- 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.
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.| FP Explainer |