Barack Obama is spending part of this weekend in Saudi Arabia, the final stop in a five-country tour. Obama started his springtime trip in the Netherlands, where he visited The Hague, seat of the International Court of Justice. Working his way south, Obama spent Wednesday in Belgium and passed Thursday morning in the Vatican before heading down to Riyadh, presumably to talk about security (meaning Iran) and the historic ties between our two countries (meaning oil).
This same weekend, elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, around 40 guest workers from Indonesia are sitting in jail. Most have been charged with sorcery or witchcraft. According to Global Post, five of these workers, having exhausted their appeals, face the death penalty.
For foreign household workers in Saudi Arabia, most of them women, sorcery charges are more common than you might think. Guest workers end up in jail through bad luck, legal revenge, and cultural misunderstanding.
“In many cases,” explains Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, “a domestic worker, from rural India or Bangladesh or wherever, might bring along a folk heirloom, something that is perceived by the Saudi host to be an object of witchcraft.” In other situations, the accusation arises as a countercharge. The domestic worker has tried to charge her employer with some kind of mistreatment—withheld wages, say, or sexual assault. In turn, the employer accuses her of being a witch.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a written criminal code. In its religious courts, a guest worker accused of witchcraft or sorcery is guaranteed neither a lawyer nor a translator, says Coogle. Her fate depends in part on the inclinations of the presiding judge, who often collaborates with the prosecutor in order to define the charges.
In 2012, according to Saudi Gazette, Saudi authorities arrested 215 supposed magicians. In 2011, a special witchcraft-busting unit reported that it had handled nearly 600 claims in the preceding few years. Not all these charges are leveled against foreigners. Saudi citizens, too, have been arraigned, and executed, for sorcery.
In recent years, the government has expanded its efforts to identify and prosecute witchcraft.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—in other words, the religious police—has even taken its investigations online, monitoring Twitter for signs of sorcery.
Some might chalk this all up to a barbaric, backwards society that’s yet to progress past the Dark Ages. That kind of reaction is not only inaccurate. It’s also lazy, and deeply self-serving. Witchcraft trials don’t mean that Saudi Arabia is stuck in another time. Instead, they remind us that we’re all stuck in a dizzying kind of present—a present where democratic countries underwrite fundamentalist monarchies, and where the very forces that allow some countries to modernize guide others into a warped caricature of the past.
“In theory Saudi Arabia should not exist,” writes the historian Robert Lacey. Like Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch, Saudi Arabia has the kind of fragile bizarreness that can only result from an enormous infusion of cash. Extravagantly wealthy, it has a citizenship that’s poorly educated and underemployed. Approximately eight million guest workers fill jobs across the country. Two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s working adults, by one estimate, are foreigners.
Saudi society and government are intricately intertwined with a puritanical flavor of Islam, Wahhabism. Wahhabism isn’t especially ancient, by the standards of religious movements; the sect dates from the late eighteenth century. Today its influence, felt in everything from schooling to law enforcement, permeates Saudi society.
Fundamentalist societies are delicate things, especially when the Internet arrives (and it has) and youth start to look outward (and they have). It’s hard to imagine how any society could maintain such an obsessive focus on religious purity, such an uneducated populace, such a decentralized legal system, and such a huge foreign underclass without being propped up by, say, one-fifth of the world’s known oil reserves. After all, radically purist ideologies need to be sheltered from the vagaries of the world, and they can be expensive to maintain.
Of course, plenty of countries are willing to underwrite that expense. If Saudi Arabia is a hothouse flower, then Americans have helped build the greenhouse. And within that greenhouse, it seems, are some fertile conditions for witch-hunting.
At least in premodern Europe and Puritan North America, witch-hunting follows certain patterns. Accusations usually come against women, especially those with little social power (the first suspect in the Salem witch trials was a black slave named Tituba; working their way up the social ladder, the accusers eventually went so far as to name the president of Harvard College, at which point nobody believed them).
Accusers seek out impurity within their own communities; like a Stalinist purge, witch trials are inwardly-focused events, not attacks on complete outsiders. An accusation of witchcraft is vague enough to serve as a kind of catchall for discontent. “The term ‘witch’ in seventeenth-century New England functioned as a label people used to control or punish someone,” writes David Hall, a religious historian at Harvard, and it could apply “to anyone who threatened established authority.”
Not surprisingly, this pattern of paranoia-and-purging often comes at times of social instability. “Perhaps no other form of crime in history has been a better index of social change, for outbreaks of witchcraft mania have generally taken place in societies which are experiencing a shift of religious focus,” writes sociologist Kai Erikson.
These conditions for witch-hunting certainly seem to be abundant in Saudi Arabia. It’s an insular, purity-obsessed society, with a population of legally powerless women tucked neatly into its midst. And, faced with regional instability, an aging king, dynastic uncertainty, and menacing incursions of Western culture, Saudi society may very well be at a moment of social anxiety and change.
These conditions don’t arise in spite of the modern world; they arise, in large part, because of it. The 21st century, perhaps, gives Saudi Arabia the ingredients to nurture a seemingly medieval hysteria: oil revenue that helps Saudi leaders wrap their society in a totalizing fundamentalist garb; a flow of foreign workers, paid with that oil money, who provide a conveniently vulnerable other in the heart of the home; and an anxiety-inducing friction between an insular culture and a globalized world.
In other words, we can’t quite divorce these witchcraft trials from our post-Enlightenment bubble. The two are weirdly entangled, and nothing illustrates that entanglement better than this week’s spectacle: an American president visiting The Hague, and then the Vatican, and then the Saudis, all in the space of a week, and all while Saudi judges contemplate beheading foreign nationals on charges of witchcraft.
In On Saudi Arabia, journalist Karen Elliott House describes the odd silence that seems to surround the House of Saud. Noting that, in his major 2011 speech on the Middle East, Obama did not once mention Saudi Arabia, she writes that the country’s “fate is so important to the rest of the world and the world is so vested in maintenance of its status quo that it’s almost as if talking about Saudi Arabia might jinx that stability.”
It’s like being under a spell.