Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia)
|الرئاسة العامة للأمر بالمعروف و النهي عن المنكر|
Seal of the Committee
|This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
The General Presidency of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices (abbreviated CPVPV; Arabic: هيئة الأمر بالمعروف و النهي عن المنكر ), also informally referred to as Hai’a, is the Saudi Arabian government agency employing “religious police” or Mutaween (مطوعين), to enforce Sharia Law within that Islamic nation.
The number of police is estimated at 3,500-4,000. Members patrol the streets enforcing dress codes, strict separation of men and women, salat prayer by Muslims during prayer times, and other behavior it believes to be commanded by Islam. They are known for having full beards (sometimes henna-dyed) and for wearing their headscarves (ghutrah or shemagh) loose without an agal—they often wear a besht as well—and for often coming from Saudi Arabia’s lower classes. They were empowered to detain and berate offenders and shut down businesses. Prior to the reforms of 2007 they were armed with thin wooden canes to strike miscreants. However, as of April 2016, the Saudi Council of Ministers has issued a regulation that stripped the religious police of their powers.
The police were formerly called the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Sin, also CAVES or CPVPV. They are also known locally as Hai’a (literally "committee", also transliterated as Haia or Hayaa), or mutawiyin (literally “the pious”, sometimes alternately translated as “the volunteers”). (See Mutaween for a list of variant spellings and an extended description of Islamic religious police.)
Structure and History
In the 1980s, King Fahd issued a royal decree formally creating the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, as well as all of the Committee’s employees serve at the pleasure of the king, presently King Salman.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is charged with ensuring that Saudis and foreign residents respect traditional Islamic morality, as defined by the Saudi government.
Employees of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are no longer supposed to arrest people on their own. This came about as part of a series of reforms that were initiated after members of the Committee prevented schoolgirls from being rescued from their school, which was on fire. However, Committee employees are free to entrap people, collect evidence, and can travel with members of the police.
In January 2012, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh was appointed head of the mutaween. He "holds the rank of cabinet minister and reports directly to the king". His agency employs more than 4,000 “field officers” and reportedly has another 10,000 administrative personnel. Its 2013 budget was the equivalent of $390 USD million.
In 2009, the CPVPV created and formalized a special "Anti-Witchcraft Unit" to "educate the public about the evils of sorcery, investigate alleged witches, neutralize their cursed paraphernalia, and disarm their spells". The unit also had a hotline on the CPVPV website for Saudis to report any magic to local officials.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice enforces traditional Islamic morality by arresting or helping to secure the arrest of people who engage in conduct that violates Islamic principles and values. They are tasked with enforcing Sharia as defined in Saudi Arabia. In addition to having the power to arrest anyone engaged in homosexual acts, prostitution, fornication, or, they can also arrest unrelated males and females caught socializing, enforce Islamic dress-codes or eating habits (such as the prohibition from eating pork) and store closures during the prayer time. They prohibit the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages and seize banned consumer products and media regarded contrary to Islamic morals. They also actively prevent the religious practices of other religions within Saudi Arabia.
Upon being appointed head of the CPVPV, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh identified "five areas the religious police should focus on": preserving Islam, preventing blackmail, combating sorcery, fighting human trafficking, and ensuring that no one disobeys the country’s rulers.
While on patrol, the duties of the mutaween include, but are not restricted to:
- ensuring that drugs including alcohol are not being traded.
- checking that women wear the abaya, a traditional cloak.
- making sure that men and women who are spotted together in public are related.
- formerly, enforcing the ban on camera phones. This ban was enacted out of a fear that men would use them to secretly photograph women and publish them on the Internet without the consent of the subjects. The ban was enacted in April 2004 but was overturned in December that same year.
- preventing the population from engaging in "frivolous" Western customs such as Valentine's Day.
The punishment for such offenses is severe, often involving beatings and humiliation, and foreigners are not excluded from arrest. The mutaween encourage people to inform on others they know who are suspected of acting unvirtuously, and to punish such activities.
In 2010, a 27-year-old Saudi man was sentenced to five years in prison, 500 lashes of the whip, and a SR50,000 fine after appearing in an amateur gay video online allegedly taken inside a Jeddah prison. According to an unnamed government source, “The District Court sentenced the accused in a homosexuality case that was referred to it by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a) in Jeddah before he was tried for impersonating a security man and behaving shamefully and with conduct violating the Islamic teachings.” The case started when the Hai’a’s staff arrested the man under charges of practicing homosexuality. He was referred to the Bureau for Investigation and Prosecution, which referred him to the District Court.
