The Literal Witch Hunts in Saudi Arabia

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 25, 2009 — 33 Comments

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.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Amanda Lahay

    This is madness! It's sick that people continue to maim, torture and kill, all while hiding behind religion to justify it. People who hunt for "witches and sorcerers" are no better than serial killers here – they are predators and their prey are INNOCENT people who just don't happen to have the same beliefs and/or backgrounds.

  • Leif

    It is quite obvious that these people are not "witches" at all and hysterical support by those who claim to be witches does nothing but further condemn them to a grisly end confirmind in the minds of the religiouos police that they were entirely correct in labeling these innocent people as witches. This not not about freedom to be witches it is about injustice the role of real evidence and the presumption of innocence. In making it about witchcraft we merely confirm the attitudes and superstitions of this middle eastern death cult.

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  • Heresiarch

    Does anyone know what happened to Fawza Falih? There was a great deal of international coverage at the time, but no news since that I've been able to track down. Is she dead? Still on death row? Pardoned? And why did the story go cold? It's most strange.

  • Fire Lyte

    But, isn't it still true that the vast majority of these convictions for witchcraft have nothing really to do with someone practicing magic and, instead, are a means to do away with people the community doesn't like? I mean, if I'm not mistaken, many of the women accused had simply displeased their husbands or, perhaps, committed adultery. It is a strong patriarchy, after all, and anything that goes against a man's pride is punished beyond normal bounds.

    This has been a point of debate for a while, this whole notion of pagans helping our 'brother/sister witches." The truth, though, is that they're not really witches – most of them. It is still a sad and terrible reality that this kind of thing goes on.

  • Dmitri Sylvain

    Many of these who are being persecuted in these modern witch hunts may not really be witches, but it is still called a witch hunt. Such a practice could very easily turn into the persecution of real witchcraft practitioners, given the right place and circumstances. And that wouldn't be a hard to imagine turn of events, since A) this is an international phenomenon, and B) in some cases this is being funded by American churches. Hopefully this can all be stopped. The Parliament of the World's Religions at least sounds promising. It may not be the real witches being hunted today, but it only takes a small shift in focus.

  • Hecate

    I'd like to suggest that those so-inclined plan some magic workings around Yule designed to stop this madness and protect those accused of witchcraft. I don't care whether they are or (as is more likely the case) are not witches.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Human Rights Watch says she is still alive, though weakening, and isstill on death-row for being a “witch”.

  • hbomb

    I am wondering the same thing… everything goes cold in feb of '08! what's going on here? something seems strange about all this…

  • Hether Jones

    wow.. i just gave a speech on wicca in my comm 101 class; imagine i could easily have been arrested and killed for doing that in another country…I really don't understand why people have to be so cruel simply because they love God so much.

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  • @thelettuceman

    It's not necessarily cruelty because they love God so much as cruelty because it threatens their power and sense of control. Having an "Other" to lay blame to, to scapegoat, is a powerful tool to avoid close scrutiny from a domestic angle.

  • BryonMorrigan

    I wonder if the right-wing Pagans who say that Christian "witch hunts" are no big deal will have a problem with these ones since they are committed by Muslims, and not Christians. Of course, this is where the Palin/Beck crowd tends to agree with the Muslims…

  • Ruadhan

    Totally agreed. And, if anything, Western Pagans and Witches allying ourselves with the victims of these "witch hunts" ends up hurting them. These calls to "help out" do more harm than good.

  • Paul

    I find myself agreeing with Beck/Fox News more often then not; I'm also a pagan…and any witch hunt is an affront to humanity. Christian V Pagan, Muslim V Pagan, Pagan V Pagan, ect. I can only assume that was a cheap shot at Palin/Back

  • BryonMorrigan

    No shot at Palin or Beck is ever "cheap."

    And considering some of the comments on the previous article about Palin and her support for Muthee the African "witch hunter," they are certainly apt.

  • Matt Gerlach

    The only way that Saudi Arabia is going to change its ways is for shame to be heaped upon them by (what they consider to be) a respectable and powerful Muslim organization/country. Beyond that, any outcry that comes from non-Muslims (or the wrong kind of Muslims) will just be seen as the lost trying to lead the righteous astray.

