Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese national and fortune teller, was recently arrested in Saudi Arabia and charged with the “crime” of sorcery. Many sincere human rights groups raised awareness about his case, and international outrage prompted the Saudi government to issue him a stay of execution. Islamophobes, such as Robert Spencer, have chosen to exploit Mr. Sibat’s plight to demonize Islam and Muslims. For those of us living in the West, the arrest of a “sorcerer” seems beyond insane, and it is quite easy for the Islamophobes to use this incident to reinforce negative stereotypes of Muslims: “wow, those Moozlems must be really backwards.”
Yet, few Westerners realize that witch hunts are now an international problem…and it is not an area of concern limited to Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia. Would it interest the Catholic apologist Robert Spencer to know that witch hunts are much more prevalent amongst Christians than Muslims? Some Evangelicals continue to take the Bible quite literally, following its commandment: “Thou shalt not allow a sorceress to live” (Exodus, 22:18), and “sorcerers amongst you must be put to death” (Leviticus, 20:27). The Huffington Post recently wrote a piece on the upsurge of witch hunts in Africa brought on by hardliner Evangelicals:
African Children Denounced As “Witches” By Christian Pastors
…Nwanaokwo Edet was one of an increasing number of children in Africa accused of witchcraft by pastors and then tortured or killed, often by family members. Pastors were involved in half of 200 cases of “witch children” reviewed by the AP, and 13 churches were named in the case files. [Exodus, 22:18]
…The idea of witchcraft is hardly new, but it has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity. Campaigners against the practice say around 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria’s 36 states over the past decade and around 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.
Nigeria is one of the heartlands of abuse, but hardly the only one: the United Nations Children’s Fund says tens of thousands of children have been targeted throughout Africa.
Saudi Arabia has recently arrested one individual for the “crime” of sorcery (it seems about five people in the last few years), and the Islamophobes like Robert Spencer have expressed their ardent outrage. Yet, there were “15,000 children [who] have been accused…and around 1,000 have been murdered” by Christians in Africa…Where is your outrage, Mr. Spencer? If we must conclude that Islam is the most dastardly of religions due to the persecution of a handful of people in Saudi Arabia, then should we not conclude the same for Christianity when there were 15,000 who stood accused and 1,000 executed recently?
Christian witch hunts are not limited to Africa. In Papua New Guinea, a country which is 96% Christian, the government passed the 1976 Sorcery Act, which prescribes imprisonment for the practice of black magic. An article written in 2009 details how one hundred “witches” were executed in Papua New Guinea in just the last year. Witch hunts have in recent years taken place in Haiti, again by Christians (in this case aimed against non-Christians); a human rights lawyer told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that “literal witch hunts have been launched [by Evangelical Christians] against priests and practitioners of this [traditional Haitian] religion.” Similar witch hunts have been launched in Kenya, Nepal, and other regions, reaching a global stage:
Yesterday a coalition of U.N. officials, NGOs, and representatives from affected countries addressed the United Nations asking for governments to face the full extent of witch hunts across the world. Far from being a localized phenomenon in “primitive” or isolated villages, witch hunts and witch killings are now global in nature and spreading.
“Murder and persecution of women and children accused of being witches is spreading around the world and destroying the lives of millions of people, experts said Wednesday … “This is becoming an international problem — it is a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe,” Jeff Crisp of the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR told a seminar organized by human rights officials of the world body.”
According to some U.N. experts tracking the issue “at least” tens of thousands have died due to witch hunts, while millions have been beaten, abused, isolated, and turned into refugees. While economic hardship is given as a reason for the recent escalation in witch-related violence, experts at the UNHCR also claim that the rise can also be attributed to”religious practitioners” who exploit local fears and superstitions.
“Some religious practitioners make a living from exorcising alleged witches and charging exorbitant fees to those who request the ritual. In Foxcroft’s experience, the most vulnerable members of society – children and the elderly – are often the victims of these accusations.”
Who, exactly, are these “religious practitioners”? The IHEU is far more specific.
