Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Q & A with Saudi Virtue Commission Head, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ghaith | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Q) The media have recently been reporting on several cases involving the members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in the region of Tabbuk. Would you clarify this matter to us? What is the status of these cases?

A) None of the charges that were brought against these men were proven. Regarding the members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, four members have been released and a fifth is still in custody. The monitoring and investigation department will be looking into the charges brought against him in the coming few days. Those concerned in such cases will have the final word on this case.

Q) You have recently conducted a survey to gauge the public’s satisfaction with the activities of your commission. What are the results that you have reached?

A) The presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is always determined to remain in contact with society because its work is closely and directly connected to society. Moreover, we work to gain the satisfaction of God Almighty first and the satisfaction of the public for the work that we do that aim at protecting them from slipping into the mazes of deviancy and at safeguarding public morals in society and adherence to the teachings of Islam. Thus, the presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice conducts studies in cooperation with specialized research centers in the Saudi universities and other research and studies centers. Furthermore, we scan everything that is written in the press and the electronic sites pertaining to our commission, particularly referendums, and we study these surveys and we benefit from them a lot.

Q) In recent years, the commission had been closed to and distant from the media. Suddenly, its news began to be reported on the front pages of major Saudi newspapers. What are the reasons for this do you think?

A) The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has not ever been closed. How could it be closed when its direct relationship and work are basically tied to society and its various sectors? The commission’s interaction with society and society’s interaction with the commission rebut such claims. Like any other government organ that concerns the life of the citizen and the resident in the kingdom, the commission is subject to different opinions and viewpoints. The commission is not the only governmental organ that is reported on the front pages. The press reports on all the Saudi government departments, especially those that are related to the lives of the people. I do not need to elaborate on that or to give examples. If you read any newspaper you will discover that most if not all the sectors in society are mentioned either in praise or in criticism. I consider this an inevitable outcome of the media explosion, the huge information revolution, and the openness between the press and society and vice versa. The media outlets have expanded to include the worldwide web whose influence is incredible and totally different from what prevailed in the past. The commission has never been closed to society.

Q) Some people believe that the absence of controls and checks on the commission’s men lead to wrong transgressions. They also believe that the addition of “indifferent” informants to your work creates problems in dealing with the public in the street. What do you think?

A) What I know and what my brothers that work in the commission and its departments know is that they operate in accordance with clear mechanisms and statutes, specific checks and controls, a comprehensive system established by royal decree, and bylaws and legislations that regulate all the affairs and operations of the commission’s presidency. All these are available to the members of the commission and they operate in accordance to them. At this point I wish to affirm that there are no informants working with the commission. The rules and regulations that have been conveyed to all the centers and branches of the commission do not permit the presence of such informants. But we do receive complaints and information from citizens and residents that are concerned for their faith and the protection of their society. The commission’s relationship with such citizens ends as soon as the information is received by telephone or as soon as a person comers to one of the commission’s centers or branches that exist in all the regions and provinces of Saudi Arabia.

Q) But we often see in the commission’s centers men that are collaborating and impersonating members of the commission. Do you not think that such impersonators may harm the reputation of the commission?

A) There are certain official quarters that punish such impersonators. That is why we have in recent years impressed upon our members the importance of carrying identity badges on their chests in order to prevent the impersonation of members of the commission. The law punishes the impersonation of an identity no matter who it is. However, there are people that take the initiative and inform us if they see a vice being committed. These people jealously guard their religion and their society. For example, if a traffic jam occurs on any road in the city, you sometimes see pedestrians volunteering to help in ending the traffic jam. Is this an impersonation of traffic officers? These citizens, on their own initiative, tried to end a traffic jam. As for the character of the commission’s men, our religion enjoins us to promote virtue and to prevent vice and there are several ways of doing this. It can be done by action or by the tongue or by the heart as cited in one of the Traditions of the Prophet. This does not mean that it is impersonation of the commission’s men.

Q) But at a recent meeting with them, you cautioned your commission’s men from chasing anyone that is trying to flee from their grip. Do you not believe that such a cautioning may be understood as an admission by you that some members of the commission are chasing others merely for suspecting them and often leading to undesirable consequences?

