When the severed head of a wolf wrapped in women's lingerie turned up near the city of Tabouk in northern Saudi Arabia this week, authorities knew they had another case of witchcraft on their hands, a capital offence in the ultra-conservative desert kingdom.

Agents of the country’s Anti-Witchcraft Unit were quickly dispatched and set about trying to break the spell that used the beast’s head.

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Saudi Arabia takes witchcraft so seriously that it has banned the Harry Potter series by British writer J.K. Rowling, rife with tales of sorcery and magic. It set up the Anti-Witchcraft Unit in May 2009 and placed it under the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPV), Saudi Arabia's religious police.

"In accordance with our Islamic tradition we believe that magic really exists," Abdullah Jaber, a political cartoonist at the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, told The Media Line. "The fact that an official body, subordinate to the Saudi Ministry of Interior, has a unit to combat sorcery proves that the government recognizes this, like Muslims worldwide."

The unit is charged with apprehending sorcerers and reversing the detrimental effects of their spells. On the CPV website, a hotline encourages citizens across the kingdom to report cases of sorcery to local officials for immediate treatment.

In the case of the wolf's head, the Anti-Witchcraft Unit in Tabouk was able to break the spell. The Saudi daily Okaz reported on Monday that the unknown family that had fallen victim to the spell had been "liberated from the jaws of the wolf.”

The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was created in order to educate the public about the danger of sorcerers and "combat manifestations of polytheism and reliance on other Gods," the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.    

The belief in sorcery is so widespread in Saudi Arabia, that it is even used as a defense in criminal court cases. Last October, a judge accused of receiving bribes in a real-estate project told a court in Madinah that he had been bewitched and is undergoing treatment by Quranic incantations, known as ruqiyah, a common remedy for the evil eye.     

Jaber noted, however, that most sorcerers both inside and outside the kingdom were charlatans that take advantage of illiterate citizens who believed they were afflicted by the evil eye. He said that such beliefs were more prevalent among older, rural and often illiterate individuals than with younger, educated Saudis.

"A while ago my arm was hurt and I couldn't draw," the cartoonist said. "Many older people told me that I must have been afflicted by the evil eye and should be treated by a Sheikh."

"It's a matter of ignorance," Jaber added. "If people were more educated they wouldn't believe in this."

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The last time Saudi Arabia executed a convicted sorcerer was in late 2007, but this did not indicate the penalty has since been lifted, Cristoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East Researcher at Human Rights Watch and expert on Saudi Arabia, told The Media Line.

Human Rights Watch had appealed King Abdullah in 2008 to halt the death sentence of Fawza Falih, a Saudi woman, on charges of witchcraft. The sentence was postponed, but Falih died in prison of ill health.  

Saudi Arabia lacks a penal code, making court decisions on whether a given act constitutes witchcraft completely dependant on the judge's discretion, Human Rights Watch said.

"We hear time and again of foreigners, such as Ethiopians or Nigerians, accused of sorcery in Saudi Arabia because of traditional practices from their countries of origin," Wilcke said. "They are usually apprehended by the religious police, brought to court, and let off with a warning or lashes."

In other cases, however, false accusations are made against foreign domestic workers in order to counter their charges of sexual harassment within a Saudi household.

"They will often say that the [female] domestic worker bewitched the Saudi into falling in love with her," Wilcke noted.

Belief in sorcery is not necessarily more widespread in Saudi Arabia than in other Gulf countries, Wilcke added. On Monday, the Emirati daily Al-Khaeej reported that Dubai police had arrested an Arab African national on charges of fraud and sorcery, after he charged 15,000 Dirham ($4,000) from a woman whose husband had left her, promising to bring him back using magic.

But the strictly Orthodox brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, known as Wahhabism, did contribute to the country's zero-tolerance policy on magic, Wilcke noted.

"Wahhabism believes in strict monotheism," Wilcke said. "Sorcery is a way of praying to someone other than God."                    

 

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