Archives For Middle East

We’ve long known that Pagan and polytheist revival and reconstruction movements are a global phenomenon, and that has included, quietly, tentatively, the Middle East. While most countries in the Middle East are culturally, religiously, and demographically dominated by Islam, that hasn’t stopped a few adventurous souls from embracing various forms of modern Pagan religions. This isn’t safe, and in some cases it has led to deadly tragedy, but this thread persists, alongside the sorts of syncretic esotericism that have always existed on the margins of the dominant monotheisms. A recent article in Arab Times, notes that in Kuwait people are buying statues of pre-Islamic gods, much to the outrage of some local officials.

Statue of the goddess Anahita in Maragha, Iran.

Statue of the goddess Anahita in Maragha, Iran.

“MP Abdulrahman Al-Jeeran has recommended banning the sale of statues of the gods followed by idol-worshippers during the pre-Islamic times of paganism, indicating that he had discovered the sale of statues as works of art and gift items by some shops, reports Al-Rai daily. He revealed that statues representing gods believed by non-Muslim pagan worshippers during the primitive era are commonly seen at various shopping malls across the country. He added that the retailer sells these items under the pretext of selling accessories and fashion materials without considering the real meaning behind those artifacts.”

There’s been a school of thought which posits that polytheism is humanity’s default religious setting, which is why religions like Christianity and Islam must constantly be in a process of conversion, re-conversion, and solidifying power to maintain the massive numbers they currently enjoy across the globe. If they don’t, or if they are limited by secular governments, the “old” beliefs start to re-emerge. As scholar Jordan Paper put it in his book, The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, quote:

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis.

“Given the history of homo sapiens, it may be that polytheism is inherent in human nature, not so much in the sense that is part of our DNA structure but that it arises from the human experience in conjunction with our nature. For unless we accept the arguments of the ur-monotheists that is contrary to  the above, monotheism is extremely recent, given the sweep of human history; arose in a tiny part of the planet; and is constantly breaking down.”

Of course, that “tiny part of the planet” happens to be the Middle East, and there are immense vested interests within all the monotheisms to ensure that the birthplace of their theology remains solidly in the hands of those who believe in the God of Abraham (though they also struggle amongst themselves for dominance). But, if religious freedoms were really guaranteed, could polytheism, Paganism, truly emerge in the Middle East? Right now, Egypt, which has been rocked by revolution, coup, internal fighting, and unrest this year, is currently trying to write a new constitution for their country that will be accepted by both Islamic hardliners, the military, non-Muslim religious groups (like the Copts), and a large secular-minded minority. A key point of contention is what form religious freedom will take in this new constitution, and by extension, this new government.

“One significant change, says committee head Amr Moussa, is that Article 3 which guarantees Christians and Jews the right to exercise their religious rites will probably be extended to include all non-Muslims. Article 3 currently states that ‘For Egyptian Christians and Jews the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.’ The amended version is expected to state that ‘for all Egyptian non-Muslims the principles of their religious laws will be the main source in regulating their personal status…etc’. The proposed change is opposed by Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, the newly-appointed representative of the ultraconservative Nour Party. In a closed meeting on Monday Mansour issued the melodramatic warning that the term ‘non-Muslims’ would open gates to ‘religious sects like worshippers of the devil’.

Expanding religious freedoms beyond the “People of the Book” is increasingly seen as necessary by religious minorities and secular Egyptians, first, because faiths like Baha’i “cannot legally marry and continue to have trouble with matters such as inheritance because the law does not properly recognize their presence.” In addition, there is a growing number Egyptians who aren’t simply secular, but have embraced atheism, despite the grave social disadvantages inherent in that choice.

“‘Atheists are all around Egypt,’ said Othman Othman, pointing to a group of young people sitting at the table next to us. The number of atheists in Egypt is not less than three million, Othman claimed, but they do not label themselves ‘atheists’ as society would disown them. Those who have come out publicly as atheists have been not only isolated by their friends and families, but also society in general. However, others who turn down their familial religion have faced many worse trials than mere isolation. Asmaa Omar, 24, who has just graduated the Faculty of Engineering, said that once she revealed her beliefs to her family, they began to physically and mentally torture her. Her father slapped her in the face and broke her jaw. She was not able to eat properly for seven months.”

