Interview with Phyllis Curott

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 2, 2008 — 2 Comments

Recently, religious authorities in Saudi Arabia sentenced a woman, Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, to death for the crime of “witchcraft”. The “proof” for these acts were completely happenstance, attributing sorcerous causes to everyday occurrences, and her “confession” (since recanted) coerced through a string of beatings by the Mutaween (religious police). Lawyer, author, and activist Phyllis Curott has organized an interfaith response to this injustice, and I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a short interview with her regarding this case. What the facts are, what we can do, and why this issue should be important to modern Pagans.

Phyllis Curott

How did you hear about the case of Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali?

Because I’m an a attorney who’s been active for about 25 years in the courts and media as an advocate for the rights of Wiccans, Pagans and others, I have “clipping” services that update me every day about events involving Witches, Witchcraft and related matters, particularly incidents of discrimination or persecution. Human Rights Watch sent their letter about FAWZA FALIH to King Abdullah on February 14th and the story was picked up by two important media outlets, CNN and the BBC, and the online services.

I read the HRW legal analysis of her case and was appalled. Her persecution, arrest by the military police, beating and torture, “trial,” the whole thing was a grotesque travesty of justice. I kept imagining – feeling — how frightened she must feel alone in prison waiting to die. After I finished crying, I got angry. I had to do something. I drafted an email asking people to join me in signing a letter that would be sent to King Abdullah, calling for her immediate pardon and release. I sent it to Our Freedom, and to clergy who’d become friends through Interfaith work.

I’ve always hoped that when we needed it, the Interfaith community would support us, and that’s what happened. It’s very moving to me to look at the list of the first twenty signators – the President of the World Muslim Congress, followed by a Rabbi who is the editor of Tikkun magazine, an Apache spiritual leader followed by several Christian ministers, Hindus, Jains, a Druid, a Wiccan and others. And now in one week we’ve gotten over 7000 signatures from people all over the world, from every faith tradition imaginable, and from people who are not religious.

Can you give us a little background on how this happened to her?

I would like to have more information. But, thanks to Human Rights Watch, this is what we know: She was arrested by the religious police in the northern town of Quraiyat in Saudi Arabia, May 4 2005. They held her and interrogated her for 35 days at the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). In her appeal she said that she was beaten during her interrogation and she named an official of the governorate. She said that she lost consciousness during one beating and was treated at the hospital where other female prisoners bandaged her wounds. Human Rights Watch spoke to a relative who was allowed to visit her for the first time after about 20 days in CPVPV detention, after her hospital treatment, and saw marks from beatings on her back. So there’s evidence that her confession was coerced.

The judges in the Quraiyat court did not define the meaning of “witchcraft.” Instead they cited a variety of alleged actions, “intentions,” and “tools” for “witchcraft.” The court cited the claim of a man who said that he became impotent after being “bewitched.” And a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by Fawza, who also supposedly “cast the spell.” The court record reveals that the “witchcraft” accusations were substantiated solely on the basis of statements by individuals who believed they had been “bewitched,” and by “strange” objects reportedly found in Fawza’s home and on a tree nearby – some noxious smelling stuff, two robes, one with money tied into knots in the robe.

She was never given the opportunity to prove her innocence against absurd charges that have no basis in law or fact. Fawza confessed, but it was coerced. She’s illiterate and she says that her confession was not read to her and that she was forced to fingerprint because she couldn’t sign it. Her family wasn’t allowed to see her, she was denied access to her attorney, was not allowed to be present during most of the “trial” against her, couldn’t confront witnesses. The appeal court overturned the lower court’s decision because she had retracted her confession. But the judges in Quraiyat, reached a new verdict of June 6, 2007 and sentenced Fawza to death on a “discretionary” basis, in the name of “public interest” and to “preserve the creed and the souls and property of this country.” Having exhausted her appeals, she is now awaiting execution by beheading. There is no date set, it could happen at any time, unless the King pardons her. That is why there is such urgency.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Iran is now attempting to change its penal code to allow executions for witchcraft. How common do you feel cases like this are in the Middle East? Is this a new trend, or have we simply not been paying attention?

I don’t know if it’s a new trend or an old custom. Either way, we need to pay attention. Last year, in Saudi Arabia an Egyptian pharmacist was convicted of “sorcery” for supposedly trying to separate a couple, and he was beheaded in November 2007. The effort to change the Iranian penal code is very disturbing. The European Union has sent a letter protesting, but they’ll probably be ignored.

We have to pay careful attention, we have to be vocal, organized, politically astute and connected, and quick to respond when we hear of any of these cases. At some point we may need to replace ad hoc activism with solid ongoing organization. The widescale repression of women, out of which this incident arises, has to be challenged. Unlike the ending of apartheid, the global community has failed in its moral responsibility. We need to be the voice of its conscience. That is one of the most important roles of new religious faiths – to reinvigorate and transform what has become dead and deadly.

But I am very concerned about what comes next for a historical reason. I realized while working on my next book that the feminine divine was expunged from the old Hebrew traditions and priestesses were killed around 1300 – 1400 years into the development of the Hebrew religion. Around 1300 years into Christianity, the Witchcraze began. It is now about 1300 years into the development of Islam, which began in the 700s. It seems that at this particular point in their development, all three of the monotheistic male-dominated religions go through a phase of authoritarian fundamentalism, violent misogyny and very bloody repression of women. I’m afraid that we may be witnessing that now in the fundamentalist Islamic states. It is, however, offset by progressive, educated elements within those countries and within Islam, and a broader sense of human rights in the world that surrounds them. That is where hope, and change, comes from.