Among the Western practices suppressed by the Mutaween is the celebration of Valentine's Day. Condemning the festivities as a "pagan feast", Mutaween inspect hotels, restaurants, coffeehouses, and gift shops on 14 February to prevent Muslim couples from giving each other Valentines or other presents. The sale of red roses, red stuffed animals, red greeting cards and other red gift items is banned, according to store owners. These items are confiscated, and those selling them subject to prosecution.
The children's game Pokémon was banned in 2001. The sale of the fashion doll Barbie was banned as a consumer product for posing a moral threat to Islam, stating: "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful." Fulla dolls were designed and approved as more acceptable.
In 2006 the police issued a decree banning the sale of dogs and cats, also seen as a sign of Western influence. The decree which applies to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah and the holy city of Mecca bans the sale of cats and dogs because "some youths have been buying them and parading them in public," according to a memo from the municipal affairs ministry to Jeddah’s city government. In 2013 two Saudi men were arrested for giving "free hugs to passersby".
In December 2010 it was reported by Arab News that the Hai'a had launched a massive campaign against "sorcery" or "black magic" in the Kingdom. The prohibition includes "fortune tellers or faith healers". (Some people executed for sorcery following the announcement include a man from Najran province in June 2012, a Saudi woman in the province of Jawf, in December 2011, and a Sudanese man executed on September 2011. a Lebanese television presenter of a popular fortune-telling programme was arrested while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and sentenced to death, though after pressure from the Lebanese government and human rights groups, he was freed by the Saudi Supreme Court.)
In May 2012, the head of the mutaween, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, stated that anyone using social media sites, such as Twitter, "has lost this world and his afterlife".
According to authors Harvey Tripp and Peter North, mutaween became involved in the city planning of the Eastern Province industrial city of Jubail sometime in the 1980s and 1990s. Halfway through the construction of that city the mutaween visited the engineering drawing office several times, first to insist that all planning maps included the direction of Mecca. On their second visit they ordered that city sewage lines (already built) not flow in the direction of Mecca. After being convinced that the curvature of the earth prevented this, the mutaween returned to insist that the drainage pipes of toilets inside the city's buildings also not violate this principle. The mutaween's demands came despite the fact that no Saudi building code mentioned their requirement and no other Saudi cities met it. While a good deal of the planners' and engineers' time was spent responding to the mutaween's concerns, the mutaween never returned to approve the contractor's solution and no pipes ended up having to be unearthed and redirected, leaving Tripp and North to conclude that mutaween's "point" was not to protect Mecca but to demonstrate the supremacy of religion in Saudi to foreign builders.
The offices of Saudi Aramco, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and foreign embassies are off limits to mutaween. Not off limits are personnel of Saudi government agencies. Haia have been known to detain government officials, (A male government employee minder of American journalist Karen Elliott House was detained for mixing of the sexes, causing her to wonder that "a government employee following the instructions of his ministry runs afoul of that same government's religious police.")
Restriction of powers
In 11 April 2016, the Saudi Council of Ministers issued a new regulation that limits the jurisdiction of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
The new regulation have 12 clauses, most notable of them are:
"The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is expected to uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of Prophet Mohammed."— 
"The Committee has the responsibility of reporting, while on patrol, to official authorities (depending on the suspected activity) any suspected crimes witnessed. Subsequent actions from pursuit of suspect, capture, interrogation and detainment will be left to the relevant official authorities."— 
"Neither the heads nor members of The Committee are to stop or arrest or chase people or ask for their IDs or follow them - that is considered the jurisdiction of the police or the drug unit."— 
One of the most widely criticized examples of mutaween enforcement of Sharia law came in March 2002, when 15 young girls died of burns or smoke asphyxiation by an accidental fire that engulfed their public school in Mecca. According to two newspapers, the religious police forcibly prevented girls from escaping the burning school by locking the doors of the school from the outside, and barring firemen from entering the school to save the girls, beating some of the girls and civil defense personnel in the process. Mutaween would not allow the girls to escape or to be saved because they were 'not properly covered', and the mutaween did not want physical contact to take place between the girls and the civil defense forces for fear of sexual enticement. The CPVPV denied the charges of beating or locking the gates, but the incident and the accounts of witnesses were reported in Saudi newspapers such as the Saudi Gazette and Al-Iqtisaddiyya. The result was a very rare public criticism of the group.
In May 2003, Al-Watan, a Saudi reform newspaper published several reports of people being mistreated by the police force, including the story of one woman from a remote southern town who had been beaten and held in solitary confinement for riding alone in the back of a taxi.
