Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Saudis' zero-tolerance approach to fake psychics

Witchcraft in Saudi Arabia is back in the news again. Human Rights Watch has taken up the cause of Ali Sabit, who is described as a Lebanese television personality (albeit on a satellite channel so obscure I was unable to find out any details about it) who has apparently been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for sorcery as a result of his broadcasts. Sibat was sentenced on November 9, but he has been in detention for the past 18 months. HRW states:

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.

I've been unable to discover any further details about this case, but I did find a report from last September that may shed light on the background to it. This quoted Sheikh Saleh al-Foza, a senior cleric, as demanding the death penalty for "sorcerers who appear on satellite channels". The report asserted that "many of the hundreds" of Arab-language satellite stations "specialise in horoscopes and other advice to callers on solving problems that is seen as 'sorcery'." TV astrologers weren't the only target: another cleric had demanded the death penalty for producers of "indecent" soap-operas beamed into the country during the month of Ramadan. It's likely, then, that Sibat is the victim of a moral panic about the corrupting influence of satellite TV. The campaign against witchcraft, though, is a broader one.

HRW is using the Sibat case to highlight the growing number of arrests and convictions for occult practices in that topsy-turvy kingdom. Sarah Leah Whitson, who leads their Middle East section, complained that "Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police. The crime of ‘witchcraft' is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions." The press release notes two other cases in the past month alone. It also revisits the case of Fawza Falih, an elderly woman who was sentenced to death in February of last year following what HRW calls her "arbitrary arrest, coerced confession, unfair trial, and wrongful conviction." Despite widespread international condemnation, and an internet campaign to free her, she is apparently still on death row.

There have been actual executions. In 2007, for example, an Egyptian man, Mustafa Ibrahim, was executed for sorcery after paraphernalia including "foul smelling herbs" and books of magic spells were found in his home. However, since he also "confessed to adultery with a woman and desecrating the Koran by placing it in the bathroom" he no doubt deserved everything he got. But whatever view you take on capital punishment, few would deny that there is a genuine problem with witchcraft and sorcery in Saudi Arabia. The facts speak for themselves. Take, for example, this report from Arab News from this September, in which Laura Bashraheel wrote that "hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom".

Bashraheel believes that the high incidence of judicial activity is"indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery". Sorcerers and others who profess magical powers are "rolling in dollars", she maintains, because "some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries." She tells the cautionary tale of 28-year old Sara, who visited the house of an African witch-doctor - a “rotten place with a terrible stench”; he told her that her ex-financé had put a spell on her - and offered to remove it for a large sum of money. Another woman, Abeer Saleh "said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals." Bashraheel concludes that "people underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is."

Sin or not, it's undoubtedly nonsense. I can even - up to a point - sympathise with the austere guardians of the kingdom's Islamic purity when faced with the growing popularity of wizards, astrologers and faith-healers, many of whom are charlatans exploiting the vulnerable. Bashraheel's report gives several more examples of practices which combine (sacrilegiously, from the point of view of the religious authorities) Islamic traditions with occult and pagan survivals. For example, there are "sheikhs who cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected." Some of these people make a good living: they are, perhaps, the respectable face of sorcery, happily promoting bogus remedies for which there is not a jot of evidence.

Fortunately, the authorities are doing their best to combat the problem. As I reported in January, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - the body which oversees the religious police and ensures conformity with Wahhabi standards in the country - has introduced a new anti-witch strategy. Previous cases had "revealed the spread of witchcraft and magic throughout the country" and thus the inadequacy of the current laws. The new plans were intended to produce a more coherent approach "by making legal and regulatory determinations, as well as clarify the burden of evidence for magic and witchcraft cases as being scientific and practical, while also increasing the number of those involved in combating such cases".

They sought, among other things, "a scientific definition to magical practices, and a model in order to help uncover such practices." A joint task-force was set up embracing the religious police and security agencies, encouraging them to work more closely together in the campaign against sorcery.

The experts were anxious "to protect the public from communication and television channels that promote magic" - partly through a publicity campaign warning about the dangers - and also expressed concerns about the Internet. As I noted at the time, if you ignore the supernatural dimension the plan sounds remarkably like the sort of government initiative we're used to hearing from New Labour: the same concerns with public protection, setting targets and the inherent dangers of new technology were all there, along with the usual rhetoric of getting tough and adopting an evidence-based approach.

Obviously, the priorities of the Saudi religious police are not our priorities: it is the un-Islamic nature of the sorcery that they object to, rather than its scientific impossibility. The penalties being imposed, obviously, are outrageous, the judicial process is open to widespread abuse and there have been cases of manifest injustice like that of Fawza Falih. I wouldn't want to detract from HRW's campaign. Nevertheless the non-existence of occult powers does not mean that there are no self-professed sorcerers claiming to possess such powers - there would seem to be many - or that they do not deserve to be shut down.

A campaign against witchcraft is not, of itself, proof that Saudi Arabia is stuck in "the middle ages". It may in fact be something like the opposite. The kind of people being targeted are, after all, not unique to Saudi Arabia or the Arab world in general. We have our own equivalents. Some of them, like Sibat, even have their own slots on TV, where they claim to contact the dead and invite viewers to call premium-rate phone lines. Fortune-tellers and psychics are a modern plague. But while the Saudis can set the fearsome religious police on them, we have to make do with Chris French and Derren Brown.