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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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era