War on witches

London, England - Mustapha Ibrahim, an Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia, was executed in Riyadh on Friday after being convicted of sorcery. According to the official Saudi News agency:

"Ibrahim had been accused by another foreign resident of practising magic in order to separate him from his wife and ... evidence had been found in his home, including books on black magic, a candle with an incantation 'to summon devils' and 'foul-smelling herbs'."

For good measure, he had also confessed to adultery with a woman and desecrating the Qur'an by placing it in the bathroom, the agency added.

In October, a Saudi newspaper also reported the arrest of a maid in Dammam who had allegedly put a spell on her employer.

The employer's wife suspected witchcraft because her husband had defended the maid from criticism every time she neglected her work, al-Madina newspaper said.

According to the paper, the maid (whose nationality is unknown, but almost certainly not Saudi) "admitted she took refuge in sorcery so as to make her employers like her". The report continued: "The bewitched husband adored the maid and carried out all her wishes, unbeknownst to his wife."

A year ago, the commission for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice (the religious police) in the Saudi city of Taif established a special department to combat witchcraft. So far, it has arrested 25 people - 24 of whom, interestingly, are non-Saudis.

Fahd al-Thubaiti, the chief witch-hunter, told Arab News: "People need to understand the danger of witchcraft and its negative effects on society in general. No one can be a good Muslim and believe in black magic at the same time."

Blaming the apparent growth of witchcraft on TV programmes that promote magic, he continued: "For some reason, women are more attracted to black magic and tend to be easy prey for charlatans. They consult these people to ensure their husbands love them and do not seek other women, and to beget children."

Setting aside the undertones of sexism and racism in the kingdom's war on witchcraft, most of the recent Saudi cases fall into one of three categories.

Firstly, there are those where charges are brought by someone with a personal grudge: a jealous wife in the case of the arrested maid and - reading between the lines in Mustapha Ibrahim's case - a cuckolded husband.

The second type is where something untoward happens and the authorities, instead of admitting they have a problem, prefer to look for a scapegoat. In 2000, for example, communal violence in Najran province involving the Shia Ismaili sect, which reportedly left more than 40 dead, was officially blamed on a "sorcerer" (who, needless to say, was also described as a foreigner).

In these first two categories it is unlikely that any witchcraft is actually involved; the sorcery charges are mainly a way of discrediting the accused.

The third category of "sorcery" crime involves charlatans or con artists who rip off the gullible in return for casting "spells". Belief in this sort of magic is something that centuries of Islamic teaching have failed to eradicate and, according to an article by Abdullah Bajubeer in Arab News, it's flourishing in the kingdom: "The influence of sorcery on society is evident from the increasing number of reports of swindlers who persuade people, particularly the wealthy, to part with large sums of money and then they - the swindlers - disappear."

The idea that anyone should be executed for such practices is, of course, appalling. It's worth mentioning, though, that Britain killed more than its share of "witches" in the 16th and 17th centuries (one reason being that a convicted witch's property could be seized by the state - giving the authorities an additional incentive to prosecute).

In Britain, the death penalty for witchcraft was abolished in 1735 but witchcraft-related offences remained on the statute book until as recently as 1951. Up to that time, even newspaper horoscopes were technically illegal, though no paper was ever prosecuted. The last person to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act was Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium, in 1944.

Executions aside, the Saudi attitude towards sorcery betrays some hopelessly muddled thinking. Mr Thubaiti of the anti-sorcery squad is trying to have it both ways: he says witchcraft is a danger to society but also that "no one can be a good Muslim and believe in black magic at the same time".

If he is saying that magic has no power, that it's a load of un-Islamic hocus-pocus, then he should think twice before arresting anyone. Treating sorcery as a crime (and a capital one at that) gives it credibility that it doesn't deserve and reinforces popular belief in its power. The Saudi state needs to make its mind up: do magical spells work, or not?