There are 5 prayer hours a day, during which everything shuts down. By law. And I mean everything. If you are just in the store and about to pay and leave when the Muezzin begins to sing – tough luck! If the store is nice they will warn you a couple of minutes before. If not, they will just close the door and you are stuck while the believers disappear in the prayer room, which every public place has.
Of course, all menial labor is done by immigrants who overwhelmingly are not pious Muslims. So, you and the Bangladeshi cashier will stand there looking at each other at the register for 30 minutes until prayer time is over. Then life resumes and they are allowed to let you pay for your groceries.
So far I only once couldn’t make it out of the store in time, but had to rush my shopping often enough. One time I was stuck at a gas station when the serviceman just left into the prayer room in the middle of filling gas and we had to wait until we could pay and leave.
While this country is a classic dictatorship in every conceivable way, it is one entirely projected through religion. Religion is omnipresent and rules social and public life.
Islam is the only accepted religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. Practicing any other religion publicly is a criminal offense and may be punished harshly. This extends to factions within Islam as well – Shia are not allowed to proselytize within the country.
There is hardly any written code of criminal law. Official law is the Sharia, respectively the Sharia interpretations by the religious courts. Punishment is taken from Sharia as well, and is just as barbaric as you would expect from a law book taken straight from the dark ages. Corporal punishment, beheadings, amputation of hands and feet, floggings are all accepted and practiced form of punishment for criminal offenses, so it should be said that amputations are less and less used in favor of flogging.
Last week a pilgrim from Lebanon was arrested and sentenced to death – for witchcraft. He was a professional tarot card reader at home. The death penalty extends to armed robbery, murder, rape, homosexual activity, prostitution, drug trafficking and adultery.
Executions are done by the use of the sword, and are public, except for the execution of minors. “Chop chop square” in the capital is most notorious for its public executions.
However, in the case of murder or bodily harm the afflicted family may seek retribution in the form of blood money instead of just blood. Usually a woman’s or Christian’s life is valued at ½ of that of a male Muslim. Everyone else’s is worth 1/16th.
The discrimination non citizens face in court extends to other areas of law as well. There is a very generous minimal wage – for Muslim citizens only though. Immigrants often have to hand over their passports and visa to their employer, and are thus completely at their mercy. Unwanted workers are just not given their documents back and are reported as illegal immigrants. Which means the whip and jail or deportation for them.
Drug trafficking is a constant hot topic. Exact numbers about the amount of smuggling and use there really is are not public, but each year dozens are executed for trafficking. The government prides itself as the most successful worldwide in fighting drugs, boasting numbers like 95% of all amphetamines confiscated worldwide are seized by its own agents.
Alcohol is considered a drug as well, although punishment is not as harsh. Still, consumption will get you jail for months and hundreds of lashes. Trafficking can get you behind bars for years.
Yet the country is one of the biggest importers of scotch – an estimated 1-2 million bottles are smuggled into the country each year, about ¼ of it over a single road I take each weekend to the neighboring country. Out car gets searched almost every time, although not too thoroughly to be honest.
A bottle of spirit sells for $100-$200 on the black market. For all the crackdowns alcohol is still regularly consumed, a lot of it in the sanctity of corporate housing compounds where the authorities turn a blind eye.
These rather sad facts are especially striking if you keep in mind that this is in large parts a modern country. Apart from the inevitable mosques everywhere and the different architecture, this place looks just like Southern California. It borders at surrealism when, driving among all the Toyota and GMC SUVs you read in the daily paper “Public flogging tomorrow noon in front of downtown McDonald’s”. And I am not making this up, I read this the first week I was here.
What may be also surprising to the ignorant Western mind is that the normal citizen is supportive, if not proud of their strict and ordered society. If anything the general public wants less modernization, and more sheltering from Western influenced deemed bad.
Also there is not the slightest sign of people being unsupportive of the dictatorship, or yearning for political representation. Of course they might just be extra careful to not show discontent with their situation to a foreigner, but I certainly have never seen or heard from anyone really opposing the government or its policies. And this is not because of fear or something like that. This isn’t Soviet Russia, you see no oppression in everyday life at all, and people are very open generally.
The line “they are not ready for democracy” is wrong. It seems they just couldn’t care less.