http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2009/02/14/news/ML-Saudi-Politics.php


Saudi king shakes up religious establishment 

The Associated Press 
Saturday, February 14, 2009 

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: 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.

_______

Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Abdullah al-Shihri in 
Riyadh contributed to this report.

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