Once you open the door to Baha’i and atheists, it is only a matter of time before we see a Kemetic/Egyptian polytheist revival (or even Egyptian Wiccans). After all, Egypt is already a global hotspot for seekers, New Agers, and yes, Pagans, wanting to see the many ancient treasures and wonders of the country. Once the chaos abates, Egypt will want the massive tourism revenue to return, and with it will come the exchange of ideas that results from a flood of visitors. In fact, we know that there are already Pagans in Egypt, but a more open society might spark unexpected growth.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From left to right: the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From left to right: the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

The question remains: can Paganism emerge in the Middle East? Will it be allowed to? If secular governments (or at least pseudo-secular hybrids) start to emerge, it could happen, and if/when it does, what happens next?

Earlier this week I pointed to the fact that modern Paganism is now a global phenomenon. That we aren’t simply a small religious movement isolated to North America and the UK, and that we will increasingly be affected by issues we thought relegated to “over there.” Things that “aren’t our problem.” When I wrote that piece I knew that “Yana,” a Syrian Pagan, and friend of Pagan Newswire Collective Managing Editor Cara Schulz, had been killed, but it wasn’t my story to tell, my obituary to write. Today, at PNC-Minnesota, Cara tells the story of her death, learned through another Middle Eastern source that she considers reliable.

Syria in ruins.

Syria in ruins.

“What happened to her is so ugly I’m struggling to … I can’t even finish that sentence.  I’ll just tell you what I have learned, and although I trust this source, there is no way for me to independently confirm this.  Some time in late June, Yana’s brother, who had become radicalized, informed the rebels that his sister was a Pagan.  They took her, tortured her, then her brother publicly denounced her as a whore and a witch.  After that, she was drug out onto the street, raped, and killed.

What I remember about Yana is she was always joking, always smiling.  She injected joy into everything she did, from talking about the Gods she honored to showing off her latest hair style.  She had more hair combs than anyone I’ve ever known.  She wanted to come to America and eat bacon.  She was fascinated and repelled by the thought of bacon so I would tell her about putting it in chocolate and on maple ice cream.  She was nervous about getting married.  Her father doted on her and she worried a husband might not be so kind or forgiving of her free spirit.  She told me younger men like to show how manly they are so she thought about telling her parents to find an older man for her to marry.  It was hard to see her become less exuberant as the fighting started, and then drew closer.  To see fear creep in and hear from her less often.   How sad she was that she never left her home anymore because it wasn’t safe.”

In January, Schulz wrote about how the small and isolated number of modern Pagans in places like Syria and Egypt were falling silent as fighting and political turmoil reached new heights.

Yana's last communication to Cara Schulz.

Yana’s last communication to Cara Schulz.

“The situation in Syria appears to be more grave, according to the last messages I received from the five Pagans I chat with regularly. They spoke of the fighting and how places looked like Beirut, buildings just shells of themselves, rubble blocking the streets. They detailed neighbors going missing. Islamic fundamentalist patrols that monitor behavior and took violent action against people who violated rules and customs. They debated fleeing, worried about being outed as a Pagan, and started destroying or burying altars. Three began attending local mosques to show their devotion to Islam.

Yana dropped off first.  I last heard from her in June of 2012.  Bayan, another Syrian Pagan, also hadn’t heard from her but said fighting in her area was intense.  He said he had seen patrols targeting young women and men, beating them and he said it was rumored they were raping them.  He thought perhaps she fled to a safer area or was silent to avoid detection.”

These aren’t Christians or Muslims accused of sorcery, these aren’t dissidents accused of heresy, these are our people. These are modern Pagans, people interested in reviving their own culture’s pre-Christian past, people who were, and are, deeply curious about what their Western cousins were doing, what we were thinking. These were our people killed in this conflict “over there.” Our people in hiding, on the run, pretending to be (the right kind of) Muslims, trying to survive. The situation brings to mind a classic chant often used as public Pagan rituals by Morning Feather and Will Shepardson.