Why do you feel this is case should be important to the modern Pagan community?

But for a few hundred years of history or a bit of geography or a few more years of fundamentalist political influence in this country, what is happening to Fawza could be happening to any one of us. The fact that she is illiterate, that she is a simple woman in a remote part of the world who is facing this terror all alone makes her the most important person in t
he world. She is the measure of our humanity, our compassion, our decency, our commitment to our spirituality. We’re all connected. Her suffering is ours, her pain is ours. I felt and I had to do something. There are endless differences in our community, but I believe that we are all united in a divine power that is present in the world. If we live in a sacred world, we must behave in a sacred manner. Whether we are Wiccans, or Christians, or Muslims we are all children of the Earth, of the Sacred. We are kin, we are connected.

And there’s another reason. I don’t think that Fawza was practicing anything resembling what most of us now call Wicca and Witchcraft. If she was doing anything, which is not clear, it may have been some kind of old traditional folk magic. It doesn’t matter – she is sentenced to die by beheading for Witchcraft. That is the word many of us use to identify ourselves. That word means that she is a member of our community. And we are not a community if we don’t take care of each other. We may not be able to save Fawza, but we must try.

Should the worldwide problem of witch-killings and persecutions in places like the Middle East, Africa, and India be a Pagan issue?

Yes, I believe it is. We are all connected. But it is a huge problem and I’m realistic about what we can and can’t accomplish. I’m also an optimist and an activist and if we don’t try to change things, nothing will change. Look at this movement we’re all a part of – it’s huge, it’s growing, it’s public, we have legal clergy and legal rights. That was not the case 30 years ago. It was a struggle, a battle to achieve a lot of those things. I know, I was part of those fights. And we’re still fighting – the pentacle case is the most recent example. But when we fight, we win.

I get articles about killings from the African and Indian press almost every day. People – so often women – are singled out and murdered just because of an accusation of Witchcraft. We know what that means. That is part of our history. I think we need to respond to that dangerous persecution wherever it arises. It has to be stopped before it spreads. But it may be years before our community is large enough, has enough resources and enough presence in the global community to affect these situations. Working to save Fawza can teach us how to be effective the next time something like this happens — we’ll have better skills, better organization, better contacts, more wisdom.

You have been instrumental in building an interfaith coalition to put moral pressure on Saudi Arabia, how have other faith communities and religious leaders responded to this crisis?

They’ve been wonderful. Granted, the people I approached were people I knew, had close relationships with, had worked with. And they in turn reached out to people with whom they had relationships. They are very courageous and compassionate and I have such gratitude and respect for all of them. To me they are the proof that at the heart of all faiths is the common aspiration to live in the most compassionate, loving, kind and generous way, because that is what divinity is truly about, no matter what face it wears or name it’s called. Now all sorts of clergy and people from all over the globe are signing the petition. Amazing, wonderful. It’s so inspiring, it gives me hope that we can have a future where all faith traditions not only live together in peace, but in community.

Have Muslim groups been receptive to your efforts?

The first person who responded to my letter was Mike Ghouse, the President of the World Muslim Congress. He worked so hard on this, helping to draft the letter to the King, emailing Muslim organizations, contacting friends of his and other faith organizations. Sheila Musaji, Editor of The American Muslim, was also among the first to sign. There are many Muslim organizations on the petition. We got great support from IranDokht, an online newsletter with more than 450,000 readers.

Mike is now drafting a letter to the King specifically from Muslim organizations, which can say things in a way that will be very meaningful and helpful for Fawza. And it will be very important in the press in Saudi Arabia and in the region, which could be hugely helpful.

What can American Pagans concerned about this case do aside from signing your petition, should we contact our elected officials? Send letters to the Saudi Arabian embassy?

I’m so glad you asked. First, please sign the petition:

http://www.petitiononline.com/AIDFAWZA/petition.html

And send the link to as many people and organizations as you can. This is so important because the more signatures we have, the more press coverage the story is like to get and the more pressure there is on the politicians and the King. Next, write to your Senators. A sample letter and links to the Senators is posted in the story on Fawza on the front page of WitchVox.

Send the letter to the Saudi Embassies in Washington and in New York.

Send the letter to Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, secretary general of the Supreme Commission of Tourism of Saudi Arabia, who is very concerned about Saudi Arabia’s image.

Send the letter to the State Department asking them to negotiate for Fawza’s freedom.

Contact your local press, write a letter to the editor, ask the religion writer to do a story about the case, ask the radio and tv station to cover her story. Write Bill Maher and Steven Colbert and Keith Oberman and Nikolas Kristoff at the NYTimes and the various hosts on AirAmerica and ask them to cover the story.

If we do manage to help save Fawza Falih, what can we do to help ensure such a tragic turn of events doesn’t happen again? It seems unlikely that major law reform will be coming to places like Saudi Arabia (or Iran) any time soon.

If we help to save Fawza, I hope people will see that when we stand up and fight for what’s right, when we work together as a community, when we reach out to others to help us, when we’re willing to sacrifice some time and energy to help someone, we can make a difference. No, we’re not going to change the Saudi or the Iranian legal system. And we can’t ensure that this never happens again. But if it happens again, we can do everything we can to help, perhaps we can change things one case at a time. That’s everything.

And maybe, gradually, over time we’ll educate people – that’s one reason I do Interfaith work. By supporting those who are seeking to change things from within, the culture will also change. Change is a law of nature. And we can participate in a global effort to end the abuse and legal enslavement of women. It took years to change apartheid. But it WAS changed because people with vision worked for change. And a little magic won’t hurt either. Just don’t do it in a fundamentalist country.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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