Should we discourage the practice of executing witches?
It has recently been reported in the newspapers that Saudi Arabia has beheaded nineteen criminals, including one person who had been caught practicing sorcery. The Saudis consider sorcery a serious crime and go to great lengths to discourage it, including the introduction of an educational program that starts in pre-K. The particular acts of witchcraft engaged in by this particular person were not described, but we may assume they were the usual: divination, the casting of “the evil eye” and other injurious spells, and the worship of unapproved divinities. The incident seems not to have elicited much comment in Muslim countries, which are preoccupied currently by more substantive disputes, but there is something about the whole matter which seems strange to the Western mind.
We have not, in North America, at least successfully, prosecuted anyone for witchcraft in hundreds of years. Looking back, most of those convictions were based on hearsay evidence, which would no longer be accepted in a court of law. There are still some in this country who would ban “Harry Potter” because of its unabashed endorsement of magic, but this attitude is no longer reflected in the courts of law. Consequently, prosecutions of this sort seem, somehow—old–fashioned.
The act of beheading itself seems foreign in a way, more suited to the French. We have our own, admittedly clumsy, manner of executing prisoners, but we are used to it; and we find the various moans and contortions of the semi-dead more acceptable than the messy exsanguination inevitably associated with beheadings. I like to think we are more enlightened in this respect. But the various methods of executing wrong-doers in different countries illustrate the need for each of us to be tolerant of the different cultural values of different peoples. We must not judge them from the narrow perspective of our own religious and parochial views.
Take, for example, this matter of sorcery. Put yourself in the place of the King of Saudi Arabia. There you are, sitting on an ocean of oil, but vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, some of which I list here: invasion from one of the neighboring countries that adhere to a different brand of Islam, revolution by some of the same worshippers in your very own kingdom, the possibility of poison gas drifting down from Syria, attacks by liberals who want Saudi women to have the right to drive, and the endless back-biting and maneuvering that is always present in extended families who own large countries. The additional threat of sorcerers, who by their very nature act secretly and conspire with hidden powers, is simply too much additional worry to tolerate. Imagining yourself such a beleaguered monarch, wouldn’t you want to play it safe? Why risk unnecessarily the possibility of being attacked by goblins and ghosties, however unlikely that may be?
You may take the position that the practice of sorcery should not, in the first place, be a crime. It is at this point where you should consider the cultural influences that affect all of us. As a more or less Christian nation, we disapprove of beheading witches and sorcerers; but we have our own views of what should constitute a capital crime; and these might not be accepted universally. Gluttony, for instance. We have among us many who believe in the literal truth of the bible. Consider Deuteronomy 21:21.
“They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’
“Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.” It is for this reason that obesity is almost unknown amongst those who adhere strictly to biblical teachings.
Yet, although it is recognized universally that overeating is bad, in most countries it is not considered sufficient justification for execution. Who are we, therefore, to condemn the practices of other countries?
By the way, stoning to death, which seems to be the all-purpose punishment the Bible prescribes for a variety of offenses including murder, gathering wood on the Sabbath, sleeping simultaneously with a mother and daughter, etc. was largely determined by the absence in those primitive times of the more sophisticated methods of punishment practiced currently– which include electrocution, hanging, the guillotine, and, most recently in our country, poisoning by secret cocktails of intravenous drugs. Back in biblical days, they had only rocks—although they did have a lot of rocks.
“Judge not, lest we be judged” is a sensible stricture to keep in mind when we think disparagingly of the practice of others. Different punishments seem reasonable to different people. Dismemberment, for example, is considered perfectly appropriate as a punishment for shop-lifting in those Arab countries where shopping is so central to their culture. Similarly, they treat women with great respect, protecting them and clothing them modestly. Consequently, seduction is rare. Should a woman nevertheless commit adultery despite all these precautions, it is usual to whip her to death as an example to other wanton women. (The men involved are considered to be punished sufficiently by being publicly embarrassed.) Set against these standards, killing the occasional sorcerer does not seem so arbitrary.
It is best not to trouble oneself excessively about what others consider proper behavior and about how they choose to enforce their opinions. You start by disapproving of the execution of magicians; and, before you know it, you are troubled by reports of fathers killing their own daughters in order to preserve “their honor.” Then you learn about mothers and daughters being buried alive, then immolations for apostasy, and then genital mutilation, and then. . . . before you know it, you’re walking around in a snit all day long. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of “The Wicked Son.”