For Westerners who don’t happen to be Wiccans, witchcraft has become the stuff of entertaining novels and popular films–a charming fantastical diversion from the humdrum of everyday living.(That’s not quite true. Once when I was living in New Orleans and had an electrical wire that kept burning out for no discernible reason the electrician told me there was nothing more he could do and that I’d have to see the ‘chicken man’, the local voodoo practitioner, to get the thing fixed. I didn’t make the call — and the wire never really worked.)But as Foreign Policy reminds us, witchcraft is a deadly serious offense in other parts of the world:
A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is “God’s punishment” for “sorcerers and charlatans,” according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.Al-Asiri’s execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians — “key causers of religious and social instability in the country,” according to the Commission’s statement.
Absurd and even contemptible as this sort of claptrap sounds to most Americans, these beliefs are not something we can wisely ignore. When formulating our foreign policy, we must take into account the fact that many of our interlocutors believe utterly absurd things and are willing to act upon them. Simplistically projecting our own Western sensibilities onto international actors is not a basis for sound geopolitical strategy. We must rather take seriously the values and conceptual systems of those we wish to engage diplomatically if for no other reason than to understand how they will perceive and respond to our acts.Second, incidents like these remind us what real theocratic bigotry looks like. Jumpy American liberals who see theocracy behind every Mormon temple, Baptist convention or Catholic church are as ridiculous and over the top in their way as the Saudi witch hunters are in theirs. Both groups whip themselves into frenzies of terror over imaginary threats; both groups make ridiculous accusations; both groups mistake shadows for truth.Watching real theocracy in action, however discomforting, offers a sound reality check to those who insist that the “Christianists” will be taking over next Tuesday. Thankfully, neither the Salem Witch Trials nor The Handmaid’s Tale will be coming to an America near you.