“We are an old people, we are a new people, we are the same people, stronger than before.”

To my mind, the chant was about continuity, about solidarity. That modern Pagans were diverse, that we came from different sources, but that we were a movement who were now coming together to be stronger, to declare ourselves to the world. It’s time that our movement claimed the full responsibility for our success. We have been working a global spell for the last fifty years, telling everyone that the Witches, the Pagans, the Heathens, the old ways, were back, that everyone who felt that connection should embrace it, should return to the old gods, should join us in becoming a movement of people who were stronger than when we fell before. The spell has worked, now we must embrace what it has brought us, however imperfect, or inconvenient, or painful some of it may be. When you try to change the dominant religious paradigms of the world, people will die, they will be placed in danger by mobs who want power, who fear change, who want to establish never-ending towers of dominance. This is not hyperbole, because far from the (relative) privilege and safety of the West, there are people who heard our chants, our calls, and are now hiding and dying as a result.

What can we do? What should we do? We start by engaging with the world, by re-doubling our interfaith efforts, by supporting the organizations that are sending people to speak for us. Beyond that, we can support Doctors Without Borders, who have a long and positive track-record of helping people in war-stricken lands (there’s an option to earmark for Syria), and we can educate ourselves on all those issues “over there.” This self-education doesn’t mean we all have to agree on how we should respond, but we can at least start from a place of awareness when we do have these conversations. Finally, we can pray, do magic, and do ritual, for all Pagans across the world endangered because of who they are, because of where they are, realizing that such workings are the prelude, not the end-point, of action.

ADDENDUM: For those of you wanting to donate to Doctors WIthout Borders in Yana’s name, Cara Schulz has set up a special page at their website for that purpose, and hopes to raise $1000 for relief efforts.

[The following article is reprinted from the PNC Minnesota bureau, and reported by Cara Schulz.]

Areas where there is political turmoil or fighting are often difficult places for even those in the mainstream of a culture to live in. It’s even harder for people on the fringe of society as they face confusion, uncertainty, deteriorating living conditions, and daily fear for personal safety. Those set apart by ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, political views, or religion are the most vulnerable to loss of property or even loss of life. In Syria and Egypt, two countries currently experiencing political turmoil or civil war, one by one Pagan voices have fallen silent.

Syrians demonstrate in the coastal city of Banias against the regime of hard-line leader Bashar Assad in the spring of 2011. (Syrian Freedom via Creative Commons)

Syrians demonstrate in the coastal city of Banias against the regime of hard-line leader Bashar Assad in the spring of 2011. (Syrian Freedom via Creative Commons)

There are eight Pagans, three in Egypt and five in Syria, that I have regular contact with online. They had always been cautious about revealing their religion to people within their country and expressed dismay over their isolation, but they were happy to talk online and wanted to know what American Pagans, especially those who practice Mesopotamian or Kemetic religions, were doing.

Egypt

The Egyptian Pagans, who were elated at the fall of Muburak, expressed hope that a truly democratic government would emerge in Egypt. Then, concerns crept in at the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Karim saw the Brotherhood as a threat to both his country and to him, as a Pagan, personally. Over the past seven months, the lag in communication grew as he became more politically involved and went to rallies and protests. He expressed fear that pagans and other religious minorities were in increasing danger and that the Christians would sacrifice people like him to the Brotherhood to appease them. The other two Pagans I communicate with followed a similar pattern. Elation, followed by concern, followed by fear and determination. Then silence. I have no way of finding out if they are simply too involved with the political turmoil in Egypt to respond, if they are keeping quiet to avoid suspicion, or anything else. It’s been three months since I have heard from any of them.

Syria

The situation in Syria appears to be more grave, according to the last messages I received from the five Pagans I chat with regularly. They spoke of the fighting and how places looked like Beirut, buildings just shells of themselves, rubble blocking the streets. They detailed neighbors going missing. Islamic fundamentalist patrols that monitor behavior and took violent action against people who violated rules and customs. They debated fleeing, worried about being outed as a Pagan, and started destroying or burying altars. Three began attending local mosques to show their devotion to Islam.

email-for-article

Yana dropped off first.  I last heard from her in June of 2012.  Bayan, another Syrian Pagan, also hadn’t heard from her but said fighting in her area was intense.  He said he had seen patrols targeting young women and men, beating them and he said it was rumored they were raping them.  He thought perhaps she fled to a safer area or was silent to avoid detection.