“Witchcraft is still widely practiced in many countries in Africa by witchdoctors who often use human body parts in their spells. Some witchdoctors employ gangs of young men to attack and kill victims, often young children, for their body parts, which are frequently removed while the victim is still alive. An estimated 300 people are killed each year in South Africa alone as a result of this practice. But horrific though this practice is, it is only part of the problem. In Nigeria, in both the Muslim North and the Christian South, witch hunts are not uncommon and this has led to a second form of abuse. Some unscrupulous pastors, many linked to Pentecostal churches, have a lucrative trade in making unfounded accusations of witchcraft against young children. [The pastors then agree to “cure” the witches for a substantial fee. Many children are being ostracized and abandoned by their parents as a result of these accusations.]“
These Christian pastors aren’t isolated to Africa, they tour churches in America bragging about their battles with the occult, and have established ministries in Ireland and the UK. Commingling with an increasing anti-occult fervor among some Western Christian groups. Meanwhile, actual modern Pagan communities in places like India and South Africa are facing the possible ramifications of intensifying witch-hunts and witch persecutions…
Reuters – Murder and persecution of women and children accused of being witches is spreading around the world and destroying the lives of millions of people, experts said Wednesday.
And community workers from Nepal and Papua New Guinea told the seminar, on the fringes of a session of the U.N.’s 47-member Human Rights Council, that “witch-hunting” was now common, both in rural communities and larger population centres.
The experts — United Nations officials, civil society representatives from affected countries and non-governmental organization (NGO) specialists working on the issue — urged governments to acknowledge the extent of the persecution.
“This is becoming an international problem — it is a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe,” Jeff Crisp of the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR told a seminar organized by human rights officials of the world body.
Aides to U.N. special investigators on women’s rights and on summary executions said killings and violence against alleged witch women — often elderly people — were becoming common events in countries ranging from South Africa to India.
Witch hunts are of course not limited to Christians. An article written in 2006 discusses how 10 witches were killed in India in the past year alone. Here is a CNN report that shows an Indian woman being punished by a Hindu mob, on grounds of her being a witch:
The purpose here is not to bash Christianity, Hinduism, or any other religion. It’s simply to point out that witch hunts are a problem throughout the world. If you just follow Islamophobic sources like Robert Spencer, you’d come to think that the only “culprits” are Muslims, but like I said before: it’s simply not true. The selective outrage of Spencer et al. shows that they don’t really care about human rights at all. Their indignation is not principled, but political in nature. Let me, however, not mince words: as a self-proclaimed progressive, I support human rights groups that seek to rid the world of witch hunts, be they in Muslim majority Saudi Arabia or Christian majority areas of Africa.
Islamophobes will claim that the Prophet Muhammad said: “The punishment for the magician is that he be struck by the sword.” So, they argue, isn’t Saudi Arabia just following Islam? Isn’t it Islam that is the problem? Well, first off, I already reproduced what the Bible says about sorcerers, which is to kill them. (Note: the Quran does not mention any worldly punishment for sorcerers.) Therefore, we could use the same line of argumentation here: the Nigerian Evangelicals are just doing what the Bible commanded them to do, and as such, Christianity itself is the problem. (Of course, I reject such a simplistic view.)
With regard to the saying (hadith) attributed to the Islamic prophet, it is found in Sunan al-Tirmidhi. The compiler of said hadith, namely al-Tirmidhi, commented on this hadith as follows: “The correct saying is that it is mawquf .” According to the Islamic science of hadith, this term mawquf means “stopped” and what this means is that the chain of transmission does not reach the Prophet Muhammad (but rather stops before it reaches him). Said in simpler terms: the Prophet Muhammad is not the one who said it.
Yes, the Prophet forbade sorcery (in line with the Abrahamic belief of relying on God alone for any form of supernatural help–what Muslims refer to as tawhid) and called it a form of fraud. However, not a single statement can be authentically attributed to him in which he calls for a corporal punishment against a sorcerer. In fact, a self-proclaimed sorcerer by the name of Labeed ibn al-Asam tried to do black magic on the Prophet in order to hurt him. When his wife asked him why he didn’t seek any retaliation or punishment against Labeed, the Prophet Muhammad replied by saying: “I hate to cause harm to anyone.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
After the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the early Muslims introduced corporal punishment for witches, but it never became nearly as big an issue as in the Christian world, where–according to an estimate by A.L. Barstow in Witchcraze–up to 100,000 witches were executed from the year 1480 to 1700. Indeed, laws against sorcerers (or whatever you want to call them) fell into disuse in the Islamic world. Today, aside from Saudi Arabia, it has become largely a non-issue. One need only walk down the streets of Pakistan or Egypt to see this quite clearly: on every other corner sits some fortune teller or other occultist.
While I was doing the research for this article, I stumbled upon this documentary, which depicts quite graphically the victims of witch hunts in Africa. Clearly, the problem is not limited to Muslims.