RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority has issued an edict barring the use of cell phones with built-in cameras, blaming them for "spreading obscenity" — a final resort after a ban on their sale and import to the kingdom failed to dent their popularity.
Camera cell phones (search) have caught on fast throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East, particularly in oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, prompting concerns about privacy in places where people undress, "theft" of reading materials at book stores and newsstands, and corporate espionage by employees.
As a result, the devices have been banned by gyms, retailers and companies in many nations. Even in the United States, where camera phones have taken longer to gain popularity, there is a bill in Congress that would make the taking of illicit photos on federal property a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and fines.
But the concern goes even further in conservative Muslim societies, where religious authorities complain camera phones are misused to photograph women without their knowledge.
A wedding in Saudi Arabia ended in a brawl over the photographing of women, and young men in the glitzy malls of the United Arab Emirates (search) have been warned by police not to surreptitiously photograph female shoppers.
In Egypt, a women-only beach on the northern Mediterranean coast bars cameras and all cell phones are checked on entry to make sure they don't have cameras.
So far, however, only Saudi Arabia has taken the drastic step of banning the import or sale of camera cell phones and declaring them religiously forbidden.
The phones are still available despite a ban in March on their sale and import, easily smuggled in from neighboring Bahrain or the Emirates. But cellular shutterbugs risk having their phones confiscated, being fined or even spending up to a year in jail.
Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik (search), Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, announced the religious edict Tuesday in remarks to al-Madina daily newspaper.
The devices, he said, were "spreading obscenity in Muslim society," the newspaper reported Wednesday.
"All citizens should renounce this [the use of cell phones with cameras] ... for it can harm everybody without discrimination," the paper quoted him as saying. Violators "should be strictly confronted and punished."
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, is one of the most conservative societies in the world, with strict segregation of the sexes in public places. Women are legally forbidden to drive and must be covered head-to-toe in public.
The kingdom is also very secretive, and photography is not allowed in many public places.
Analysts differed on whether the phone ban was purely for social reasons or if there was a political motive as well.
"This is more of a social matter," said Sultan al-Bazie, a media consultant and analyst. The phones have been "banned right from the start because they often infringe on people's private lives."
But Mai Yamani, an analyst with the Royal Institute of International Affairs (search) in London, said the ban also had security implications.
"There is the social aspect, of course, but there must also be a security concern in a country where photography is generally banned," she said.
"The war on terrorism is giving the authorities a good excuse to impose more and more restrictions. This is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut."
A wedding party in July in southern Saudi Arabia turned violent after a female guest was caught taking photographs with her phone, according to newspaper reports. Scuffles broke out and spread to the men's section. Some guests reportedly were hospitalized.
Women are sensitive to being photographed, especially without their veils. Such celebrations are segregated in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to shed their black veils and loose outer robes.
In another instance, a Saudi woman was expelled from her university in March for taking pictures of unveiled colleagues with her phone and posting them on the Internet.
"First they banned dolls, then they banned stuffed toys and now this. I don't know where all this will stop," said Turki, a 20-year-old student in Riyadh who did not want to give his full name and who owns a cell phone camera he bought locally.
Last December, the Interior Ministry announced a ban on importing dolls and stuffed animals, and gave merchants three months to get rid of them.
Because of their popularity, the ban on camera cell phones could fizzle like a similar crackdown on satellite dish antennas. Several years ago, the government launched a halfhearted campaign to ban satellite dishes to placate ultra-religious factions opposed to Saudis watching foreign television channels that show unveiled women, and more.
Despite the ban, rooftops in every Saudi city are covered with them, and subscriptions to a variety of foreign channels are freely sold.