That was the last email I received from Bayan.  Like dominoes the other Syrian Pagans went silent.  No emails or texts.  No word on their safety.  I keep hoping I will hear something, but it’s been several months and still no word.

I reached out to a Pagan in Lebanon, Adon, to see what he has heard about his coreligionists in Syria and Egypt.  Although he’s not in the same country, he’s much closer than I am.  I asked Adon if he had heard from Pagans in Egypt and Syria.

I haven’t heard of my pagan friends in Syria for a while too now, i know at least three of them who moved to other countries, especially Algeria, and United Arab emirates, but i have lost their contact in the process. The others are still silent, so they’re either disconnected, moved from the country, or worse. It’s hard to tell at the moment, pagans in the Near East were already several secluded clusters of individuals who don’t have a lot of contact with each other before everything started to happen. This is the case even in Lebanon where it’s relatively easier to be open about one’s religious identity.

I didn’t had any contact previously with Egyptian pagans, but they’re probably fine, but everyone in Egypt is too distracted to think about anything but politics and survival at the moment, i’ve had trouble having a decent conversation even with non-pagan egyptian friends in the past few months.

Anyway, you’re right that the atmosphere is getting a lot less safer for non-muslims in general and even for less devoted muslims. It’s very risky to even discuss religion in Syria at the moment, whether we were in the areas controlled by the regime or by the rebels. In Egypt the situation is a bit brighter since there’s a larger civil society and minorities in general and things are still relatively peaceful. However, the general feeling here is that this is temporary, the Islamists are taking the lead now after being in the shadows for decades, and all this will catalyze the process of getting over fundamental Islamism faster.  – Adon

My hope is that peace and liberty come to this region of the world.  I hope my friends are safe and that someday soon, they can live without fear.  That their voices are once again heard and this terrible silence ends.  May Anu and Horus watch over them.

Witchcraft and sorcery are illegal in the United Arab Emirates, but unlike their neighbors in Saudi Arabia they treat the matter as a fraud and nuisance, rather than a grave crime that can earn you the death penalty.

“Witchcraft and sorcery is strictly illegal in the UAE and most Gulf countries. In Saudi Arabia, it is a crime punishable by death. However in Dubai, authorities have treated it largely as the purview of scam artists and confidence tricksters. In the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, authorities take a more liberal stance. However, because of the large number of scam artists posing as sorcerers and exorcists in Dubai, police have set up a special task force to crack down on so-called ‘magic-related crimes.'”

Despite this no-doubt impressive task force, it was UAE’s airport security who caught two Asian men trying to smuggle over a thousand items related to sorcery and magic into the country.

Seized occult haul. Image Credit: Dubai Police

Seized occult haul. Image Credit: Dubai Police

“Ali Al Maghawi, Dubai Customs’ Director of Airport Operations Department, said the two men were apprehended after their bags were scanned. “Two Asian passengers were suspected when their bags passed through the internal inspection machines,” he said. “Their bags were scanned and searched manually. Inspectors found out a great number of wicca literature, talismans and items which are usually used in witchcraft and sorcery work.” Al Maghawi pointed out that the 1,200 seized items fell into 28 categories used for black magic, sorcery and incantation.”

Did you catch that? “A great number of Wicca literature.” Later in the article, while listing what was seized, an official simply says “magic teaching books,” by why say “Wicca literature” in the first place unless there are actually books that say “Wicca” on them? Sadly, though I searched, there isn’t a clear picture of the seized books (Imagine the marketing coup for the company that published the titles!). So my question is, are there Wiccans in the UAE?

