In defense of morality [Archives:2008/1166/Reportage]

June 23 2008

Mohammed Al-Asaadi
The Media Line

Reports on Saudi Arabia's morality policy have long been of interest in the West. Now, Yemen is set to follow suit, introducing its own Moral Authority, as The Media Line's Mohammed Al-Asaadi reports from the country's capital, 'Sana'a.

Educated and liberal, Ghaida Farouq likes to hang out with her family and friends in places like the Coffee Trader, a Starbucks-style coffee shop in 'Sana, capital of Yemen, and in the new variety of restaurants offering quality services and food.

Smiling, happy faces can be seen in such places, where men and women, locals and foreigners can enjoy drink or food. A first-time visitor might ask: “Is this really Yemen?”

People who hang out in these places spend on a cup of coffee more than the average pay slip of a regular citizen in Yemen. And the ambience provides a romantic venue for couples to enjoy being together without any kind of harassment.

However, this Western-like environment is deemed by some religious scholars in Yemen as a center of immorality. They believe that “international Zionism” and “materialism” of the owners will damage the morality of the Muslim nation.

These scholars can't tolerate seeing a man chatting with a woman freely in a coffee shop or a restaurant: it is considered a sin and their role is to defend “morality.” These places – as well as hotels, parks and resorts – are targets for these “defenders of morality,” who are working tirelessly to establish a novel entity that fights “immorality” in society.

Last month it was announced that a new body, to be called the “Morality Authority,” would be established to defend against immorality.

Farouq, a women's rights activist, says she is disturbed by the news and can't believe this entity would really be established.

“It is a political game,” Farouk told The Media Line. “We have discussed this issue thoroughly with family and friends. We decided to advocate against it and take a counter path to defend our personal freedoms. Such an authority could appear in the absence of law and order, for instance.”

An obviously nervous Farouq says that in the event such an authority was established, she would get herself a gun and defend her freedom.

“I don't want to do it, but I have no option,” she says.

“It is a scary feeling to imagine that someone can really accuse you of being immoral or attack you just for hanging out with friends in a public place.”

The American embassy in 'Sana has, in recent months, warned U.S. citizens not to hang out in these places, because they could be vulnerable to assaults by radical groups.

'Big Brother' is watching

A group of controversial religious leaders led the propaganda campaign prior to the establishment of the Morality Authority, including 'Abd Al-Majid A-Zindani, founder and rector of the Al-Iman Islamic University, whose name is listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a terror fund-raiser, and Hamoud A-Tharehi, a former governor of 'Sana.

A-Zindani and A-Tharehi are both leading officials in the opposition Islamic party, I'slah.

A-Tharehi said this new authority would play a vital role in protecting the morality of the nation, which was being exposed to a “publicly destructive assault.”

“The Morality Authority is called for after realizing a deficiency in the government's performance,” A-Tharehi said. “We are suffering from corruption in morals and values which is being executed by large networks. This authority will mobilize the authorities and public to protect the values and morals of the nation.”

The announcement of this authority created a huge controversy in the country, with dozens of editorials, roundtable discussions and activities protesting the move.

Lawyer Khalid Al-Anesi, managing director of HOOD, the Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, and a member of the Islamic party, said this move reflected the failure of the government in protecting public decencies and morals.

“These scholars keep doing these things that don't upset the regime,” Al-Anesi said. “I wish they would join us and defend the rights of people, which are abused by the state on a regular basis.”

Political writer Fikri Qasim wrote an op-ed that was published in several newspapers in the country criticizing the move and those behind it. Qasim said these scholars should fight injustice, corruption, poverty and unemployment, instead of what they believe is immorality.

Defending his cause, A-Tharehi said there was a misunderstanding.

“The new authority will not be like that in the neighboring, oil-rich, Saudi Kingdom,” he said.

The religious police in Saudi Arabia chases people in the streets to pray, and bans men and women from dining or shopping together in public. However, the Saudi regime has diminished the influence of this authority in recent years.

Operating illegally

In the Red Sea port city Hodeida, a group of youths has launched similar actions to the anticipated mission of the new authority. These youth, in violation of the law and constitution, chase boys and girls in the streets and storm residences where they expect to see men and women together. They report their findings to the police, who make immediate arrests.

Members of the group usually appear before investigators to testify that the subjects were caught red-handed in an immoral situation.

According to a recent report by the independent weekly Al-Nedaa, the group has caused the arrests of dozens of men and women, and at least 20 of the women are still in police custody.

The Media Line was assured by locals from the city of the existence and actions of the group, but were unable to verify the number of victims.


According to A-Tharehi, the Morality Authority will be composed of leading religious scholars and senior government officials, including four ministers and the public prosecutor.

“It is an advantage that it will be led by wise religious scholars, so it is not driven towards extremism and terrorism,” said A-Tharehi.

He said Westerners must understand the authority would reduce extremism and terrorism in Yemen, but gave no further explanation.

The government has also revealed a plan to launch an Islamic satellite channel very soon to combat terrorism. It is believed the new channel will preach tolerance and moderation and will also counter immorality.

This move is also seen by local observers as a move to further radicalize society.