  • Labrys

    It is a rather surprising misunderstanding to me that some readers apparently read “witchhunt” and think it has the slightest thing to do with Wicca, of the European Middle Ages “witch hunts” that grew out of the Inquistion and persisted for a complex series of reasons. In Saudi Arabia, as in other parts of Africa, it is not about getting rid of people you dislike so much, as it is about maintaining orthodoxy.

    Anyone who in any way questions it, or challenges the dominant religious view is at risk. In Islam, only Allah (God) is all-knowing; so ANY apparently correct prediction of even a minor future even would be witchcraft by definition. And Saudi Arabia practices a very strict fundamental form of Islam called Wahabi. As for “shaming” the Saudis into humane behavior? Good luck with that; it is their considered opinion that the rest of the world is a sink of inequity and sin; that they are the last ‘pure’ place.

  • AlexPendragon

    Explain to me why any person on this planet can claim that this world is under the thumb of an "intelligent" species? We might be sentient, but we are not "civliized", nor have I detected any intelligence. Any species capable of arriving here from some other place in this galaxy cerainly will consider us a pest that needs to be removed before the planet can be returned to it's "normal" dynamic. As a Wiccan, I find precious little solace that Gaia has allowed us to persist this long………

  • Aquila ka Hecate

    "In Saudi Arabia, as in other parts of Africa,.."

    Err..would you like to rephrase that a little?

    Terri in Joburg

  • Makarios

    "As for "shaming" the Saudis into humane behavior? Good luck with that. . . ..

    Particularly since they're in a position to turn off the tap on the oil supply.

  • Jenn93

    Which is another reason why N America would do well to find or make and use an alternate source of fuel, so as to limit our dependency on nations like Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal theocracy. They violate women's rights all over the place. We shouldn't be supporting them with our dollars.

  • Lokisgodhi

    Funny you should mention this. Ironically, I wrote a fictional short story about this. A quick synopsis on the basis.

    There are about 5000 members of the Saudi royal family. At any given time a large portion of them are residing outside of Saudi Arabia because it sucks to live in Saudi Arabia and if you have money you don't. My story is a about a terminally ill person of conscience who knows they only have a few months to live. The protagonist targets members of the Saudi royal family for assassination abroad in retaliation for these religiously motivated executions in Saudi Arabia under the theory that if the Saudi government knows it will cost them people who matter to them for every person they persecute, they'll stop the persecution. He uses a weapon that utilizes pork products so that they will be unable to go to heaven when they die. Obviously the Saudi government is quite upset about this. After all, nothing is worse than having 5000 relatives constantly riding your ass to do something because they can't go abroad and have fun doing all the things Muslims aren't allowed to do because they're afraid of getting killed if they do.

    Oh, on a different tangent, realpolitik is probably the only way to deal with this.

    The problem is the US government lacks intestinal fortitude to do something, like perhaps allow a trickle of arms to find their way to the Shi'a minority in Saudi Arabia, who are 75% of the population where the oil comes from, whom the Sunni government treat badly and whom they are deathly afraid of since the Iranian revolution provided an outlet and model for Shi'a liberation.

  • Labrys

    I don't see a need to rephrase. The Arabian Pennisula IS a part of the African continent. Witch hunts are not driven by the same factors as, say the early American colony witch hunts. They are far more driven by dogmatic beliefs associated with behaviors readily "identifiable" in some cases. For example, in some parts of Africa, red hair is considered extremely suspicious, if not an outright sign.

  • Labrys

    The violate more than women's rights. What is done to logic and rational thought is an abuse in and of itself!

  • Aquila ka Hecate

    OK. Speaking as a SubSaharan African, though, we don't consider Saudi Arabia to be a part of our continent.

    Terri in Joburg

  • Snoozepossum

    "For example, in some parts of Africa, red hair is considered extremely suspicious, if not an outright sign."

    That's true in other places too, but the difference in attitude and how it's handled is key. When my mother was in Japan for a convention some time back, she and another woman in their party caught a lot of attention from a large group of rural people on a trip because they had blonde and red hair and blue eyes. They encountered suspicion from some of the very elderly people, but the normal action was to approach their tour guide, and ask politely if they were possibly the progeny of good or bad demons. The tour guides word that they weren't evil or mischief-causing was good enough that they didn't feel the need to do anything about them, except for one man in his late 80's who wanted to touch their hair for good luck anyway.

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  • Calliable

    Hello. And Bye.