Certainly most of these items, including the literature, are being used in syncretic or indigenous magical systems, but even the most utilitarian Western Witchcraft spell-books usually have some information about Wicca and its beliefs in them. If the “great number” of Wiccan books seized here are simply the tip of the iceberg, as is the case with most black market busts, then it stands to reason there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people reading about modern Pagan faiths in the UAE. Does that mean there might be modern Pagans and Witches in the country as well? It’s not so far-fetched an idea. Wherever Western literature and Internet access has become easily accessible, small pockets of Pagans have also emerged. There are Pagans in Lebanon, and in Israel, and the country of Jordan has welcomed Patrick McCollum as a guest, so these materials can’t all be mere fodder for scam-artists.

Modern Paganism is now a global movement, and has been so for some time. While our critics would like to believe that Wicca, Druidry, and other faiths under our umbrella are merely the passing fancy of bored teenagers, radical feminists, and aging hippies, the truth is that the underlying appeal of reviving pre-Christian religion has sparked something far larger than even we could have anticipated. The harder the dominant monotheisms grasp, the more people start looking for alternatives. What’s truly exciting is to see how the ideas and concepts of modern Paganism change and grow in places like India, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Books on Wicca may be inadvertently helping to revive polytheism without a single missionary uttering a single word.

I’ll spare all of you the seemingly obligatory April Fools’ Day post, where I pretend I’ve converted to Christianity (or atheism), or run some clearly farcical story where a famous Pagan does something out-of-character. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a well-done joke, it’s just that I like to leave such things to the professionals. Besides, April 1st is not only my lovely wife’s birthday, but our wedding anniversary as well. So I’ll be out for most of today properly celebrating both occasions. So before I head off, let’s do a very quick round-up of some (real) Pagan news.

The Assassination of a Lebanese Citizen, and the Pagans in Lebanon: I’ve written before about Saudi Arabia’s plan to murder a Lebanese citizen, and former television host, for the “crime” of sorcery. After seemingly exhausting all legal appeals to his death sentence, alarming reports went out that Ali Sabat would be executed within a matter of days. Now, the AFP reports that Lebanon’s ambassador to Riyadh says that the execution is not imminent, though Sibat is still on death-row with a pardon being the only thing that could save him.

“Lebanon’s ambassador to Riyadh said Thursday that he had not been informed by the Saudi authorities of the imminent execution of a Lebanese man found guilty of sorcery, as his lawyer has warned. “Until now, the embassy has not been informed” that former TV presenter Ali Sabat has been condemned to death, Ambassador Marwan Zein told AFP by telephone. Sabat’s case is “still being considered by the court,” Zein said.”

Here’s hoping the two nations are doing some diplomatic behind-the-scenes efforts to save Sibat’s life. Sibat’s looming death is troubling, not only for the barbarity of executing innocent men and women for “sorcery” and “witchcraft”, but also because it endangers anyone traveling through the Middle East who doesn’t meet the arbitrary and exacting specifications of the local religious police, including modern Pagans. What’s that? There are no modern Pagans in the Middle East? Well, it seems that there are indeed Pagans in Lebanon. Lebanese blogger Hanibaael explores the phenomenon (in an Arabic-only post, here’s a rough Google translation).

“Pagans didn’t fade away. They are here among us, living by their beliefs in the shadows despite 2000 years of persecution. Here in Lebanon, despite the lack of official legal recognition of anyone who’s not affiliated with the three main religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), they are young people who have taken alternative spiritual paths different from the dominant currents rooted in the general education. They converted to the esoteric and pagan beliefs, on their own, without being preached of it by anyone” (Thanks to Lebanese Pagan Adonis for the improved translation.)

The next head on the chopping block could be a Lebanese Wiccan traveling with her family through Saudi Arabia for The Hajj, just as Ali Sibat once did. Never suspecting he would be arrested for the predictions he made on television. Stopping these witch-hunts around the world isn’t just a humanitarian issue, it also increasingly endangers our faith traditions as modern Paganism emerges as a truly global movement.

Hey You Kids! Get Off My Lawn Sacred Well! It seems that both local Christians and Pagans are concerned about groups of younger Pagans frequenting the famous St. Anthony’s Well in Gloucestershire. What horrible things are these inexperienced Pagans doing? Well, they are apparently making pentagrams from leaves, arranging sticks in patterns, leaving flowers, and making small altars with natural materials!