A) What I told the commission’s men when I met with them regarding pursuits was meant only as a reminder. They had officially been notified of this and it has not been permitted for some time. We are more concerned than anyone else for the lives and safety of the public. Just as we are concerned for their morals and their religion, we are as concerned and more so for their lives and property. But what happens is that those that commit [traffic] violations flee as soon as they see a policeman or a member of the commission. They flee in one way or the other before they are even pursued by the commission’s men. As the common saying goes, “the suspect is almost saying take me”. Often, the policeman or the commission member does not know anything about those that flee from him. This happens a lot. The men of the commission do not rely only on suspicion in doing their work. This is particularly true of a chase, if it takes place. The harm done by a chase is more than its benefits both to the pursuer and the one being pursued and to the lives of the public as well as private and public property. We stress to the commission’s men to jot down the information available, such as the model of the car, its license plate, color, and so on and to report this to the pertinent security organs.

Q) Why do you refuse to publicize your authorities and your mechanisms of action in the media so that the public would read them and understand them?

A) We have not refused to publish our courses of action. Like all the other state departments, we have no secrets to hide. We operate in broad daylight and our relationship with the public drives us to deal with it with transparency, which is what happens. The bylaws of the commission’s presidency are published by the government’s publishing houses. They are available on the market and they are sold to anyone that wishes to become familiar with them. The work of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is not something new. It has been with us since the establishment of this land by King Abdulaziz and his sons after him. It is one of the duties in Islam. Hudhayfah, may God be pleased with him, cites the prophet, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, as saying, “It is your duty to propagate virtue and prohibit vice or else God will visit a punishment against you. You will plead to God but your prayers will not be answered”, as narrated by Al-Turmudhi who endorsed it as a good tradition of the prophet. Ibn Taymiyah, the sheikh of Islam who died in 728 Hegira [corresponding to 1327],may God have mercy on his soul, said, “All the guardians and custodians in the Muslim state have enacted laws to promote virtue and prevent vice”.

Q) Every now and then, the press and other media outlets publish reports on the efforts of the commission, but the commission’s presidency does not have a presence in the media that would highlight its efforts. Do you have any plans in this regard in the coming stage?

A) The presidency of the commission is active in conveying its message to all the sectors of society and no one can deny its work and efforts. The accomplishments of the commission’s men speak for themselves. We do not seek the media merely to assert our presence in the media. Our reward is that we are doing our duty and accomplishing our goals in accordance with the instructions of the guardians. Perhaps I should summarize in figures the accomplishments of the general presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in its first aspect of promoting virtue through awareness, education, and guidance, and the prevention of vice through monitoring the deviant ideological behavior and religious conduct as reported in the annual statistical report of 2006. The presidency of the commission conducted more than 47,500 awareness and guidance programs that consisted of symposiums, panels, and guidance lectures and distributed more than 7,830,000 pamphlets and audio cassettes. Through its various branches and centers, the presidency of the commission arranged more than 60,940 cooperation visits and contacts. All this is within the realm of the first part of the commission’s mission; namely, the promotion of virtue. As for the second part, namely, the prevention of vice, about 416,000 cases were dealt with the number of persons involved in these cases was 434,000 individuals (that is 2% of the population of Saudi Arabia if the number of citizens and residents is over 22 million persons). The unpublicized cases that ended with pledges [not to commit the offense again] in order to protect the reputation of the perpetrator involved about 392,000 individuals, that is, about 90%. About 42,000individuals, that is, about 10% were referred to the quarters concerned. These percentages show very clearly that the purpose of the commission is to reform and correct. This is the approach that all the members of the commission take. No one is referred to the quarters concerned unless we see that such a referral is unavoidable.

Q) You have opened training centers in the branches of the commission’s presidency in all the regions in order to train the members of your commission. What did you focus on in these programs? Do you not think that the training came too late?

A) The training has been going on for years and the training programs have been ongoing and regular. What took place recently was no more than a process of renewal and upgrading of the training. I believe that training and retraining are institutional phenomena that are necessitated by the need and the accelerating developments in the world. The commission has begun a new strategy of practical training and rehabilitation to confront the accelerating developments. The most important aspect of this strategy is training the trainers of the commission scientifically, technologically, and professionally so that they would train their brothers in the branches. We are seeking to enroll all the employees in the commission’s presidency in regular training courses in order to raise their qualifications and proficiency by providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to carry out their work and improve their performance. The members of the commission are highly qualified and capable. According to the results of the study that the commission’s presidency carried out in cooperation with the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies and Research, 85% of the members of the commission have attended training courses, 15% are proficient in a second language other than Arabic, and 63% are proficient in using computers. These percentages are not up to our aspirations but we are moving forward quickly to enable all the members of the commission to enroll in various training courses.

