We think we live in enlightened times, but do we really? Just three years ago, on 12th December 2011, a 60 year-old woman, Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar, was publicly beheaded in the northern Saudi province of al-Jawf for practising witchcraft and sorcery. She was not the only person to be executed for alleged witchcraft by the Saudi government that year. In September, a Sudanese migrant worker named Abdul Hamid bin Hussein Mostafa al-Fakki had been publicly decapitated with a sword in the city of Medina after he had been found guilty of the same crime.
According to the Saudi authorities, Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar had claimed to be a healer who would sell a veil and three bottles of “an unknown liquid used for sorcery” for a fee of 1500 riyals (about $400). Her death sentence had been upheld by an appeals court and the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council.
Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious leaders have condemned fortune-telling and prophecy as being the work of the devil. Making any kind of psychic prediction (or claiming to perform magic) are seen as invoking diabolical forces and therefore deemed to be evil.
Such accusations are not uncommon in other parts of the world too. They are occasionally used as a smear tactic in political campaigns. In 2010, close associates of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were accused by influential clerics of using witchcraft. According to news reports, about two dozen of Ahmadinejad’s close aides were arrested and charged with being ‘magicians’. Even the United States is not immune from this. Christine O’Donnell, a Republican candidate who stole the hearts of tea party activists in 2010, was forced to assure voters that she was not a witch. Witch-hunts continue to be prevalent in most continents and are particularly commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2008, a mob of hundreds of young men descended on two villages in rural western Kenya and killed eight women and three men suspected of witchcraft.
For centuries, accusations of witchcraft have been used as a tool by those in authority to silence dissenters. That may or may not have been the case with the likes of Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassa, but her execution should serve as a reminder that belief in magic is still taken very seriously in many parts of the world and can have very serious consequences. It’s worth bearing this in mind the next time you gather round a birthday cake, blow out candles and make a wish.