March 19, 2014

Religious police found in nearly one-in-ten countries worldwide

Map_Religious_PoliceAs of 2012, at least 17 nations (9% worldwide) have police that enforce religious norms, according to a new Pew Research analysis of 2012 data. These actions are particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa, where roughly one-third of countries (35%) have police enforcing religious norms.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, where President Obama will meet with King Abdullah later this month, the Muttawa religious police (formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) impose a government-approved moral code on residents of the country. The Muttawa enforce strict segregation of the sexes, prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol, a ban on women driving and other social restrictions based on the government’s interpretation of Islam.

Earlier this month, Saudi religious police destroyed an ancient burial site in the southern city of al-Baha after claiming the graveyard was un-Islamic. And last month, they conducted anti-Valentine’s Day patrols, monitoring businesses that were selling chocolates, flowers and red or heart-shaped souvenirs. 

Saudi Arabia is not alone in its use of a religious police force. In the Asia-Pacific region, police enforcing religious norms are found in eight of 50 countries (16%). In Vietnam, the government’s religious security police continued to monitor “extremist” religious groups, detaining and interrogating suspected Dega Protestants or Ha Mon Catholics. And in Malaysia, state Islamic religious enforcement officers and police carried out raids to enforce sharia law against indecent dress, banned publications, alcohol consumption and khalwat (close proximity to a member of the opposite sex), according to the U.S. State Department.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, two countries in the region (Nigeria and Somalia) have religious police. In Nigeria, the Hisbah (religious police) are funded and supported by governments in several states, where they enforce their interpretation of sharia law.

As of 2012, religious police forces were not present in any country in Europe or the Americas.

The data used in this analysis relied on 18 widely cited, publicly available sources from groups such as the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group. Although it is possible that more countries have religious police forces than are reported by the 18 primary sources, taken together the sources are sufficiently comprehensive to provide a good estimate of the presence of these forces in almost all countries.

Read more about how the Pew Research Center study measures social hostilities involving religion and government restrictions on religion. 

Topics: Restrictions on Religion

  1. Photo of Angelina E. Theodorou

    is a research analyst focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Shivaji Cairae3 years ago

    Dear Sir,
    I am surprised to find that India has been shown in the map above, showing countries having Religeous Police. It is just not true. India is a Secular Country and like Middle Eastern Countries or Indonesia etc the State does not follow or advance any religion.Indian Police is therefore not enforcing any Shariat Law or any other Religious Law.So please correct your map and information, which is prima facie msleading.Thanks,
    Yours Faithfully
    ex-D.G.of Police

  2. Bouchra3 years ago

    Algeria, seriously? What’s the name of this (non-existent) religious force?

    I wonder what other things published by Pew Research that we should take with more than just a grain of salt!

  3. Larry Edwards3 years ago

    With a society having “religious police” will likely produce a moral society, a society that will not tolerate homosexual marriages.

  4. Cal News.com3 years ago

    You forgot to include all the Red States in the US.

    1. Haley3 years ago


  5. Raja M. Ali Saleem3 years ago

    As others have pointed out, many countries shown to have religious police, DO NOT have a religious police. I think religious police must have following characteristics:

    1. It should be regularly paid through the state budget
    2. Most of the laws it enforces should be of religious nature

    Saudi Arabian Muttawa police has these characteristics. Saudi Arabia also has a separate police which enforces secular laws.

    Does all these 17 countries have police forces that mostly enforce religious laws and are regularly paid through state budgets? I do not think so.

    Forces enforcing some religious laws, along with hundreds of secular laws, cannot be called religious police. Similarly, groups affiliated with political parties, governments, politicians, militaries etc. trying to enforce religious morality (no matter how pervasive or successful) cannot be called religious police, unless they are paid through state budget.

  6. abhisheksharma3 years ago

    What is the name of religious police in India? Phew research

    1. Subin Sunny3 years ago

      In Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka, ‘Sreeram Sena’ enforce valentines day celebrations. But its more moral policing than religious.

      1. Raghav Sharman3 years ago

        Sriram Sena is a religious group and cannot be called Police.

  7. Edd Doerr3 years ago

    To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: When the deity does not enforce a religion’s edicts and beliefs, so that the religion’s leaders must call on the government to do so, it is sign that there is something seriously wrong with it. — Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty (

  8. David3 years ago

    I observed the “religious police” when I lived in Saudi Arabia. I have no problem with it if that is what they want in their cultures. Interesting article…

  9. Hassan Afrookteh3 years ago

    This phenomenon is part & parcel of Islam. Your piece should make that clear instead of saying ” Middle East & North Africa”.

  10. Godfrey Johnson3 years ago

    Am I alone when I say that the countries indicated on that map are those I have no wish to ever visit?

    It cannot be coincidence that most, if not all, of the nations that take their morality from a non-existent entity are the world’s most troubled.

    1. slk3 years ago

      you have your beliefs, and they have theirs!!!you goof on them, they goof on you!!!

    2. Jay B Born3 years ago

      Yes, or at least you are in a minority. These are ancient, fascinating countries. It is easy for people who lack imagination and depth to dismiss others for their religious beliefs.

  11. Tom3 years ago

    I first came to Egypt in 1963 and have lived here for the past 20 years. Never saw a “religious police” person. I am eager to be enlightened by the Pew researcher who knows where they are.

    1. slk3 years ago

      they’re called athiests!!!

  12. Angelina Theodorou3 years ago

    If you are interested in learning more about how we performed this analysis, I encourage you to read one of 18 sources used, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom 2012 Report on India. Within the report, you’ll find specific descriptions of police action during the year:…

    1. Raghav Sharman3 years ago

      The report you shared does not mention the existence of religious police. Clashes between fanatic religious groups are bound to exist in a large secular country that has lots of religions; such clashes do not imply the existence of religious police.

  13. Swraj3 years ago

    Bad analysis….India has no religious police. Stop posting articles from your home office and travel the places. India is secular duh!

  14. A.T3 years ago

    Egypt & Morocco & Algeria?!

    are you sure?

    the regime in these countries is a fanatic secular system!