Q) In the commission’s operations in the field (atheism, sorcery, and soothsaying) are the most serious prohibitions that are given a priority in prevention. Do you not think that you have restricted the modus operandi of some members of your department within specific frameworks? Does this restriction negate some of the interventions that some members of your department sometimes carry out?

A) The members of the commission operate based on a system that regulates their duties. The topics that I mentioned – atheism, sorcery, and soothsaying – are priorities to the commission, but they are not everything. The operations of the commission were specified in Royal Decree No.M/37 dated 26/10/1400 Hegira [corresponding to 7 September 1980] and in accordance with its bylaws in Article 23 that stipulate that “the state should protect Islam, apply Shariaa, and promote virtue and prevent vice”. This is a divine injunction for God Almighty says, “You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah” [Koranic verse, Al-Imran (The Family of Imran), 3:110]. The goodness of this ummah [Community of Islam] lies in promoting virtue and preventing vice. This phrase encompasses doing and promoting good deeds and avoiding and warning against evil. What I mentioned does not restrict the work of the commission’s members but it focuses on the importance of certain aspects of their work. The commission men’s monitoring of certain manifestations is not considered to be meddling in what does not concern them. Many of their activities are found in some Muslim countries and even in some western countries, such as the vice police but with a differences that is necessitated by the realities of our country that adheres to Islam as a law, conduct, and way of life. The regulations that are enacted protect society from deviation and vice.

Q) Many believe that there are many question marks pertaining to the work of the commission in certain regions and provinces. Do you think that these question marks or misunderstandings are due to the conduct of the commission’s members or are they due to the lack of understanding of the public of the operations of your commission?

A) I will answer your question with a quotation from a poem: “Whose character and personal traits are all satisfactory and acceptable? A person is considered sufficiently noble if his defects and faults are countable”. We do not consider ourselves as above faults and mistakes. We are like all other human beings. However, we do our best and we resort to all means to avoid making mistakes. We try to minimize our mistakes and accept and respect honest and true criticism. The Caliph Omar, may God be pleased with him, is cited as having said, “There is no good in you if you do not criticize and there is no good in us if we do not heed your criticism” but based on the morals and ethics of Islam and the recommendations of God’s messenger, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, without any noise or transgression or interpretation of intentions. My call to extend bridges with all the sectors of society is only to confirm the importance of what we do and to comply with the demands of many sectors in society that sometimes asks the commission to do more than it can.

Q) Do you feel that there is a lack of acceptance by the masses of your commission? What are the real reasons for this lack of acceptance?

A) There is absolutely no evidence that the masses do not accept the members of the commission. In fact, the exact opposite is true. He written and called in requests that we receive and the requests that we receive in person asking for the commission men to be in this or that place and their insistence confirm beyond any doubt the acceptance of the masses. In fact, some of the masses say that they feel that their families are safer and more secure when they see the members of the commission in a place that they frequent with their families or that their families frequent on their own. A field survey of all the regions in Saudi Arabia undertaken a team of specialists working for the Research Center of the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University has shown that society positively views the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The results of the study showed that the Saudi society views highly positively the commission and those working in it as well as the service that it provides to society. A random sample of more than 3,400 respondents strongly approved the phrases that “they are reassured about the safety of their families in the presence of members of the commission in public places” and that the commission is carrying out an important duty by urging adherence to the teachings of Islam and preserving morals and honors.

Q) In the past few years, your commission faced abroad campaign of criticism that was accompanied by dramatic acts of individuals impersonating the men of the commission and it was said that you stopped their airing on television. To what extent do you profit from the criticism leveled at you?

A) We have definitely learned from the criticism of several quarters both those that agreed with us or that disagreed with us. That is why we created a department for administrative development, a second department for planning, and a third department for training and awareness. We felt that our performance needed to be upgraded but this upgrading was not the inevitable result of the criticisms by some. We do not approve the distinction and classification of those that are with us and those that are against us. But we expect support, backing, and understanding of our work. This does not mean that we reject criticism because criticism can be a fertile ground for correcting mistakes that we may be about to commit.

