Saudi king shakes up religious establishment

The shake-up includes appointment of a female deputy minister, the highest government position a Saudi woman has attained.

saudi king abdullah (photo credit: AP [file])
saudi king abdullah
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Saudi king on Saturday dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing the owners of TV networks that broadcast "immoral" content, signaling an effort to weaken the country's hard-line Sunni establishment. The shake-up - King Abdullah's first since coming to power in August 2005 - included the appointment of a female deputy minister, the highest government position a Saudi woman has attained. The king also changed the makeup of an influential body of religious scholars, for the first time giving more moderate Sunnis representation to the group whose duties include issuing the religious edicts known as fatwas. Saudi Arabia's king does not have unlimited power. He has to take into account the sentiments of the sprawling ruling family as well as that of the powerful religious establishment, which helped found the state nearly a century ago. Abdullah's changes indicate that he has built the necessary support and consensus in the religious elite and in the ruling family. The religious establishment has come under persistent criticism, in particular because of the actions of the judiciary and the religious police. Agents of the moral police are responsible for ensuring women are covered and men go to mosques for prayer, among other things, but many Saudis say they exploit their broad mandate to interfere in people's lives. The changes help to dilute the influence that hard-liners have had for decades. The king, who has promoted moderation and interfaith dialogue, has brought in a group of relatively young officials and scholars. "This is the true start of the promises of reform," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan newspaper and an experienced observer of the kingdom's politics. "They bring not only new blood, but also new ideas," "They are more moderate and many are also close to the reform agenda of the king, having worked closely with him." The delay in making these changes could also be in part because the necessary officials and scholars had to be trained for the job. "The people now in charge are not being ordered to implement reform," Khashoggi added. "They believe in reform." New judges were also named and the Consultative Council - the closest thing the kingdom has to a parliament - was reshuffled. The king changed the makeup of an influential body of religious scholars known as the Grand Ulama Commission. Its 21 members will now represent all branches of Sunni Islam, instead of the single strict Hanbali sect that has always governed it. Abdul-Aziz bin Humain will replace Sheik Ibrahim al-Ghaith as head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, according to the agency. Bin Humain, who is believed to be more moderate than his predecessor, will head a body whose agents have been criticized by Saudis for their harsh behavior. Asked about the complaints, bin Humain sidestepped the question, telling Al-Arabiya TV: "We will seek to achieve the aspirations of the rulers." The changes came on Valentine's Day, a busy time for the religious police, who are entrusted with ensuring that no one marks the banned holiday. Agents target shops selling gifts for the occasion, and items that are red or suggest the holiday are removed from the shelves. Some salesmen have been detained for days for infractions. Valentine's Day is banned because of its origins as a celebration of the 3rd century Christian martyr. The day is also targeted because unmarried men and women cannot be alone together. Abdullah also removed Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan, chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice. Al-Lihedan issued an edict in September saying it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV stations that show content deemed to be immoral. It was denounced across the Arab world. He was replaced by Saleh bin Humaid, who until Saturday served as the head of the Consultative Council. Abdullah has said that reforming the judiciary, a bastion of hard-line clerics implementing Islamic law, is one of his top priorities. Judges currently have complete discretion in issuing sentences, except in cases where Islamic law outlines a punishment, such as capital crimes. That discretion has led to cases that have drawn widespread condemnation. In one, a woman from the eastern city of Qatif was raped but received more lashes than one of her seven assailants. The judge ordered the punishment because she was in a car with a man who is not a relative when the two were intercepted by their attackers. Another major change targets education. The king appointed Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, his son-in-law, as education minister. Khashoggi said Faisal has been working behind the scenes on plans to reform education. After the Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by 19 Arabs, including 15 Saudis, many in the U.S. blamed the Saudi educational system for helping create an atmosphere that justifies extremism. At the time, some religious textbooks used in schools contained harsh views of non-Muslims. In the past few years, officials have said they are editing the textbooks. Khashoggi did not say what kinds of changes Faisal is planning. Noura al-Fayez has been appointed Faisal's deputy for girls' education - the first time a woman has been appointed a deputy minister. The former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul-Aziz al-Khoja, will become information minister, according to SPA. Abdullah al-Rabia, a surgeon who has carried out about a dozen operations separating conjoined twins, has been appointed health minister.