Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Anti-Witchcraft Squad Still Going Strong

Maybe it was all just a publicity stunt after all. Back in October I covered the Saudi Arabian government's efforts to rein in the so-called Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, known to readers of this blog as the anti-witchcraft squad. At the time, it sounded like the government was serious about cracking down on abuses or at least trying to mitigate the bad press surrounding several high-profile executions on the charges of witchcraft and sorcery.

Unfortunately, as The Atlantic reports, the anti-witchcraft squad has kept up the persecution game despite the government's supposed reform of the unit. While there has been no news of executions since the October announcement, charges are still being levied and those convicted can face lashings and long prison terms.

The campaign of persecution has shown no signs of fizzling. In May, two Asian maids were sentenced to 1,000 lashings and 10 years in prison after their bosses claimed that they had suffered from their magic. Just a few weeks ago, Saudi newspapers began running the image of an Indonesian maid being pursued on accusations that she produced a spell that made her male boss's family subject to fainting and epileptic fits. "I swear that we do not want to hurt her but to stop her evil acts against us and others," the man told the news site Emirates 24/7.

According to Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors Saudi Arabia, the relentless witch hunts reveal the hollowness of the country's long-standing promises about liberalizing its justice system.

In a country where public observance of any religion besides Islam is strictly forbidden, foreign domestic workers who bring unfamiliar traditional religious or folk customs from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Africa, or elsewhere can make especially vulnerable and easy targets. "If they see these [folk practices or items] they immediately assume they're some kind of sorcery or witchcraft," he said.

And that, right there, is the fundamental problem - all of it flows directly from a lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Like Christianity, Islam sees itself as the one true faith and teaches that practitioners of other religions follow idols, demons, or worse. In all cases such individuals are treated as evil, and by simply engaging in the practices of any other religion they open themselves up to persecution. While in the end there's little we can do directly to end the anti-witchcraft hysteria, at the very least we can keep the squad's actions out in the open. It may be that condemnation by the world community will eventually convince the Saudi government that its policies on alternative religions need to be reformed for real.

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