Saudi Arabia executes "sorcerer"

The kingdom's zero-tolerance attitude to psychics contrasts with our own more laissez-faire approach

Sally Morgan, aka "Psychic Sally", a popular television clairvoyant, finds herself in a spot of bother today. After one of her shows in Dublin, an audience member described how she had heard a man hidden in a small room at the back of the theatre passing on information about people in the audience. Professor Chris French reports:

Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who -- you'll never guess -- suffered from back pain and passed quickly.

Morgan has denied everything. Perhaps, though, she should consider herself fortunate to have no only disillusioned audience members and professional sceptics to deal with. In Saudi Arabia, a man has just been beheaded for doing far less.

Abdul Hamid Bin Hussein Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, from Sudan, was convicted in 2007 of the crime of sorcery. According to Amnesty International, which appealed for clemency, he was approached by a member of the religious police, the Mutawa'een, who requested a spell to persuade his father to go back to his first wife, the man's mother. Al-Fakki agreed to cast the spell for the sum of 6,000 riyals (around £1,000) but was arrested after handing over the fruit of his labours: nine pieces of paper with codes written on them with saffron. The Mutawa'een had written down the serial numbers of the banknotes with which Al-Fakki was paid.

However worthless the spell, death by beheading seems a bit harsh.The case is not an isolated one. Ali Sibat, a Labenese national whose "crime" seems to have consisted of telling fortunes on satellite TV, was arrested while on pilgrimage in Medina in 2008. He came close to being executed last year. International pressure seems to have won him a last-minute reprieve but he remains in prison on death row. His case has been highlighted by Human Rights Watch.

Then there's Fawza Falih, detained by religious police in 2005 and allegedly beaten and forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read. She was accused of making a man impotent by means of magic. The only evidence was the man's testimony but an appeal court upheld the death sentence as being in the public interest. She was still on death row when she died last year, her health broken. She is said to have "choked on her food".

The decision to execute al-Fikki, the first time a "sorcerer" has been decapitated since 2007 (when the guilty man was also convicted of adultery and desecrating a Quran), may mark a new phase in a clampdown against witchcraft in the kingdom that has been in going on for some time now. In early 2009, leading Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice -- the body that oversees the religious police -- had launched a new 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 incombating 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 taskforce 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.

Despite all this pseudo-rationalism, the disturbing fact remains that, in the 21st century, a key western ally is still executing people for a wholly imaginary crime. Even Psychic Sally doesn't deserve that.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser