Sorcery, Witchcraft, and an Epidemic of Human Rights Abuse in Saudi Arabia

By Heather Abraham

According to a recent Reuters FaithWorld article, The perils of eating fire in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabian religious police have been harassing a circus performer on suspicion that he may be guilty of sorcery because of his amazing feats of strength and his fire eating abilities.  Combined with last month’s breastfeeding fatwa (more about that later) and the conviction of a Lebanese news reporter for sorcery in April, one has to wonder WTF is going on?  

Saudi Arabia, long known as the center of Islamic religious extremism, appears to have little control of their formidable religious police, or Mutaween, who have for decades patrolled restaurants, shopping districts, hotels, and popular hangouts looking for the tiniest infraction of the Saudi version of Sharia law.  The Police for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as these thugs are formally called, have made a living out of making people’s lives miserable.  Women are often the object of their watchful judgmental gaze and have suffered unspeakable violations of human rights when arrested and found guilty of their accuser’s accusations.  Let’s take a look at just a few cases and events that have been picked up and reported by international news organizations. 


In 2008, while on Hajj, Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese talk show host was arrested and charged with the crime of sorcery.  Sibat’s Lebanon based talk show, widely popular throughout the Middle East, offered callers advice and also predictions on future events.  Because fortune telling is considered a form of witchcraft in Saudi Arabia, Sibat quickly came to the attention of the Saudi religious police who arrested him when he entered the country on Pilgrimage to Mecca.  Sibat was held for two years, charged with sorcery, found guilty of the charge in November 2009, and received a death sentence which was to be carried out in April 2010.  Sibat’s execution, by beheading, was put on hold after the Lebanese government appealed to the Saudi Justice Minister.  His sentence has not been commuted and his fearful family awaits news of his future.  Charges of witchcraft and sorcery are apparently abundant in Saudi Arabia and the number of recent cases suggests that witch hunting may be a favorite pastime of the Mutaween; when they are not intimidating and persecuting women. 

According to Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press, 

On November 2, 2007, Mustafa Ibrahim, an Egyptian pharmacist, was executed for sorcery in the Saudi capital of Riyadh after he was found guilty of having tried “through sorcery” to separate a married couple

CBS news reported that the New York based Human Rights Watch group “called on the Saudi government to halt its increasing use of charges of ‘witchcraft,’ crimes that are vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.”  In the last few years, the Human Rights Watch group 

represented a series of cases in the kingdom, including that of Saudi woman Fawza Falih, who was sentenced to death by beheading in 2006 for the alleged crimes of “witchcraft, recourse to jinn (supernatural beings)” and animal sacrifice. 

The Saudi religious police are on constant watch for the slightest infraction and are especially vigilant for women who violate the country’s strict “moral code.” 

In February of 2008, Times online reported that,

A 37-year-old American businesswoman and married mother of three is seeking justice after she was thrown in jail by Saudi Arabia’s religious police for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh.  Yara, was bruised and crying when she was freed from a day in prison after she was strip-searched, threatened and forced to sign false confessions by the Kingdom’s “Mutaween” police. Her ordeal began with a routine visit to the new Riyadh offices of her finance company, where she is a managing partner. The electricity temporarily cut out, so Yara and her colleagues — who are all men — went to a nearby Starbucks to use its wireless internet.  “Some men came up to us with very long beards and white dresses. They asked ‘Why are you here together?’. I explained about the power being out in our office. They got very angry and told me what I was doing was a great sin,” recalled Yara, who wears an abaya and headscarf, like most Saudi women.

 Luckily, Yara’s husband was politically well connected and managed to secure his wife’s release. Although Yara was held for just a short time, she was subjected to intimidation, threats, and humiliation. 

In October of 2009, a young pregnant rape victim was sentenced to a one year prison term and 100 lashes (postnatal) by a Saudi judge.  The charge: adultery!  The girl testified that she had been repeatedly raped by four men who took her to an abandoned building.  The victim did not report the event because the Saudi justice system almost always finds the woman at fault in cases of rape.  After realizing she was pregnant, the victim went to King Fahd Hospital in the hopes of obtaining an abortion.  She was promptly arrested by the Mutaween and charged with adultery. 

The most notorious event associated with the Mutaween occurred in March of 2002 when, according to the BBC,

Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress.  One witness said he saw three policemen “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya.”

Firemen, responding to the call, were confronted by Mutaween who ordered them to bar any female students from leaving the building if they were not properly covered and one grieving father reported that the school guard refused to open a locked gate. In total, the fire and ensuing stampede resulted in the horrific deaths of fifteen school girls.  Although grieving parents denounced the Mutaween; holding them directly responsible for the deaths of their daughters, no action was taken against those responsible.   Fifteen young women were sent to their deaths by religious police who ironically, by their own admission, exist to “promote virtue and prevent vice.”

For a comprehensive list of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, one only has to make a quick visit to Amnesty International’s website.  Even a short perusal of the accounts documented will quickly overwhelm most.  Amnesty International reports,

There are still scores of political prisoners and possible prisoners of conscience. Saudi Arabia continues to use flogging and amputations as punishments. Executions, beheadings with a sword, occur regularly and are disproportionately carried out against foreign nationals. Foreign workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, particularly female domestic workers, who have virtually no protection at all.  Suspected homosexuals have been subjected to flogging, […] freedom of expression remains extremely curtailed, and discrimination on the basis of religion is absolute. Shiites face discrimination in all walks of life, and non-Muslim foreign nationals are subjected to harassment, detention, abuse and summary deportation. Executions have been carried out for witchcraft and apostasy.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights history is abysmal at best and yet, aside from human rights watch groups, little international pressure is directed at the Saudi state.  The Mutaween police force, some 10,000 strong, continues to inflict emotional, psychological, and physical abuse on countless anonymous victims and is backed by the power of the government (the Saudi Royal Family).  The American government embraces Saudi Arabia as an ally and friend and shamefully turns a blind eye to the multitude of Saudi human rights abuses.  Many Americans, plates full of problems of their own, may insist that “we” are not responsible for nor have any control over what happens in Saudi Arabia but I would disagree.  Make no mistake, the actions of the Mutaween are tantamount to terrorism—albeit domestic terrorism. This brings me to the question (or challenge) of the day:  What can we, as individuals, do to help aid victims of human rights abuse? 


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