In May 2007, a man alleged to have alcohol in his home (Salman Al-Huraisi) was reported by Arab News to have been arrested and beaten to death in his own home by CPVPV members in the Al Oraija district of Riyadh. "The father of the deceased said that commission members continued to beat his handcuffed son, even though he was already covered in blood, until he died" at the Oraija CPVPV center in Riyadh. Another man who died while in custody of the CPVPV was Ahmed Al-Bulawi. He was a driver for a woman with whom he was accused of being in a state of seclusion (when a man and an unrelated woman are together) and died after being taken to a CPVPV center in Tabuk in June 2007. According to Irfan Al-Alawi, "in both cases, the families of the victims took the mutawiyin to court, and in both instances (as in others) charges against the mutawiyin were postponed indefinitely or dropped."
A case of "sorcery" that led to a sentence of death which was overturned was that of Ali Hussain Sibat, the Lebanese host of the popular TV call-in show aired on satellite TV across the Middle East. Sibat was arrested in Medina by the CPVPV in May 2008, while visiting Saudi Arabia to perform the Umra pilgrimage. Sibat was charged with "sorcery" for making predictions and giving advice to the audience on his show. On 9 November 2009, after court hearings not open to the public or a defense lawyer Sibat was sentenced to death. The case was upheld on appeal but after an international outcry was overturned by the Supreme Court on November 11, 2010. The case was controversial in part because neither the defendant or "victims" were Saudis, and the"crime" was not committed in Saudi Arabia.
Mutaween suppression of religious activity by non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia is also controversial. Asia News alleges that "at least one million" Roman Catholics in the kingdom are being "denied pastoral care ... none of them can participate in mass while they are in Saudi Arabia .... Catechism for their children – nearly 100,000 – is banned." It reports the arrest of a Catholic priest for saying mass. On 5 April 2006 a Catholic priest, "Fr. George [Joshua] had just celebrated mass in a private house when seven religious policemen (muttawa) broke into the house together with two ordinary policemen. The police arrested the priest and another person."
In August 2008, a young Saudi woman who had converted to Christianity was reportedly burnt to death after having her tongue cut out by her father, a member of the Committee, though it was not an officially sanctioned act of punishment.
In January 2013, the CPVPV marched into an educational exhibit of dinosaurs at a shopping center, "turned off the lights and ordered everyone out, frightening children and alarming their parents". It was not clear why the exhibit—which had been "featured at shopping centres across the Gulf for decades"—was closed, and Saudis speculated irreverently as to the reason on Twitter.
In September 2013 the entrance of a Saudi religious police building "was intentionally set on fire by assailants", according to the Haia. No one was hurt and no further information was provided by the police. In early 2014, the head of Haia, Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh was quoted in the Okaz daily newspaper as saying that “there are advocates of sedition within the Commission" for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and promised to remove them.
In 2009, the head of the Hai'a in Mecca, Sheikh Ahmad Qasim al Ghamdi, stated that there was nothing wrong with men and women mixing in public places, and instructed his mutawa'a to not interfere with mixing. However religious conservatives pressured the national head of the Hai'a to fire him. "Within hours of the firing of the Sheikh Al Ghamdi, the Hai'a issued an embarrassing retraction: `The information sent out today concerning administrative changes at some Hai'a offices, particularly those concerning Mecca and Hail, was inaccurate and the administration has requested editors not to publish it.`" However the firing and the retraction of the firing became "major news". "Outraged conservatives went to Sheiksh Al Ghamdi's home, demanding to `mix` with his females. .. still other outraged opponents scrawled graffiti on his home," according to journalist Karen House.
Involvement in politics
Other accusations leveled at the CPVPV include that some of its members have been involved in political subversion, and/or are ex-convicts/prisoners who became Hafiz (i.e. memorized the Quran) to reduce their prison sentences. Author Lawrence Wright has written of a conflict between the Mutaween and at least one allied imam and Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the head of the Presidency of General Intelligence (Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah) between 1977 and 2001. After an imam denounced a female charitable organizations run by some of Turki's sisters and accused them of being "whores" during a Friday sermon, Turki demanded and received an apology. He then "secretly began monitoring members of the muttawa. He learned that many of them were ex-convicts whose only job qualification was that they had memorized the Quran in order to reduce their sentences." But Turki believed they had become "so powerful" they "threatened to overthrow the government."
Another instance when the CPVPV has opposed the Saudi government came in 2005 when the Minister of Labor announced a policy of staffing lingerie shops with women. The policy was intended to give employment to some of the millions of adult Saudi women unhappily stuck at home (only 14.6% of Saudi women work in the public and private sectors in the Kingdom), and to prevent mixing of the sexes in public (ikhtilat), between male clerks and women customers. Conservative Saudis opposed the policy maintaining that for a woman to work outside the house was against her fitrah (natural state). The few shops that employed women were "quickly closed" by the Hai'i who supported the conservative position.
