There is a sad aspect of human nature which has stained our history since time unremembered. For centuries, there has been the propensity for mankind to use others as scapegoats for our various unexplained tragedies and unexplained phenomena under the guise of dark magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. Our history is covered in the blood of innocents spilled in the systematic persecution of those we would blame for all that ails us. In the dawn of more scientific times, we have hit upon the concepts of what lies at the base of death, disease, or disaster, and we have come to an understanding of how the natural world works. We have also made great progress with such concepts as that of due process and the aim to sift the innocent from the guilty though a proper trial by law. Yet, even in this day and age there is the persistent belief in dark magic, of the ability for forces beyond our understanding to twist and warp our way of life. This belief is rampant not only in rural, backwater locales but also in some of the most developed countries in the world. In one country, Saudi Arabia, we have a rich, prosperous country in which the witch hunt is very much alive. For in this country of development and wealth, there is a specially trained unit for the sole purpose of hunting down, arresting, trying, and indeed executing those who have been found to be dabbling in magic or the the dark arts.
Saudi Arabia, formally known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is one of the most prosperous and burgeoning countries in the Middle East. The second largest oil producer in the world, the country is the only Middle Eastern country to be included in the G-20 major economies, has a remarkably high income economy, and is blessed with a high Human Development Index, high standard of living, and vast wealth. There is a general push in the country towards internationalization, globalization, and rampant development. Groundbreaking architectural projects have popped up everywhere and the populace has embraced the forward momentum towards the future and technology. It is in every sense a developed country, and yet it is plagued by a tethering to old traditions, beliefs, and outdated ideals.
The Saudi government and its laws closely follow a strict Islamic tradition and practices Sharia Law, which is an ultra-strict set of legal guidelines based on literal interpretations of Islam. Saudi Arabia in particular pays close adherence to Wahhabi doctrine, which is an ultraconservative branch of Sunni advocating pure, unspoiled monotheistic worship. This movement was first started in the 18th century by the revivalist scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-WahhabIn, who advocated a return to literal interpretation of the Quran and the total elimination of folk traditions and totemism. In this system of belief, any confiding or belief in any other power than the one true God Allah is seen as highly blasphemous, as is illustrated by the specific targeting of such practices within the Quran with the phrase “other than God.” As such, any sort of witchcraft, magic, fortune telling, astrology, faith healing, spell casting, use of charms, any interaction with supernatural entities, or fraternizing with Jinn, spirits, demons, prophets, saints, idols, or the dead are all considered offenses punishable by long imprisonment, brutal lashings, or death by beheading. The accused rarely have any any chance to defend themselves and are at the total mercy of the judges, who are given broad power to mete out sentences and executions as they see fit.
Within a society with such strict religious banning of belief in such magical practices, one may be inclined to think that belief in any sort of magic or supernatural entities would be largely absent from the general populace, but in fact there is widespread belief in such things within Saudi Arabia and indeed within Muslim culture in general. In particular belief in the beings known as the Jinn, known in English often as genies, which were mentioned in the Quran as supernatural entities forged of smokeless scorching fire from a universe beyond our own at around the same time as man, is common. Jinn are said to cause all sorts of harm to mankind, such as bringing about bad luck, disasters, or possessing the living. There is also widespread belief in the existence of supernatural things like witchcraft and magic, such as the evil eye and all manner of spells, from healing to curses. The belief in such sorcery is so widespread that it is sometimes even used in criminal court cases as a defense, with the accused commonly denying responsibility for crimes on the grounds that they were under the influence of black magic or the evil eye.
