Human rights groups have known for some time that the Mutaween (religious police) in Saudi Arabia has run amok. Operating with near impunity thanks to backing from the government, with special squads dedicated solely to rooting out “witchcraft and sorcery”, they roam Saudi Arabia looking for any hint of theological impropriety. Little can be done, because the country is virtually immune from outside pressures thanks to the policy of Realpolitik, which tells world leaders that oil and a strategic ally in the Middle East are more important than justice or human rights. A reality that condemns women like Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, and others like her, to certain death. Now this sad state of affairs has made international headlines once again, as a Lebanese television presenter who made predictions about the future, and was arrested last year while on pilgrimage, has been sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft.
“Ali Sibat’s death sentence apparently resulted from advice and predictions he gave on Lebanese television. According to Saudi media, in addition to Sibat, Saudi religious police have arrested at least two others for witchcraft in the past month alone. “Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The crime of ‘witchcraft’ is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions.” Religious police arrested Ali Sibat in his hotel room in Medina on May 7, 2008, where he was on pilgrimage before returning to his native Lebanon. Before his arrest, Sibat frequently gave advice on general life questions and predictions about the future on the Lebanese satellite television station Sheherazade, according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the French newspaper Le Monde. These appearances are said to be the only evidence against Sibat.”
Human Rights Watch also notes that Saudi Arabia has no codified penal code, with individual judges deciding what is and isn’t proper evidence for “witchcraft” and “sorcery”. Critics of this farce of a legal system are told that they have a “preconceived Western notion of shari’a” and ignored. Saudi Arabia is unique in the international epidemic of witch-hunts, as its persecutions and deaths are unambiguously backed by powerful government, and can’t be explained away as mere superstition or the product of corrupt “bad apple” religious leaders.
So what can be done? We can demand that governments start taking off the kid gloves with Saudi Arabia, no matter how friendly they’ve been with us in the past. We can also continue the work of raising the concerns of modern Pagans on this issue to the world stage, and with priestess, author, and attorney, Phyllis Curott (who has fought valiantly on behalf of Fawza Falih Muhammad) now on the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (along with two other Pagans) I feel that this process is well underway. Until then, we can pray and work for the innocent “witches and sorcerers” held and threatened with death for possessing the wrong books, believing the wrong things, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.