However, in 2011, during the Arab Spring, King Abdullah issued another decree giving lingerie shops—and then shops and shop departments specializing in other products for women, such as cosmetics, abayas and wedding dresses—one year to replace men workers with women. Further clashes followed between conservatives and Hai'a men on the one hand, and the ministry, women customers and employees at female-staffed stores on the other. In 2013, the Ministry and the Hai'a leadership met to negotiate new terms. In November 2013, 200 religious police signed a letter stating that female employment was causing such a drastic increase in instances of ikhtilat, that "their job was becoming impossible."
According to one journalist with many years of experience in Saudi Arabia (Karen Elliott House), the Hai’a are sometimes used to balance the policies of the government, specifically a loose rein on the Hai'a acts to calm the displeasure of the strong religious conservative forces in Saudi society. When the king dismissed a member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars in 2009 for condemning gender mixing at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, he compensated for it by doing "nothing to curb the country's religious police from roaming the kingdom's streets and harassing ordinary Saudis mixing with anyone of the opposite genders".
According to the US Library of Congress Country Studies, mutawwiin
"have been integral to the Wahhabi movement since its inception. Mutawwiin have served as missionaries, as enforcers of public morals, and as `public ministers of the religion` who preach in the Friday mosque. Pursuing their duties in Jiddah in 1806, the mutawwiin were observed to be `constables for the punctuality of prayers ... with an enormous staff in their hand, [who] were ordered to shout, to scold and to drag people by the shoulders to force them to take part in public prayers, five times a day.`"
According to a study by Michael Cook, based on "Wahhabi writings and rulers' decrees" the role of commanding good and forbidding wrong, developed a prominent place during the second Saudi emirate, and first "documented instance of a formal committee to enforces the duty dates to 1926", when the official Saudi newspaper in Mecca published the news of its establishment. In 1976, the Al al-Sheikh director of the Committee gained a seat on the Saudi cabinet, strengthening its prestige.
Following the November–December 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure, when religion became more conservative in Saudi Arabia,
"people noticed that imams and religious folk seemed to have more money to spend ... with the religious police benefiting most obviously from government injections of cash. They started to appear in imposing new GMC vans, with their once humble local committees of mutawwa ... taking on the grander, `Big Brother` aura of their original, collective name -- Al Hayah, `the Commission`. They developed attitude to match."
They were still, however, "essentially volunteers engaged in their own variety of social work."
In May 2006 it was announced that the committee would no longer be allowed to interrogate those it arrests for behavior deemed un-Islamic. Prior to this, commission members enjoyed almost total power to arrest, detain, and interrogate those suspected of violating the Sharia.
In June 2007 the Saudi Mutaween announced "the creation of a 'department of rules and regulations' to ensure the activities of commission members comply with the law, after coming under heavy pressure for the death of two people in its custody in less than two weeks". The governmental National Society for Human Rights criticised the behaviour of the religious police in May 2007 in its first report since its establishment in March 2004. In May 2006 the Interior Ministry issued a decree stating that "the role of the commission will end after it arrests the culprit or culprits and hands them over to police, who will then decide whether to refer them to the public prosecutor."
Time magazine ran a report about the Mutaween in August 2007. It noted that "a campaign using text messages sent to mobile phones is calling on a million Saudis to declare that '2007 is the year of liberation.'" Despite statements of reform, the Mutaween turned down Time's request for interviews.
At the beginning of October 2012, during the Arab Spring, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh announced that the powers of the mutawiyin would be significantly restricted. According to Irfan Al-Alawi,
They will be barred from making arrests, conducting interrogations, or carrying out searches without a warrant from the local governor. They will no longer stand at the entrances of shopping malls to keep women out who do not adhere to the Wahhabi dress code or who are not accompanied by “approved” men—husbands, siblings, or parents.
"Community volunteers" who were the original Mutaween, were forbidden from joining Hai’a men on their rounds and pursuing, chastising, and interrogating miscreants, as "a religious duty". Field officers were also ordered to “approach people with a smile,” and forbidden from using their "private e-mails, cellphones, or social media accounts to receive and act on anonymous tips."
Other similar groups
Outside Saudi Arabia, the Taliban regime, or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, also had a "Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" with a very similar religious policing function. The Taliban are thought to have borrowed the Saudi policing policy not only because they also had a strict Sharia law policy, but because of alleged financial and diplomatic support from Saudi Arabia. According to a Pakistani journalist who spent much time among the Taliban, the Taliban who had been to Saudi Arabia before taking power in Afghanistan "were terribly impressed by the religious police and tried to copy that system to the letter". 