[High priest Tim] Oakes says it is also among the top 20 pagan water sites in the country and added: “St Anthony’s Well has become a target for what I can only describe as amateur pagans. It is a beautiful sacred place and we deplore any attempts to redecorate it. Our view is that these things should not be there, you should not have these symbols in the middle of a glade. There are a series of books aimed at encouraging teen witches but no reputable coven will accept anybody under 18 so they have nowhere to go. They read these books and go down there armed with a little bit of knowledge to try to get involved.”

How dare these “amateur pagans”! Don’t they know they should wait until they are 18, join a proper coven, and receive training before they ever dare leave flowers at a holy well?!? I’m sorry, but while I can understand the local Christian clergy getting bent out of shape because young Pagans are trouncing about the well, Mr. Oakes sounds like someone who’s peeved because the kids aren’t all bowing to his superior wisdom. If this was some sort of vandalism, the kind that can’t be removed with a broom, I’d be worried, but this is much ado over very little indeed.

Native American Names? Reality television stars Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt have decided to give themselves the “Native American” names of White Wolf and Running Bear, and Native American organizations aren’t amused.

TMZ spoke with a rep from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, who told us, “Continued stereotyping such as this by people ignorant of our traditional ways is very disrespectful and only hurts our efforts to curtail these stereotypes.” The rep claims they’re especially upset because “the names they have given themselves are legitimate names in our tribe.” And they’re not the only ones pissed at the MTV couple … The National Indian Education Association tells us, “they have taken an inaccurate stereotypical approach to enhance their public image which is offensive to our diverse American Indian cultures.”

If Heidi and Spencer White Wolf and Running Bear had decided to take magick Wiccan/Pagan names instead, they could have avoided most of this negative backlash over the issue of cultural appropriation, though it wouldn’t have saved them from rounds of mockery. Though I suppose that generating attention was what this move was all about, so, mission accomplished?

Call For Writers: In a final note, the The Pagan Newswire Collective is seeking writers for two new topic-focused group-blog projects. Just as the PNC’s new Pagan+Politics site aims to give a Pagan voice to our  political discourse, so too will these new projects help provide a vital Pagan perspective in their respective subject areas.

Pagans in the Military Group-Blog Project:

The PNC is looking for 7-10 Pagans interested in joining a group blog concerning Pagans in the military. We are hoping to encompass a wide range of news, opinions, and perspectives, and we want to not only include active-duty military personnel and military veterans, but  military spouses and activists involved in working to advance the equal treatment of Pagans in the armed forces. All political perspectives welcome.

Requirements: We prefer all participants be able to contribute at least one post per week. However, we are willing to make exceptions for active-duty military personnel who are stationed overseas. Writing and journalism experience is a plus, but we are also willing to take on dedicated beginners who can demonstrate they know their way around a sentence.

Pagan Pop-Culture/Arts Group-Blog Project:

The PNC is looking for 7-10 Pagans interested in joining a group blog concerning Pagan opinions on pop-culture and the arts, both mainstream and Pagan-created. Movies, books, comics, art, games, music, theater, and dance, we want to cover it all!

Requirements: Participants should be able to contribute at least one post per week (more is even better). A history of writing arts-oriented reviews is a big plus, as is demonstrating a breadth of knowledge about pop-culture and the arts.  Having a specialty is fine, and even encouraged! Remember we are looking for specifically Pagan reactions to, and analysis of, these creative fields.

To apply for either project send an e-mail with your name, contact information, location, and writing samples to projects at pagannewswirecollective dot com.

That’s all I have for now, have a great (April Fools’) day.

The tiny island nation of Bahrain, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, is making sorcery a crime. New anti-sorcery and witchcraft additions to the penal code have already been passed by the Parliament, and the country’s consultative (Shura) council (an appointed parliamentary “upper house”) have just approved the new additions according to Arabian Business.

“Shura Council officials approved the addition of a new article to the law outlawing sorcery and witchcraft, the Gulf Daily News reports. This would allow judges to give additional weight to such cases brought to prosecution, councillors have claimed. People found guilty of sorcery and witchcraft would face unspecified jail terms and undetermined fines or both, the paper reports.”

