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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.