You Can’t Reform the Morality Police

Why half measures are a trap

An Iranian morality policeman looks at a woman sitting in a vehicle in Tehran.
An Iranian morality policeman looks at a woman sitting in a vehicle in Tehran. (Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto / Getty)

A lie can go halfway around the world, according to the adage, before the truth has managed to get its trousers on. Last weekend provided one case in point, strangely appropriate to a saying about getting properly dressed before going out. Last weekend, at a press conference in the holy city of Qom, Iran’s attorney general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri mentioned that his country’s Guidance Patrol—which harasses unveiled women—had been disbanded. News stories proliferated, and for a moment it looked like the Iranians demonstrating against their government since August had won a minor victory.

The excitement was premature. Montazeri doesn’t have the power to disband the Guidance Patrol. His comments didn’t even say clearly that it was being disbanded. And in the past week, other Iranian officials have declined to confirm his remarks and even affirmed the regime’s commitment to modesty rules and announced possible new methods of enforcement, as well as punishments. “It is possible that women who do not observe hijab would be [warned] via SMS,” Hossein Jalali, a conservative legislator, said. Then, if a woman failed to heed these warnings, “the bank account of the person who unveiled may be blocked.”

Freezing the bank accounts of unveiled women is better than beating them to death. But I join the protesters in hoping that half measures to reform this goon squad, or make it go digital, fail. I have seen Islamic morality police at work in three countries: Iran; Indonesia, where they were freshly established; and Saudi Arabia, where they have been all but disbanded since Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) came to power in 2017. The Iranian version of the institution must end. Any attempt to reform it is at best a postponement of the reckoning it deserves, and at worst a trap.

Morality police are not new in Islam. Only a century or two after the death of Muhammad, morality cops patrolled the marketplaces of what is now Iraq, and their duties included making sure that everyone dressed appropriately and prayed on time. Popular backlash against morality cops isn’t new either. In Egypt and Iran, the morality police were officially abolished in the 19th century. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978 revived the practice, and the Guidance Patrol became a stand-alone force in 2005.

By the time I last visited Iran’s major cities, during the 2009 Green Movement, the Guidance Patrol was already loathed by ordinary Iranians, but not exactly feared. Ordinary police were busting heads of protesters, and the morality police were benign by comparison, more likely to ruin your day than your week or your life. I suspect this is the status that Iran’s clerical leaders will seek to restore in the coming weeks—that of a curtailed veil police who aren’t constant sources of rage and fear.

The Saudi example illustrates a few reasons why that reform won’t be enough. The Saudi morality police force is known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, and its reputation for cruelty is so extensive that few people remember that it was founded to curb the cruelty of another group of morality police. When the first modern Saudi king, Abd al-Aziz, took power, he relied on the muscle of a fanatical group called the Ikhwan. The Committee was an effort to replace the zealots with a kinder, gentler vice squad.

But what began mild did not stay mild—as the Saudis themselves now admit. An Islamic revival in the late 1970s and early ’80s, which coincided with the Iranian Islamic revolution, inflated the power of the morality police. And for the next four decades, they literally beat people in the street for failing to pray. MBS effectively ended the group, which was once ubiquitous in the country’s malls and on its streets, and is now out of sight.

Many Saudis speak of their relief that MBS finally tamed them. “The religious police were the losers in school,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi businessman, told me when I wrote about the kingdom earlier this year. “Then they got these jobs and were empowered to go and stop the cute girls, break into the parties no one wanted them at, and shut them down. It attracted a very nasty group of people.”

The Saudi position now is that the morality police grew unchecked and eventually became a bit like J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI at its worst: watching everyone, persecuting selectively and politically, and using their power to intimidate. Such was the predictable character arc of a group commissioned to be kinder and gentler but with no curb on their becoming cruel.

I have also seen morality police at their best. In Indonesia’s Aceh province, the morality police are uniformed cops, and although they engage in light thwacking now and then, they aren’t known as sadists or petty tyrants. They seemed to me more like a team of nosey parkers. Five years ago, I approached one of their stations and asked them to take me out for a couple of ride-alongs. They assented, and we piled into pickups and drove around the seashore, looking for anyone who might be up to no good. Finally we found a pair of young lovers, sitting alone, fully clothed, hands to themselves, in broad daylight in a public place. After some tutting, the police said that they’d tell the couple’s parents if they found the two in flagrante again. They looked sheepish, promised to cut out the trysts, and left separately. That was it.

I felt slightly embarrassed for the couple but absolutely mortified for the morality police. They may have loved their jobs, and even meant well, but they were so painfully square that it was impossible not to think, as Shihabi suggested about their Saudi counterparts, of all the parties they had missed. And it was easy to see how this squareness and small-scale harassment would eventually turn into mutual resentment.

Iranian opponents of the regime remember the last time protests against the government erupted across the country. One lesson from the 2009 revolt’s failure was that half measures brought no results, just another decade-plus of misery. If the regime reconsiders the hijab issue and announces modest changes—fewer cops on the street, more in your bank—the protesters will rightly regard that offer with suspicion. It is a promise that by changing a little, the government will change nothing. Morality police, temporarily defanged, grow new fangs eventually. And for everyone’s sake, including theirs, they need to suffer the fate also richly deserved by the government that spawned them: total collapse, as soon as possible.