Considering Saudi Arabia’s ultra conservative brand of religious law, it is perhaps no surprise that the government takes reports of such practices very seriously indeed, with not one iota of a sense of humor. In fact, so numerous were claims of the use of magic and consorting with jinn and other supernatural beings within the state that moves were put into place to form a specific division to deal with such matters and to hunt down the individuals that commit these infringements. The elite Anit-Witchcraft Squad was born in 2009 as an offshoot of the country’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or CPVPV, which is the states’ religious police division. The CPVPV normally patrols the streets seeking to enforce strict Sharia Law, which typically entails enforcing the segregation of men and women, the observance of specified prayer times, dress codes, and punishing any behavior it deems condemned by Islam. This special Anti-Witchcraft unit is uniquely tasked with investigating claims of magic use and detaining and prosecuting those who are found to be practicing these arts or making contact with supernatural beings, as well as reversing the effects of their spells and additionally informing the public of the dangers of seeking what they refer to as “Forbidden Knowledge.” One Abdullah Jaber of the Al-Jazeera newsgroup said of the unit:
In accordance with our Islamic tradition we believe that magic really exists. The fact that an official body, subordinate to the Saudi Ministry of Interior, has a unit to combat sorcery proves that the government recognizes this, like Muslims worldwide.
Aided by a special hotline put into place in order for anonymous eyewitnesses to alert authorities or tip off police and report witchcraft or other forbidden magical practices, the Anti-Witchcraft Squad scours the streets for those they deem responsible for engaging in magical practices, fortune telling, or folk customs. The “evidence” they use to detain suspects with is often weak and questionable at best, with the religious police and judges having a very wide discretion in determining just what exactly constitutes sorcery or witchcraft. There is no legal definition within the sparse penal code of Saudi Arabia for just what exactly witchcraft is, so the prosecution of those detained is at the mercy of the wide latitude conferred to the judges, who are usually religious clerics, in making the call.
Evidence presented generally involves witness statements, personal belongings that look like they could be used for magical purposes, or a history of strange requests or purchases that could be construed as being linked to sorcery, such as an animal with unusual features. The religious judges then formulate their verdict based on the evidence presented and are given total freedom to weigh what is presented through their own interpretation of Sharia Law, accuse the suspect, and mete out any punishment they see fit, which is often brutal lashings or a death sentence. The accused typically has no defense against these accusations and indeed strong opposition can be seen as a further sign of guilt.
There have been a number of high profile arrests made by Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Witchcraft Unit. In 2007, an Egyptian pharmacist was sentenced to death and beheaded for allegedly casting magical spells to dissolve a marriage and for committing the blasphemous sin of placing the Quran within a restroom. The Anti-Witchcraft unit originally moved on a tip that the man had left his Quran in a public restroom, after which they raided his apartment and claimed to have found candles, strange smelling herbs, and spell books allegedly for the purpose of “summoning devils.” Although the man admitted to committing adultery and leaving the Quran in a bathroom, the offense that ultimately cost him his life was the perceived dabbling in black magic. In another case, a woman by the name of Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was arrested and tried for sorcery after she was found to be charging people money for spiritual healing to cure a wide range of afflictions. The woman was detained, tried on scant evidence, and eventually sentenced to beheading. In 2011, a Sudanese man was sentenced to death by beheading after being found guilty of casting a spell to help a client’s divorced parents mend their differences and reconcile.
In yet another case, an illiterate Saudi woman by the name of Fawza Falih was arrested in 2008 and tried on the accusation that she had used witchcraft, consorted with Jinn, and conducted numerous animal sacrifices. The allegations were based on the testimony of one man who came forward and accused Falih of rendering him impotent through the use of spells. Authorities raided the woman’s residence and found what was described as a foul smelling substance, incense, talismans, and several white robes hung up, one with a large amount of money within its pockets. When the Anti-witchcraft police found the woman, she was naked and they allowed her a moment to put some clothes on, after which she fled the scene. The woman was apprehended after she fell through the roof of an adjacent building in her mad dash to escape. Falih was eventually sentenced to beatings and beheading and the Human Rights Watch appealed to King Abdullah for the woman’s release. Her death sentence was postponed, yet the unfortunate soul ended up dying in prison from malnutrition and health problems as she awaited her fate.
