Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

A new chapter in the history of the Hesba | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Talking or writing about the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [CPVPV] in Saudi Arabia is an extremely complex and thorny issue due to the common understanding that criticizing – or even expressing an opinion about – this organization represents an objection to religion itself. Hence, whoever ventures to discuss this matter is exposed to a volley of accusations, as is often the case. The CPVPV, or the “Hesba” as it more commonly known, is an organization that is unique to Saudi Arabia. With a few exceptions, no other country in the world has a similar institution or organization. This organization was established shortly after the unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and soon became part of the state’s administrative tools regulating public affairs.

The CPVPV has undergone various phases of development and expansion to its mandate. Saudi society has changed over the years, witnessing a sharp increase in its population, as well as different lifestyles appearing on the scene. In addition to this, the youth have begun to interact with public life; women have become more open to the idea of employment, whilst there has also been a sharp increase in the proportion of foreign labour. Accordingly, demands were made for these new developments to be taken into account, and for a change in how the CPVPV dealt with such issues. The CPVPV was previously a sitting duck for anyone wanting to criticize Saudi Arabia. Violations committed by certain members of the CPVPV would be viewed as part of a general flaw in Saudi society, whilst the most common description of the CPVPV in the western media is “religious police”, with all the unacceptable scornful connotations attached to this.

Amid the on-going process of reform Saudi Arabia is experiencing in multiple sectors – which includes radical reform and the selection of distinguished leaders to manage this process of reform – the appointment of Sheikh Abdullatif al-Sheikh as chief of this vital apparatus came as a most surprising and pleasing piece of news. This represents a step in the right direction, not only because the man concerned has the right first name and the right surname. Indeed he is a member of the prominent al-Sheikh clerical family which traces its roots back to Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab, founder of the Saudi Wahhabi sect. However al-Sheikh is also known for his sound doctrinal judgement, and his rational fatwas and views. He is interested in broadening Islamic Sharia Law, rather than strictly following the written text to the letter of the law.

Al-Sheikh has an established presence in the sphere of Islamic jurisprudence; his views command attention and respect, his resumé is outstanding and his age is ideal. Furthermore, he is a good listener who thinks well of others, yet is firm and decisive whenever the situation calls for it. This was clear in the self-confident attitude of his early media statements – they were short but precise and to the point. He explained that the main objective of the next phase for the CPVPV will be the promotion of virtue with kindness and the prevention of vice without viciousness. He explained, “This is the message and a word to the wise is enough.”

His first decision, which [Saudi] society viewed favourably, was to prevent volunteers from taking part in CPVPV operations. Many people recognize that the majority of complaints are about CPVPV volunteers who were not sufficiently academically qualified to perform the tasks of the CPVPV. This is something that did not sit well with the general public and resulted in complaints being lodged against these CPVPV volunteers. Al-Sheikh now heads a necessary, well-known and important Saudi institution. However, he is entirely aware of the fundamental need to reshape and develop the role of the CPVPV, and improve its tools, so that the CPVPV is an institution that enjoys public support, rather than a tool of resentment, exposure and humiliation. The CPVPV is a government apparatus like any other state-run apparatus, its managers are human, who can do the right or wrong thing without this jeopardizing the CPVPV’s overall mission or its moral and religious objectives. Nevertheless, it will be important for the new CPVPV chief to reform the way that the CPVPV officers approach and engage with members of the public in light of the development of the Saudi state and recently formed bodies like the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution and the Saudi Human Rights Commission, as well as international agreements that Saudi Arabia has signed.

With high hopes, the people of Saudi Arabia are looking forward to a new chapter in the history of this vital apparatus. Many view having a man like Abdullatif al-Sheikh in charge as a good omen. We can only pray he is successful, and that good intentions rule the next phase.