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A Saudi version of PRISM?

Badria al-Bishr

Published: Updated:

At a time when PRISM spying claims rage in the U.S. and keep the media and rights organizations busy objecting to the security services’ surveillance of e-mails, web surfing and phone calls, I find myself busy with a local version of PRISM here in Saudi Arabia.

Men from the country’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice recently stormed a cafe for women and families in the north western province of Tabuk for the seventh time.

In the first six times they paid a visit to the cafe, they had been searching it for prohibited foods - under the excuse of having received an anonymous tip that later turned out to be a false alarm.

The cafe owner does not have the right to ask and know who gave the fake tip-off six times. The owner said that when the religious police raided it for the seventh time, the café’s driver - who was covering for the absent guard - was descending the stairs from the second floor after he changed a bulb in the toilet. When the committee members saw him, they asked "what were you doing up there?" He said: "Fixing a bulb." So they asked him to return to the second floor and they used the elevator to follow him to arrest him on charges of being alone with the women in the cafe.

Do we have the right to understand the religious police’s "PRISM stance" on the rights of citizens who work to make a living?

Dr. Badria al-Bishr

I heard about this story the same time as reading that another cafe in Jeddah was shut down because it served shisha to its customers. But it was later reopened and things went back to normal because after the raid was carried out, the area's "commission of investigation and prosecution" grants permission for the café to resume work.

You never know how the judgements of two administrations in one country contradict. You also never know if each administration works upon different systems that end up implicating the workplace owner and obstructing his work or if it is a game of bad people versus the good.

Free to do as they please

The religious police’s PRISM here is also linked to a sham procedure of raids which their members follow and which house and shop owners don't know about. No security team has the right to raid or search a place without the permission of the commission of investigation and prosecution. But this is the last thing that the committee thinks about. The committee does not want anyone to prevent it from doing what it wants for after all, its authority falls right after that of almighty God.

Tabuk's cafe has 16 women hired there. They work there whilst wearing the niqab. So on the seventh time, the committee members saw the driver changing the bulb. They detained him and the next day, the commission of investigation and prosecution interrogated him. It was ruled that the detention procedure was under false pretences. But he did not escape other charges while he was in detention; they searched his phone and found a photo of a girl on it. See, you are not only held accountable for what you are caught doing, you are also held accountable for what's found on your phone.

A young man whom the committee arrested for being alone with a girl in a public street said that a religious police member scolded him because women follow him on Twitter.

Do we have the right to understand the religious police’s "PRISM stance" on the rights of citizens who work to make a living? And where do the duties of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice stop at? At Islamic guidance and preaching limits? Or is the committee a security apparatus that has the right to conduct raids and investigations that do not fall under the interior ministry? Officials in the committee say it's a party that detains wrongdoers and does not investigate. They also confiscate the detainees’ phones and keep them for days to monitor messages and calls received.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 17, 2013.


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Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies.

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