Even for the late 17th century, the witch trials at Salem were egregious: the last hurrah of an early-modern culture of superstition and retribution that was stopped dead in its tracks by the early sparks of the Enlightenment. By the time, in 1692, that Abigail Williams and her friends wrought havoc across three counties on the Massachusetts frontier, it was widely considered that “sorcery” was, if not whimsical in itself, at least a matter unsuited for the courts. Indeed, so keen was the horror at the hysteria that had taken hold in Salem that the mere mention of the place was sufficient to cool any passions that looked in danger of spiraling into outmoded and dangerous thaumaturgy. For America, it was the witch-hunt to end all witch-hunts.
The news that Saudi Arabia executed a woman for “witchcraft and sorcery” on Monday is thus made all the more heartrending when one considers that the practice was last seen in America just one year before the Dodo was reported missing, and 100 years before the passage of the Bill of Rights. As is so often the case, Mecca is at least 300 years late to the punch and, worse, its government seems steadfastly determined to ignore the salutary lessons that the Western world learned at the cost of so much blood, sweat, and tears. Britain and America, without external examples to mimic, had at least some excuse for mistakes made while blazing a path to liberty, capitalism, and reason. The Saudis have none, and their myopia is appalling. For the steadfast refusal of the House of Saud to conform to liberal norms, a young woman paid the ultimate price.
The latest victim of medieval thinking, Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nassar, was condemned in al-Jawf province, having been, according to the Saudi interior ministry, “convicted of what was accused based on the law.” What was accused was that Nassar was a “witch” who had been performing “sorcery.” What the “law” prescribed was that she be beheaded. Such language parodies the Western argot, but not the nature of our judicial tradition. Witchcraft is a “crime” intrinsically incompatible with the classical Western conception of justice, relying as it does on proof that will — nay, can — never be forthcoming. Nassar’s conviction was secured after authorities found in her possession books on sorcery, a selection of talismans, and glass bottles that were allegedly “used for the purpose of magic.” To demonstrate the absurdity of such a system, we might consider that if we combined devotees of both Halloween and the recent Harry Potter craze in the United States, we’d able to be convict half of the country if so minded.
Presumption of innocence is rightly lauded as one of the defining and exceptional principles of the Anglo-American world. But of commensurate value is our insistence upon a rigorous set of rules defining what constitutes permissible evidence against an individual. We eschew the testimony of any witness who claims to have privileged information that is inherently invisible to, or unobtainable by, a jury of his peers (spectral evidence) and relegate to a supporting role the imputation of motive based on speculation alone. The self-evident virtues of rationalism aside, there is a very practical reason for this: It strips the powerful of their capacity to pretend to clothe naked emperors in front of nervous or subordinate juries, and helps prevent the government and the well-connected alike from abusing the legal system to attack their enemies. Likewise, it makes it more difficult for prosecutors arbitrarily to gild the lily in cases for which there is little proof, or wantonly to substitute hollow crimes such as “witchcraft” for real ones whose sentences are light. Amnesty International considers that witchcraft and sorcery accusations in Saudi Arabia tend to be proxy punishments for those who have “exercised their right to freedom of speech or religion,” a process that is made significantly easier by the absence of a codified criminal code in the kingdom. In our civil courts, by contrast, one will be asked solely to render evidence unto Caesar, and only as it relates to the established and uniform laws of the land. The difference is stark and chilling. For Nassar, it was fatal.
Such legal tyrannies are emblematic of a much deeper problem. We will likely conclude, prima facie, that Nassar was not a witch because witchcraft does not exist. But, for the sake of argument, let us presume that the accused was indeed guilty of trying to commit witchcraft or sorcery. If true, this would still serve as no justification for her sentence, or even for her trial. Free and tolerant societies such as we enjoy in the United States are ultimately judged by how they treat their eccentrics. Just as free speech is truly tested only when the unpopular speak up — it is not the role of the government to distinguish between Shakespeare and Hitler — so no free state can decide that peaceful expressions of religious faith, however unorthodox they might seem, are beyond the pale. Not only can Nassar not possibly have been fairly convicted, she should never have been tried at all. That the Saudis try their outliers and put them to death says all we need to know about their attitude toward religious freedom, and serves as a reminder that the freedom of all is tied up with the freedom of the individual to be different.
While witchcraft is partly an historical interpretation offered by the ignorant and jealous to explain the capricious nature of things not understood, more often — especially outside of the Anglo-American world, in which “witch” was often a synonym for “heretic” — “witch” is mere shorthand for a person who possesses an alternative conception of society and thus presents a threat to the established order. Nassar is a woman in a nation utterly hostile towards one half of the population, so it would not be surprising if she had considered an alternative to the rules by which she was bound.
Although the issue is complex, history gives us key insight into witch-hunting societies. At Salem, the enthusiasm of the court in prosecuting the accusations was in no small measure the product of its judges’ desire to shift blame for their own inadequate defense of the frontier. Many of the judges doubled as military leaders, and had played leading roles in a markedly unsuccessful war effort. Self-interest was enough to drive reasonable and learned men to prosecute the innocent on grounds, and in a style, that was dismissed and apologized for just a year later. The magistrates of the Massachusetts colony had a record, prior to Salem, that displayed considerable skepticism towards the prosecution of witchcraft. Fear put paid to this caution.
Saudi Arabia is a nation that survives in its current form because it possesses vast oil reserves. None of the prerequisites to Western success — democracy, the rule of law, capitalism, religious tolerance, and the scientific method — are matched in the kingdom, and if the black gold disappears it will have a tough time adjusting. Unfortunately, there is very little acknowledgement of this fact by the ruling royal family. As bin Laden made devastatingly obvious, blame is directed elsewhere as a matter of habit. It is no surprise therefore that both the religious powers and the royal family are happy to indulge prosecution of witches: It distracts from their own failings, maintains the fiction that external evil is responsible for the country’s ills, and — most worryingly — is a convenient way to silence those who can see through the veil.
Bio: Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.