Q) In your opinion, how do you assess the evaluation of the foreign media outlets of the work of your commission?

A) I think that the domestic media views the general presidency of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice just like any other state organ or sector. If transgressions occur sometimes, I attribute them to the hastiness of certain writers for we are all the sons of instinct. We all seek to reform but each in his way. He maybe right or he may be wrong and only God knows about intentions. We do not involve ourselves in intentions until the opposite is proved to us. As for the external media, they prey on some mistakes that are committed by some writers, may God guide them in the right path, especially the hasty correspondents of some newspapers that seek press scoops at the expense of the facts. When the facts are revealed, they often appear to be contrary to the published reports. The external media outlets exploit these same goals that are hostile to our country’s adherence to our faith and the preservation of Islamic morals and conduct. The external media exploit these errors and inflate them as they explain them based on their premises that are often whimsical and hostile to this country.

Q) Do you not think that it is high time to employ women in your ranks, at least so that they would be able to reach places where women can reach and that the men of the commission cannot reach?

A) The presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice studies its needs based on the requirements of the situation and the conditions in the field. If a convincing need arises to include women in its ranks in the presidency, this need will be studied and appropriate measures will be taken to address this need in accordance with the provisions of Shariaa.

Q) How do you deal with the surprise raids that the men of the commission carry out?

A) The raids that are carried out by the commission’s men require several matters. The most important matter on which we rely in our raids of houses is an official written permission issued by the quarters identified by the state and with the participation of the security men. In some cases, the participation of some security organs in some of the raids conducted by the commission have been announced.

Q) What about the cases that are worrying and a cause for concern by your commission?

A) The majority of the cases are making improper advances in the shopping areas and tourist areas. There are also cases of alcohol use and the bad effects of the Bluetooth on young men and women.

Q) What do you mean by the effects of the Bluetooth?

A) The Bluetooth when it is misused. The commission has exploited this technology in the field of Al-Da’wah [call to Islam] but some have misused it to make improper advances, transmit pornographic pictures, and spread vice in the country. The Bluetooth is a two-edged sword. If does good if used properly and does evil is used improperly. We do not inspect any mobile telephone if we determine that this phone was not used improperly. There are official instructions that prevent the inspection of such telephones.

Q) There are certain government organs, such as the traffic police, that issue tickets but they have not been as criticized as the commission. To what do you attribute this criticism? Do you not think that the commission has made serious mistakes and that is why it came under the spotlight?

A) Some media outlets use double standards. We do not want the mistakes of any government organ to be inflated and we also do not want the mistakes committed by the commission to be inflated and its good efforts ignored and forgotten. The public is the judge of the mistakes of the commission and the mistakes committed by the other organs are only coyly mentioned. No doubt, I want the men of the commission to be without mistakes but at the end of the day, the members of the commission are human.

Profile of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghayth, President of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the prevention of Vice:

– He graduated from the Al-Aziziyah Elementary School in Riyadh in 1379 Hegira [corresponding to 1959]

– He did his middle school and high school in the Al-Riyadh Scientific Institute in Riyadh that is part of the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in 1385 Hegira [corresponding to 1965]

– In 1388 – 1389 Hegira [corresponding to 1968-1969] he graduated from the School of Shariaa in the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University.

– He has written articles in the subject of Al-Da’wah and guidance. He also lectures in symposiums held in mosques, colleges, institutes, schools, and other institutions of learning. He has participated in a number of radio and television programs and has been frequently interviewed in the press.

– At the start of his career, he was appointed as budget recorder and treasurer in the Accounting Department in the presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

– After obtaining his university degree he was appointed as head of the Riyadh center of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the prevention of Vice.

– He was appointed chairman of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice for the city of Riyadh.

– He was appointed general director of the presidency of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice for the Riyadh region.

– A decree was issued appointing him assistant president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice

– He was appointed president of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice by royal decree.

– On 12/6/1423 Hegira [corresponding to 21 August 2002] a royal decree appointed him president of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice with the rank of minister.

– On 12/6/1427 Hegira [corresponding to 9 July 2006] a royal decree extended his term as president of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in the rank of minister for another four years.