exchanging greetings (which may now be accomplished via the internet without purchasing cards), buying flowers, and inviting the objects of their affections out for special dinners, the ever-vigilant thugs of the mutawiyin raided flower shops in search of prohibited red roses, heart-shaped presents, and gifts wrapped in red paper. They ordered the merchants not to display any such articles, and warned, with the typical subtlety of the brutal patrols, “Those who do not comply will be punished.” Since many Saudi subjects purchase Valentine gifts weeks before the holiday itself, the mutawiyin mobilize to prevent sale of any red items. Wahhabi preachers, meanwhile, ranted against Valentine’s Day as a Western celebration of a Christian saint, allegedly leading to apostasy.
Having exercised the power of religion to the detriment of cellphone users and celebrants of Valentine’s Day, the Wahhabi establishment also recently proposed a solution for the long-standing prohibition against Saudi women driving automobiles. Women’s expenditures for drivers are high - since the expanding pool of women who work must often pay for the chauffeurs’ room and board as well as transportation - and female patronage of taxi drivers is often unsafe. Saudi bus transport includes segregation of women to a limited number of seats in each coach. As a remedy, the Saudi authorities have come up with a typically-arbitrary proposal - that a separate system of women’s-only buses be established.
Meanwhile, the clerical dictatorship in Tehran, facing the Green Movement, has halted travel by Iranian pilgrims to Mecca for umrah, the “lesser hajj” that may be performed by individual Muslims at any time during the year, and which consists only of circumambulation of the Ka’b a large cube building in Mecca, walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah, and cutting of one’s hair. Umrah is a voluntary but recommended practice, while the regular hajj is required for all Muslims able to afford it, and takes place during the hajj month, or “Dhul Hijjah” that concludes the Islamic lunar year. The regular hajj is a collective observance involving as many as two million pilgrims, with further rituals in addition to those at umrah. Iran’s need to keep its contentious citizens at home speaks to the depth of the political crisis in that country, but also discomfits Saudis, especially hoteliers profiting from Iranian visitors, who are often better-off than other Muslim pilgrims.
It is also worthwhile to examine another recent incident that reveals the widening gap between the expectations of the Saudi youth and the perverse beliefs of Wahhabism. On February 8, a riot broke out at a girls’ school in the Mansour district of Mecca, one of Islam’s two holiest cities, and the site of the annual hajj pilgrimage. Most of about 750 pupils at the school are African. The disturbance was provoked by the school principal, a woman, who confiscated seven students’ camera cellphones, along with makeup and perfume, during examinations. New technology, especially when it enables texting and photography, and therefore private messages between young people, away from the prying eyes of the mutawiyin, represents a significant challenge to the Wahhabi order.
The girls whose possessions were seized finished their exams, then erupted, breaking up furniture and turning on fire extinguishers, according to Arab media. They blockaded the female principal’s office, forcing her to call her husband on her own telephone, asking for assistance. He, in turn, summoned police. The Saudi authorities were reduced to filing charges against the students with, and demanding an investigation by, the official Educational Department in Mecca. The Department was shameless enough to declare that the school riot was an isolated incident.
In reality, the “cellphone riot” was merely the latest chapter illustrating the discontent growing among the Saudi youth, especially women. Some weeks before, a riot had broken out in a Mecca female correctional center, and the university at Ta’if, another city in the western, and traditionally anti-Wahhabi region of Hejaz, saw a sit-in by a thousand girls who had been refused entry to the academic admission process. The protesting girls were joined by their male guardians or mehrams, whose presence is decreed by Saudi morals regulations. The girls and their guardians blocked the streets at the entrance of the university and fought with security guards who attempted to remove them.
In the short term such incidents reflects the energy of young people pressing against the primitive Wahhabi order. But viewed in a longer perspective, it is impossible to imagine that young Saudis are immune to the influence of television and YouTube reporting from Iran in upheaval.
As much or more than Iran, Saudi Arabia is trapped in an ideology from which it cannot escape. And as in Iran, more dissent and upheaval must be expected in the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom.