JIDDAH, 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, since conservative Muslims despise dogs as unclean. But the cat ban befuddled many, since Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad loved cats — even in one instance letting a cat drink from his ablutions water before washing himself for prayers.
The religious police, known as the Muttawa, have the role of enforcing 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 Jiddah 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 Jiddah's city government.
The memo, obtained by The Associated Press, 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 and are considered pests. Street cats are also plentiful, and people will often feed them or play with them — but it isn't a widespread custom to keep one in the home, and many cannot afford it.
However, in the past decades, owning dogs or cats has become a fashion statement among Saudis. Showing off a Doberman, pit bull or fancy breed of felines has became a status symbol.
For conservaties, it smells of imitating Western trends, 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. They say it should be fought because it is threatening the fabric of Gulf nations.
"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. "There's no doubt that such a matter makes one shudder."
"Then what's the point of dragging a dog behind you?" he added. "This is blind emulation of the infidels."
The decree has not been enforced yet, according to several pet shop owners and veterinary clinics in Jiddah. It applies only to selling dogs and cats, and there was no sign the Muttawa would confiscate pets. The decree did not say whether the religious police would try to stop people from appearing in public with their dog or cat — or whether owners would be allowed to sell puppies or kittens born to their pets.
The ban distressed cat and dog lovers. Some have wondered why the religious police are focusing on this issue when the country has far more important challenges to deal with, such as terrorism and unemployment.
"I was shocked when I heard about it," said Fahd al-Mutairi, who owns 35 pet 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 puts restrictions on pet owning. In Iran, ruled by Shiite Muslim clerics, religious police sometimes harrass people who are seen outside with their dog. Last year, Iranian police even 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, since there's no similar scorn for them as there is for dogs in Islamic tradition
One of Prophet Muhammad's closest companions was given the name Abu Huraira, Arabic for "the father of the kitten," because he always carried a kitten around with him 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 that 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 daily Arab News.
"I sincerely hope (city authorities) will leave the cats and dogs alone and concentrate on what should be their real business," she added.
Al-Mutairi said his friends and relatives cannot understand his passion for his cats, which cost him US$1,000 a month to feed and take care of.
"I tell them this is not a Western innovation," he said. "Our religion says we should take care of animals."