Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Using Medieval Law in the 21st Century

On Monday, December 12, 2011 Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser, a woman in her 60s, was executed by beheading in the al-Jawf province of Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty International, Ms. Nasser was the 76th person to be executed this year in Saudi Arabia. Her crime: sorcery. According to a report by the BBC, “Amnesty International says that Saudi Arabia does not actually define sorcery as a capital offence. However, some of its conservative clerics have urged the strongest possible punishments against fortune-tellers and faith healers as a threat to Islam.”

Abdullah al-Mohsen, the chief of the Saudi religious police who arrested the woman, explained that she had tricked people into thinking she could treat illnesses, charging them $779 per session (Cooke). Nasser was arrested in 2009 for the crimes. Her case is the second death penalty this year for the practice of “witchcraft.” The first was a Sudanese man in September. A male, Lebanese-national was also accused in a highly publicized case in 2008. Another publicized case was of an Egyptian national in 2007 (CBS). What makes Ms. Nasser’s execution more poignant is her advanced age.

The Law

Besides the Taliban, the Saudi Kingdom is the only Muslim nation to practice the strictest, most Orthodox version of Shariah law that is also known as the Hanbali school (CFR). This form of law outlaws the practice of sorcery. Shariah law developed in the centuries following the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Today, it is probably most associated with infamous honor killings where women are killed if they disgrace their family. But, according to Noah Feldman’s New York Times article Why Shariah? (2008), the implementation of Shariah is not categorically evil. He explains: “Some rules associated with Shariah are undoubtedly old-fashioned and harsh. Men and women are treated unequally, for example, by making it hard for women to initiate divorce without forfeiting alimony. . .but Shariah also prohibits bribery or special favors in court. It demands equal treatment for rich and poor. It condemns the vigilante-style honor killings that still occur in some Middle Eastern countries. And it protects everyone’s property — including women’s — from being taken from them.” Shariah law seems to make no explicit rules on witchcraft, but it is religious law and therefore, it may interpret anything contradictory to the Islamic faith as unlawful.

So is Shariah law solely to blame for Ms. Nasser’s execution or is it the government of Saudi Arabia? As Amnesty International has explained, sorcery is not explicitly defined as a capital offence under Shariah law (BBC). If we go back to the history of “witch trials” (Medieval Europe and 18th century America) they typically correspond to times when the government or powers that be, i.e. the Church, have lost a grip on their power. Historically, manipulating the public with the fear of witches has a twofold effect that we can see happening in Saudi Arabia today. First, since the definition of sorcery is left to interpretation, accusations can be molded to fit the situation; anyone can be charged for anything that is perceived as deviating from the norm. Second, the fear of the presence of a witch can send overly superstitious people running into the arms of the government for protection.

Secrets in the Kingdom?

Surrounded by revolutions and huge changes in North Africa and the Middle East, the Saudi religious police (the organization most feared by Saudis) have a duty to suppress or give the impression that they have the ability to try and execute people for loosely defined crimes like “witchcraft.” In his article for the BBC Radio 4, Inside the secret kingdom, Edward Stourton exposes the secret societies of both men and women who seek change in the Saudi government/society. He also explains that even if they don’t seek change, they see a change coming. King Abdullah, 86 years old, who has just allowed women the right to vote (although very limited), had major surgery in October and may not be ruling for much longer. His successor is considered to be very conservative (Stourton).

So what does all of this mean in the case of the recently executed Ms. Nasser? Philip Luther, interim director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program claims that, “While we don't know the details of the acts which the authorities accused Amina (Nasser) of committing, the charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion (MSNBC).” Is it possible that Ms. Nasser was a revolutionary? Was she speaking against the government; did she present herself as a cleric; or was she simply an alternative healer?

Amnesty International has previously campaigned for Saudis sentenced to death on sorcery charges. So, it is curious that Ms. Nasser’s imprisonment was unknown to Amnesty until the announcement of her death. Had she truly been jailed for sorcery her case would have been alerted to Amnesty; the fact that it was not adds credence to claims that she may have been a political prisoner. It is easier for the Saudi religious police to manipulate the situation if they claim she was religiously subversive rather than politically subversive. Ms. Nasser’s conviction as a “witch” makes them look arcane, but it certainly has less of an impact within the borders of Saudi Arabia than announcing that she was killed for being a political dissident.

Although the execution of Ms. Nasser shocked the world as the barbaric act of an archaic culture, her punishment shines a light on a government that has been tolerated for too long by the world because of its cache of oil. This medieval witch hunt allows us to scrutinize more closely one of the only countries left in the region that persists in repressing freedom of speech and subjugating women. The people of Saudi Arabia are highly educated and resourceful; an out-and-out revolution like the one we saw in Egypt will most likely not happen there. The revolution will most likely be slow and subversive and Ms. Nasser may have been a part of its beginning. Regardless of the charge, her death puts the outmoded laws of the Saudi government in the spotlight.


BBC News

CBS News

Charles C. W. Cooke for CBS blog

Council on Foreign Relations

Noah Feldman for the New York Times


Edward Stourton for BBC Radio 4

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