A press release from Bahrain’s Shura Council, says these new laws will allow judges to tackle “paranormal” subject matter in criminal cases.

“…councillors said the new addition would give judges all the tools to decide the necessary punishment. They added acts could be defined as sorcery and witchcraft if they were paranormal to scientific and religious beliefs. Those convicted of such offences would face unspecified jail terms and undetermined fines or both.”

Despite some objections from MPs who thought the existing laws against fraud were sufficient, this now places Bahrain within the legal mainstream of most of the Middle East. The question now is how will these laws be enforced? Will “sorcerers” be treated like con-artists, and dealt with (relatively) lightly as in the United Arab Emirates? Or will these new “paranormal” laws degenerate into the thuggish torture and execution of suspects as in Saudi Arabia? Further, are these new laws the beginning of a larger campaign to put the squeeze on adherents to other (non-Muslim) faiths in the country? After all, one person’s religion can very well be another’s “sorcery”.

Top Story: Pop-culture critics have been seemingly too distracted by the 3-D CGI spectacular that is “Avatar” to give much attention to the latest Disney 2-D hand-drawn “princess” movie. Luckily, Religion Dispatches delivers us temporarily from discussions about Hollywood’s pantheism to instead talk about presentations of New Orleans Voodoo in “The Princess and the Frog”. According to Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, the film gives a prejudiced and misinformed” reading of the often misunderstood religion.

“I do not know where to begin my comments on how this film perpetuates offensive stereotypes about Voodoo. The loas are represented as evil spirits full of greed and anger … The terms Voodoo, Hoodoo, and conjuring are used interchangeably throughout. In the end one is presented with an evil religion that will ultimately fail. I did not expect critical race analysis or a sophisticated presentation of Voodoo when I walked into the theater. It is, after all, Disney. I did not expect such a blatant, racist, and misinformed presentation of Voodoo, however. The reduction of religion to magic is also reaffirmed in the curious absence of Catholicism in the film. My son is correct, Disney Voodoo is bad magic; it just doesn’t have anything to do with the authentic African Diaspora religion.”

In addition to getting New Orleans/Louisiana Voodoo horribly wrong, it seems the film gets New Orleans itself all wrong. In another Religion Dispatches piece, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, says the film is a big desecrating “lump of coal” that “picks up where Katrina left off”.

“I’m going to go all out and say that the entire movie is a wholesale desecration of New Orleans, Creole culture, Cajun Culture, religion, zydeco music, the Evangeline story, and Louis Armstrong (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Rolled up, Disney hates the South, period … I know it’s only a movie, but movies shape how people, especially children, view the world. In the case of New Orleans and the myriad of cultures it holds, to stint on all of the facets that make New Orleans and Louisiana the wonderful, complex, and sometimes exasperating place that it is is a crime. Disney’s princesses, once again, may have big beautiful eyes, but while kids are enjoying the view, Disney’s hack job of deconstructing history by making it “cute” is just as destructive as a category 5 hurricane. Fun and truth do not have to be mutually exclusive to sell a movie, unless of course you’re just bankrupt of ideas.”

Of course, Disney has a long history of acquiring and terraforming pieces of culture, transforming them to a point where most people think the Disney version is the original. There’s a reason why “disneyfication” is a pejorative term. So you get a Disney New Orleans where the Voodoo is bad, Catholicism is absent, tradition is ignored, and history is mangled. In the end, it’s more about extending the Princess brand, than doing something creative or original.

In Other News: The Pierce County Herald spotlights Circle Sanctuary’s efforts to send holiday care packages to troops in Iraq.

“The Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld is also remembering soldiers at Fort Hood Texas – where a Wisconsin unit lost three of its members in last month’s shooting rampage. Selena Fox, a senior minister of the Wiccan Church, said the Circle group sent packages to about 50 active duty personnel at Fort Hood to show extra support. They’ve also provided counseling for the Pagan soldiers at the base – and they sent holiday cheer to 150 Pagan troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I’m sure it’s still not too late to donate, and help them in their efforts.

