After Saudi Arabia Executes Woman "Sorcerer," U.S. Needs to Get Tough On Riyadh

In Saudi Arabia, heads are rolling. Quite literally, actually. 

On Monday, the Kingdom long known for its barbaric human rights record executed Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar, a woman accused by Saudi officials of practicing sorcery. According to reports, religious police (imagine that) had been investigating Nassar for some time and upon searching her home, found books on witchcraft, talismans, and magic potions.

It is time for the international community and the United States in particular to crack down on Riyadh. For brown nosers in the American government, whose schnozzles are darkened with the stain of oil, this is not the first time uncivilized abuses have been overlooked. There are too many to count, for sure. But in the wake of the uprisings throughout the Arab world, where hopeful and persistent demonstrators are calling for the end of this type of behavior, a choice must be made: stand firmly on the side of liberty or firmly on the side of tyranny. 

There are no two ways about it. Straddling the line — extolling the values of human rights while cozying up to sheiks who defile them — is politics of the past. And isn’t that what these revolutions were largely about anyways — the rejection of puppet governments whose brutal policies were overlooked by western powers in exchange for say, peace with Israel and that brown bubbly stuff that the Beverly Hillbillies once sang about?

This is not about one slaughter. The story of Nassar will likely come and go as have other stories. Rather, there’s a trend that is emerging here that has been sharpened (pun intended) into stark relief in recent months. Amnesty International notes that this year alone, 79 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia. Compare that with 27 in 2010. You don’t have to be great at math to see that the rate of beheading has nearly tripled in one year. Here’s the real clincher: Sorcery is not even illegal in the country.

The executions are not about witchcraft at all. The charge is a smokescreen of sorts, used by the government to justify punishments for crimes that would otherwise be seen as quite ordinary, like exercising freedoms of speech and religion. In 2006, authorities imprisoned and lashed an Eritrean man whose personal phonebook, inscribed with notes in the Tigrinya alphabet (one of the official languages of the country), was seen as a “talisman.” In a 2005 sting operation, an undercover religious police cornered a Sudanese migrant and offered him $1,600 to produce a spell. The man took the money, ginned up an apparent hex, and was swiftly arrested and later beheaded.

As Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East move forward with their new political systems, so too should Saudi Arabia be forced swallow the pill of responsible and respectful governance. However politically incorrect such a comparison may appear, the Kingdom’s rulers are no less brutal than Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. Allowing them to continue down this disastrous path of abuses without serious reprobation, particularly at this critical moment in history, will be a deadly mistake.

Photo CreditJack Hubbell

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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