- Honour killing
- Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Afghanistan)
- Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Gaza Strip)
- New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
- Secret police
- Wahhabi movement
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... religious police, which is feared and reviled both because of its wide reach and because its members are drawn from the lower classes. Their resentment of the rich, combined with their freedom of action, results in a dangerous combination and adds to the hardline religious social atmosphere sanctioned by Wahhabi doctine, which is spread by clerics in the mosques and teachers in the schools, and which guides the verdicts handed down by Wahhabi “justice” in the courts.
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Undoubtedly, one of the major factors that can spoil the happiness of the two sexes is the straying of man or woman from the right path and trying to satisfy those instincts through all kinds of frivolous behavior which puts modesty to shame, .... Since Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country which has been established according to Islamic rules and principles ... pursuing the principle of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong becomes one of its most salient features. ... Therefore, it was necessary to institute the system of the religious police which derives from the texts of Sharia ...
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Each year, the religious police mobilise ahead of 14 February and descend on gift and flower shops, confiscating all red items, including flowers.
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"After seeing the Free Hugs Campaign in many different countries, I decided to do it in my own country," Mr Swed told al-Arabiya news. ... Britain's Independent newspaper reports that his video inspired two more young Saudis, Abdulrahman al-Khayyal and a friend. They offered hugs, advertised on a placard, ... They were subsequently arrested by the kingdom's religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which is charged with ensuring that sharia law is strictly adhered to. The two were required to sign a pledge that they would not offer hugs again, reports say.
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offices of multinational firms ... even at these offices there are occasional raids by religious police. The one institution exempt from all these conventions and restrictions is Saudi ARAMCO, which since its founding has operated as an innovative and international island in the largely stagnant Saudi sea. KAUST is now a second island. The government has made it clear that these islands -- like foreign embassies in Saudi Arabia -- are off limits to the religious police.
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...the head of the Hai'a .... in ... Mecca, Sheikh Ahmad Qasim al Ghamdi, not only supported men and women mixing in public places but also said he instructed his mutawa'a, or religious police, not to interfere with such mixing. ... Under pressure from religious conservatives, the head of the Hai'a in Riyadh fired his chief in Mecca late one Sunday night. ... Within hours of the firing of the Sheikh Al Ghamdi, the Hai'a issued an embarrassing retraction: `The information sent out today concerning administrative changes at some Hai'a offices, particularly those concerning Mecca and Hail, was inaccurate and the administration has requested editors not to publish it.` It was too late. Both the firing and the retraction had become major news. ... Outraged conservatives went to Sheiksh Al Ghamdi's home, demanding to `mix` with his females. ... still other outraged opponents scrawled graffiti on his home.line feed character in
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When one of the senior religious ulama had the temerity to criticize [gender mixing at KAUST that the king gave his approval to] ... the mild-mannered king promptly fired him ... the sacking of this sheikh had the desired effect of prompting supportive statements on KAUST from other tame religious leaders, but it angered religious conservatives ... Always careful to balance, the king, who had secured ulama approval for fender mixing at this elite university, did nothing to curb the country's religious police from roaming the kingdom's streets and harassing ordinary Saudis mixing with anyone of the opposite genders.
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- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 113.
Thus, the street enforcers of Wahhabi norms rose in standing in 1976, when the Al al-Sheikh director of the Committee for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong gained a seat on the cabinet.
- Lacey, Robert (1981). The Kingdom. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Javonoich. p. 52.
- Lacey, Robert. Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle ... Penguin.
- "Reduced Powers for Morality Police", Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2006.
- "Virtue Squads Toning Down Shows of Power in Saudi Arabia" Rob L. Wagner, The Media Line, 23 May 2010
- "Morality Police under Pressure", Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2007.
- Scott Macleod,"Vice Squad", Time, New York, 26 July 2007.
- Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Islam, oil and the new great game in Central Asia, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 201. ISBN 1-86064-417-1
- Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. pp. 200–1.
`I remember` says Ahmed Rashid, `that all the Taliban who had worked or done hajj in Saudi Arabia were terribly impressed by the religious police and tried to copy that system to the letter. The money for their training and salaries came partly from Saudi Arabia.` Ahmed Rashid took the trouble to collect and document the Taliban's medieval flailings against the modern West, and a few months later he stumbled on a spectacle that they were organizing for popular entertainment. Wondering why ten thousand men and children were gathering so eagerly in the Kandahar football stadium one Thursday afternoon, he went inside to discover a convicted murderer being led between the goalposts to be executed by a member of the victim's family.
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