NPR reports on the rise of sorcery and witchcraft-related arrests and sentencing in Saudi Arabia, and talks to an expert who posits that the recent increase is a reaction to the government trying to curb the influence of the religious police.

“Saudi political analyst Tawfiq al-Saif says religious authorities truly believe they are helping society by discouraging faith in the supernatural. But, he says, there is also a political reason for the recent rise in sorcery cases. In the past few years, the government has tried to curb the influence of the religious establishment by sacking key religious figures, pushing for reform in the courts and criticizing the religious police. “One time, I met the head of the Hey’a [the religious police] and he was really sorry because in the past he was saying that they were free to do whatever they like to enforce the Sharia laws — even, he said, in the public buses, in the train, in the airports,” Saif says. But now that they are under pressure, the religious police are trying to flex their muscles in the few ways they still can, including looking for people who practice magic or who don’t pray five times a day, and for women who don’t properly cover their hair, Saif says.”

Does this mean that the plight of people like Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali and Ali Sibat are due to the last grasps at control by a shrinking power in the country? Or has the “muscle flexing” by the religious police shifted matters to their liking, and we’ll only see more madness and death in the near future? I suppose it remains to be seen, but I worry that any long-term solution to this anti-sorcery madness will come too late for the unlucky caught in this cultural crossfire.

For a somewhat different take on the problem of sorcery in the Middle East, The Epoch Times looks at Dubai, who have far more liberal laws concerning sorcery, but who also deal with rampant fraud and scam-artists.

“In the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, authorities take a more liberal stance. However, because of the large number of scam artists posing as sorcerers and exorcists in Dubai, police have set up a special task to crack down on so-called “magic-related crimes.” “Some people are just simple and anything will fool them,” Khaleel Al-Mansouri, the head of Dubai’s Criminal Investigation Department, told local newspaper seven days earlier this year. “It’s due to a lack of education, but also because the victims are greedy and are looking for a quick profit. “Our officers are highly skilled and they carry out special undercover patrols in shopping malls throughout Dubai looking for any sorcery crime that might be occurring.” In 2008 alone, fraudsters fleeced Dh130 million (US$35.5 billion) out of unsuspecting members of the public in sorcery scams.”

They also manage to interview a taxi driver, Hassan Hamadi, who also works as an exorcist. He claims he charges no money for his services, and lives in fear of being arrested by the sorcery task-force. However, despite the threat of arrest, because laws are more liberal (no death-penalty) places like Oman in the Persian Gulf has become, according to one journalist, a hotbed of “sorcerers and mystics”. Such is, I believe, the consequence of creating a legal gray area. They eliminate death-penalties and long prison terms for sorcery, but enough of a penalty remains to keep the practice criminal, underground, and unregulated. One wonders if they repealed all laws and dealt with fraud on a purely secular basis if a home-grown “neo-sorcery” would emerge, much like Wicca did in England. Maybe, maybe not, but arresting, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, killing, “witches” doesn’t seem to ever “solve” the problem.

In a final note, here’s a unique opinion essay at the American Thinker by Selwyn Duke that debunks the pagan origins of Christmas, while acknowledging the great debt we owe to “pagan” pre-Christian cultures.

“If we were to discard all things pagan, I should think we’d plunge ourselves back into the Stone Age. We walk on concrete, record our knowledge with letters, and designate our months with names originated/invented by the pagan Romans. We steer our boats with rudders invented by the pagan Chinese; make calculations with numbers invented by pagan Indians; and create computer graphics, medical imaging, and designs for buildings and bridges using geometry formalized by pagan Greeks. And much of our philosophy (and much of that drawn upon by early Christians, mind you) was generated by pagans such as Aristotle and Plato. Should we “go Taliban” and burn all their works — and other books thus influenced? A pious Christian must believe that pagans could not have had the whole Truth, but only an ignorant Christian would believe they had no Truth.”

I would happily concede Christmas as wholly Christian if those same culture-warriors would acknowledge that their foundation is built on the advances made by “pagans”. Heck, I’d even call it a “Christmas miracle”.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!