I’ve been trying to work out just why Saudi Arabia’s fixation on sorcery and witchcraft is so disturbing. (See, for example, “Saudi Arabia escalates war on sorcery.”) After, there are folks all around the world, including in self-consciously modern Europe and America, who believe in sorcery. (For example, a 2007 poll indicated that half of Americans believe in or are unsure whether there are witches.) There are billions of religious believers; some would argue that any belief in any religion is essentially irrational—if you believe there was a talking serpent in the Garden of Eden, or that God had a human child who could turn water into wine or heal the sick with his touch, why quibble over sorcery?
But Saudi Arabia is different. There you see not just the belief in sorcery, but the government’s criminalization of sorcery. There used to be criminal statues forbidding witchcraft in Europe and America. But those are long gone. In the eighteenth century English judge William Murray Mansfield acquitted a woman accused of being a witch with the remark: “My opinion is that this good woman should be suffered to return home, and whether she shall do this, walking on the ground or riding through the air, must be left entirely to her own pleasure, for there is nothing contrary to the laws of England in either.” But Saudi Arabia belongs to a very small club (including Gaza, Bahrain, Iran, Central African Republic, Malawi, and Vanuatu) where in the 21st century it is still a criminal offense to be a sorcerer.
Second, the penalty is so severe. Not a fine, not a term of imprisonment. In Saudi Arabia a convicted sorcerer is executed.
Finally, Saudi Arabia takes this business so bloody seriously. They don’t just put the odd sorcerer on trial if he happens to drop in their laps. They hunt for sorcerers.
Here’s the latest: On June 3 News-sa.com reported that the Saudi religious police are hiring professional divers to search for spells at the bottom of wells and seas. Since, apparently, sorcerers often tie their spells up in bags and conceal them, for instance in a body of water, Saudi authorities must take measures to find the spells, neutralize them and thus save the victims.
One of the comments at the end of the story expressed the hope that at least this will mean the religious police will be under water and off the streets. Can’t argue with that. But as long as the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue exists, Saudi Arabia will be regarded as being in important respects a pre-modern country.