- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s religious police, normally tasked with chiding women to cover themselves and ensuring men attend mosque prayers, are turning to a new target: cats and dogs.

The police have issued a decree banning the sale of the pets, seen as a sign of Western influence.

The prohibition on dogs may be less of a surprise because conservative Muslims despise dogs as unclean. But the cat ban befuddled many, since Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad loved cats.

The religious police, known as the Muttawa, enforce Saudi Arabia’s strict Islamic code. Its members prowl streets and malls, ensuring unmarried men and women do not mix, confronting women they feel are not properly covered or urging men to go to prayers.

But the government also gives the Muttawa wide leeway to enforce any rules they deem necessary to uphold the social order.

The decree — which applies to the Red Sea port city of Jidda 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 Jidda’s city government.

The memo urges city authorities to help enforce the ban.

Pet owning is not common in the Arab world, though dogs are kept for hunting and guarding. In large cities around the Middle East, stray dogs often wander the streets.

However, in the past few decades, owning dogs or cats has become a fashion statement among Saudis. Showing off a Doberman, pit bull or fancy breed of feline has became a status symbol.

Conservatives decry the trend as a Western influence, just like the fast food, shorts, jeans and pop music that have become more common in the kingdom, which is ruled by the puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

“One bad habit spreading among our youths is the acquisition of dogs and showing them off in the streets and malls,” wrote Aleetha al-Jihani in a letter to Al-Madina newspaper. “This is blind emulation of the infidels.”

The decree has not been enforced yet, according to several pet shop owners and veterinary clinics in Jidda. It applies only to selling dogs and cats, and there was no sign the Muttawa would confiscate pets.

The ban distressed cat and dog lovers.

“I was shocked when I heard about it,” said Fahd al-Mutairi, who owns 35 cats. “What was even more shocking was to hear that the ban came from an authority that has nothing to do with such an issue.

“I would understand if it came from the Health Ministry or anybody charged with ensuring pets coming from outside do not carry diseases,” added the 23-year-old flower shop owner.

No other Arab country restricts pet ownership. But in Iran, ruled by Shi’ite clerics, religious police sometimes harass people seen outside with their dogs. Last year, Iranian police told people not to bring their dogs out in public, but the order was never backed up by law and dog owners widely ignored it.

The inclusion of cats in the Saudi ban puzzled many because there’s no scorn for them, as there is for dogs in Islamic tradition.

One of the prophet’s closest companions was given the name Abu Huraira, Arabic for “the father of the kitten,” because he always carried a kitten and took care of it.

A number of hadiths — traditional stories of the prophet — show Muhammad encouraging people to treat cats well.

Once, he let a cat drink from the water he was going to use for his ablutions before prayers. Another time, Muhammad said a woman who kept a cat locked up without feeding it would go to hell.

Dogs — considered dirty and dangerous — are less lucky. According to one hadith, Muhammad said a Muslim loses credit for one good deed each day he keeps a dog and even said dogs should be killed unless used for hunting or protection.

Still, in another instance, he said that a prostitute who carried water in her slipper to a thirsty dog would go to heaven, her sins forgiven because of her kindness.

“All these things considered, it is obviously not against our religion or our tradition to have dogs and cats as pets,” columnist Abeer Mishkhas wrote in the Arab News.

“I sincerely hope [authorities] will leave the cats and dogs alone and concentrate on what should be their real business,” she added.

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