The New York Times reports: For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.
Some of that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a country that bans alcohol. But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.
A key offense was ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.
For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.
So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.
There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.
He even said that while women should conceal their bodies, they needed to cover their faces only if they chose to do so. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.
It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.
Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured. [Continue reading…]