February 14, 2008

Saudi Arabia: Just when you thought it was safe...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water....

Okay, I borrowed that from the movie Jaws. But just when we thought that the Saudis are finally rushing headlong from the 14th Century into something resembling modernity - I am referring to the recent decisions to consider allowing women to drive and to check into hotels unescorted by a male relative - this story hits the wires:

Saudis to execute a woman for witchcraft

According to Shari'ah law, as practiced in Saudi Arabia, witchcraft and sorcery can be defined as crimes punishable by death. These types of sentences are imposed by the religious courts and enforced by the religious police - the mutawa'in (literally "volunteers"). Officially known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, they are often a law unto themselves. Anyone who has been to Saudi Arabia knows who these fanatics are and knows that legal authorities will usually defer to them.

The impending execution of this woman is not an empty threat. In November 2007, the Saudis executed an Egyptian man for practicing witchcraft. Executions in the kingdom are usually public beheadings on Fridays after the morning sermon. In 2007, 156 beheadings were carried out in the kingdom, compared to 40 in 2006.

In August 2007, four Indonesian female domestic workers were beaten by their employers after being accused of practicing witchcraft - two died of their injuries. The two survivors were arrested while in intensive care at a Riyadh hospital. This is reminiscent of an earlier outrage in which a rape victim was sentenced to public whipping - for being alone with a man who was not her relative. King 'Abdullah cancelled her sentence in the face of worldwide indignation. How many times will the king have to rein in the religious police before he abolishes them?

We are quick to demand progress in human rights and democratization in countries like Pakistan, and we are always ready to condemn human rights abuses in places like Iran. Perhaps we should also take a critical look at one of our closest and oldest allies in the Middle East. It is long past time for the Saudis to set their clocks ahead 700 years or so.