Saudi Arabia's religious police are trying to bring to court three Saudi youths for challenging the kingdom's austere lifestyle on an MTV reality show — a new test of the country's stated commitment to reform.
Divisions have emerged within the influential religious establishment, including the religious police body itself, over long-held restrictions that have been enforced in the world's leading oil producing country and key U.S. ally.
An official at the Jeddah court confirmed the filing of the lawsuit for the crime of "openly declaring sin" and said it would take at least one week for the Islamic sharia court to decide whether to proceed with a trial or dismiss the case.
The Saudi judiciary system, based on an austere reading of Islamic sharia law, reserves harsh punishments for such offences that could involve lashes with whip and years of imprisonment.
Aired last month, MTV's "True Life — Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia" followed how three Saudi youths and a heavy metal band cope with the strictures they encounter in their daily life in Jeddah, seen as the kingdom's most liberal city. The kingdom is ruled by the Al Saud family in alliance with clerics from the austere Wahhabi school of Islam who oversee mosques, the judiciary and education, as well as run their own coercive apparatus, the religious police.
Interior ministry police and the religious police work together to make sure unrelated men and women are kept apart, women are covered from head to toe and that sharia law is implemented, including a ban on alcohol.
"We are not free to live as we like," said Aziz, one of the youths who appeared on the MTV show. The episode showed how he tries to meet his girlfriend for a date, a risky endeavour in the kingdom. "I feel great solace when I talk to her."
Fatima, a young Saudi woman, seeks to start a business selling the traditional abaya cloak that women must wear in Saudi Arabia, but in colours other than the standard black.
The show also followed the struggle of a heavy metal band to find venues to play. They explain that when they pray they turn their heavy metal T-shirts inside out to show respect for God.
Saudi rulers have wrestled with whether to moderate Wahhabism since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 on U.S. landmarks, carried out by mostly Saudi nationals, and the emergence of al Qaeda militancy against the Saudi government in 2003.
King Abdullah is seen as favouring reforms that water down some of Wahhabism's more controversial tenets. Analysts and diplomats say he is opposed by other senior princes who are closely allied to the powerful religious establishment.
Lawyers following the case fear the first instance court in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah — where the lawsuit was filed on Monday — would take the case.
"It will be very difficult to stop the religious clockwork once this gets to court. They may face harsh sanctions like those dealt to Abdul-Jawad," one of the lawyers said.
It is the second time in a year that Saudis got into hot water for appearing on foreign television.
Mazen Abdul-Jawad was sentenced last year to five years in jail, 1,000 lashes and a five-year travel ban after he bragged about his sexual exploits on a TV show aired by Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).