- By Katie CellaKatie Cella is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God’s punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.
Al-Asiri’s execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians — "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission’s statement.
Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It’s not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses — and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses — because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.
Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don’t recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri’s case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.
The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.