RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Long-bearded and short-robed, the men of the matawain prowl the shopping centers, restaurants and public parks of Saudi Arabia in search of sin.
At the modern Akariah mall, they chastise and wave camel whips at a black-cloaked Saudi woman whose face is exposed. Across town, they shave the head of a Filipino chauffeur because his hair is too long. Outside the Saudi capital, they insist on the arrest of three Australian nurses for allegedly drinking alcohol, holding them for four days in a crowded prison crawling with rats.
Such is the work of the matawain, or "religious police," the guardians of public morality in Saudi Arabia. They are the powerful, dreaded enforcers of religious law and social custom based on a puritanical form of Islam that is observed here.
Officially known as the Committee for the Commendation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, they are the most visible symbol of Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist religious foundation--and the cultural icon that outsiders find most jarring to watch and most difficult to understand.
"The matawain . . . serve as a safeguard that is sure to prevent deterioration and protect society from corruption," said Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Said, the recently appointed director of the virtue and vice committee.
"We firmly believe that ours is the true religion and therefore we must always endeavor to uphold its pillars."
For the matawain , an institution that traces its roots to the days of the caliphs and is a cornerstone in a Koran- based legal system, these are complex times.
First they had to cope with the presence of half a million American and European non-Muslim troops sent to Saudi Arabia to fight the Persian Gulf War.
Then, they were frustrated by orders not to harass American women soldiers who violated local customs by driving cars and exposing their elbows. Their frustration was often vented on Saudis.
And now, questions are being raised in high places about the purportedly abusive practices of some of the matawain . Their new leader, a highly regarded theologian appointed late last year by King Fahd, is speaking out about adjusting a few things.
Said suggested shaping the organization into a more professional morals squad committed to teaching by example, not by harassment. Many of the more heavy-handed tactics, it is argued, are the work of vigilante, self-proclaimed matawain that officials cannot control.
"The promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice is the duty of every capable Muslim who knows right and wrong, good and bad," Said said in an interview with the daily newspaper Al Riyadh.
"It can never become meddling in the affairs of others, as long as the matawain act responsibly and do not exceed their authority, which is what is required of them at all times."
Because the king's very legitimacy is so wrapped in the mantle of religion, it is unlikely that he could act very forcefully to curb the matawain's activities, say Saudi and foreign analysts.
Nevertheless, observing how Fahd deals with them, how he reins them in on some issues but relents on others, is a study in the way the king carefully manipulates diverse factions and interests in Saudi Arabia--always with the single goal of retaining power and preserving the kingdom's placid stability.
The alliance between the ruling House of Saud and the religious right wing dates back centuries. In the 1700s, the Abd al Wahhab tribe, founders of a purist interpretation of Islam, joined forces with the prominent Saud family. Together, they fought to spread their religion and their influence over the nomads of the Arabian Peninsula, eventually conquering the sites of Islam's holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina, and establishing what is today the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In the 1920s, during the infancy of the kingdom, the matawain served as missionaries for founding King Ibn Saud. They promoted the Muslim way of life among Bedouin tribesmen and evolved into a corps of paid civil servants who enforced the strict tenets of Wahhabism, especially against the corrupting influence of modernization and the West.
Today, with a hefty government budget, the matawain are as active as ever.
Moving from place to place in white four-wheel-drive vehicles, the religious police are recognizable by their distinctive dress: They wear the same white thobe that all Saudi men do, but theirs is shorter, reaching about mid-calf. They wear the red-and-white checkered head cloth, but without the circular black band that other Saudi men use to keep it in place.
Many carry camel whips, which they sometimes use to thrash the man or woman who is caught breaking a law. Others merely counsel or verbally admonish the violator. They often patrol their turf in the company of a uniformed police officer for added authority; they can recommend, but not carry out, arrests.