Africa is not the only place where we find old-fashioned witch hunts going on. Unlike in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, where the abuse of alleged witches is led by Pentecostal preachers and carried out by individuals, in Saudi Arabia the government is getting in on the act.
In 2007, Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim was beheaded in Riyadh after his conviction on charges of “practicing magic and sorcery as well as adultery and desecration of the Holy Quran.” The charges of “magic and sorcery” are not euphemisms for some other kind of egregious crime he committed; they alone were enough to qualify him for a death sentence. He first came to the attention of the religious authorities when members of a mosque in the northern town of Arar voiced concerns over the placement of the holy book in the restroom. After being accused of disrupting a man’s marriage through spellwork, and the discovery of “books on black magic, a candle with an incantation ‘to summon devils,’ and ‘foul-smelling herbs,’” the case — and eventually his life — were swallowed by the black hole of the discretionary Saudi court system.
The campaign of persecution has shown no signs of fizzling. In May, two Asian maids were sentenced to 1,000 lashings and 10 years in prison after their bosses claimed that they had suffered from their magic. Just a few weeks ago, Saudi newspapers began running the image of an Indonesian maid being pursued on accusations that she produced a spell that made her male boss’s family subject to fainting and epileptic fits. “I swear that we do not want to hurt her but to stop her evil acts against us and others,” the man told the news site Emirates 24/7.
According to Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors Saudi Arabia, the relentless witch hunts reveal the hollowness of the country’s long-standing promises about liberalizing its justice system…
The Saudi government’s obsession with the criminalization of the dark arts reached a new level in 2009, when it created and formalized a special “Anti-Witchcraft Unit” to educate the public about the evils of sorcery, investigate alleged witches, neutralize their cursed paraphernalia, and disarm their spells. Saudi citizens are also urged to use a hotline on the CPVPV website to report any magical misdeeds to local officials, according to the Jerusalem Post.
According to a director of the religious police’s witchcraft division in Riyadh, the unit provides confidentiality to informants. “We deal with sorcerers in a special way. No one should think that we mention the name of whomever files a report about sorcery,” Sheikh Adel Faqih told the Saudi Gazette. In 2009 alone, at least 118 people were charged with “practicing magic” or “using the book of Allah in a derogatory manner” in the province of Makkah, the country’s most populous region.
Let’s not mince words: This is barbarism, plain and simple.