Many of the victims of such accusations are foreigners. Saudi Arabia is a haven for foreign migrant workers from far flung locales such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Africa, who come here along with their own folk traditions and customs, many of which are misconstrued as witchcraft by the Saudi government. In fact, it is foreign domestic workers who are seen as being most at risk for being arrested and tried for using sorcery. Their plight is only made worse by the fact that many of them do not speak adequate Arabic and so are unable to properly defend themselves from the accusations heaped upon them, cannot secure proper legal aide, and often sign confessions shoved in their faces which they did not properly understand. These foreign workers are further faced with the threat of their employers arbitrarily accusing them of witchcraft in response to some petty slight or to punish disgruntled employees. Witchcraft is in particular a favorite accusation of unscrupulous employers trying to wiggle out of accusations of sexual harassment, which runs rampant among employers and foreign workers here. One famous case involving foreign workers was that of two Asian maids who were apprehended and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison after their employers claimed that they had been subject to black magic cast by them, including a spell that allegedly was designed to subject a boss’s family to chronic epileptic fits.
One of the most famous cases involved a Lebanese radio personality known as a psychic, Ali Sabat, who was arrested by the unit in 2008 for providing psychic advice and predictions on a Lebanon based satellite channel during a pilgrimage to Medina. The religious police allegedly coerced a confession out of the radio host by tricking him into writing a detailed document on his occupation, which they then presented as evidence in court. Originally, the police convinced Ali Sabat that a full confession would help expedite his return to Lebanon, but as soon as he was convicted he received a death by beheading sentence instead. The stiff sentence sparked a great deal of outrage from the international community, who launched a protracted campaign to free him. Eventually, Sabat was released after intense campaigning and the intervention of several top ranking Labanese officials. For their part, the Saudi courts denied that pressure had stayed their hand and instead claimed that Sabat was released simply because it was determined that he had not hurt anyone with his activities.
In Saudi Arabia, accusations of sorcery even reach the highest levels of politics, with one notable case concerning the alleged use of black magic by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his closet aides. The leader was accused of Jinn worship and using black magic to attain various nefarious ends. Although Ahmadinejad vehemently denied the charges, there was a sorcerer who claimed he had met with the Iranian leader and learned from him that Jinn were being used by Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, and for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Cases such as this are many, with the Anti-Witchcraft unit responsible for over 118 arrests within its first year of operation alone. This was seen as a promising start, and by 2011 the unit had expanded to nine sorcery fighting bureaus throughout the country. Training for its agents was improved and expanded, and the infrastructure of the organization underwent radical overhauls to improve efficiency. By the end of 2012, it was estimated that around 800 individuals had been arrested and tried for various sorcery related crimes, which was seen by the religious government as a remarkable success. In most cases, the accused are isolated and without help, with many such stories not reaching the media at all and very little opportunity for those arrested to defend themselves.
It is perhaps no surprise that such practices are actively condemned by human rights watchdog groups, who claim that the persecution of innocents, arbitrary punishments, and forced confessions are rampant. Groups like Amnesty International have set their sights squarely on such practices, accusing the religious judges of using the guise of sorcery and black magic to prosecute innocent people as a means to subdue freedom of speech and religion. The complete freedom of judges to try, condemn, and put to death people as they see fit only makes things worse. The Saudi government stringently denies such things, yet the arrests and the deaths continue.
Humankind has this drive to hunt down the perceived dark powers which it deems harmful and abrasive to its way of life. Although the world has evolved and we mostly live in a time of law, order, science, and the dismissal of sorcery and demons as a cause for our ills, there is a strong subconscious notion to blame forces beyond our control which we cannot understand for our woes that compels us at some base level. There seems in many societies to be the intention to try and stomp these evil forces out, to reverse the spells and magic which are thought to lie at the heart of the evils that plague the world. It may be hard to believe, but even in this age of reason there are pockets of civilization in the far corners of the world that cling to such old and outdated beliefs; those that embrace the notion of real black magic and sorcery, and consider it to be a force worth fighting against. But at what cost? Where do we find the line between our humanity and the inhumanity of the other supernatural forces that some may believe lurk amongst us and taint us with their insidious will? In this day and age, is there a place for this sort of thinking and active persecution of the supernatural in the world? Whatever the case may be, if one be a magic user, a witch, warlock, or any sort of dabbler in the magical arts, Saudi Arabia just may not be the place to do it.