The king of Saudi Arabia is once again making headlines for overturning a court ruling that sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving a car. For many, this is further proof that King Abdullah is a force for moderation and reform. Fareed Zakaria, for example, has called the Saudi dictator a “man of wisdom and moderation.” Then again, the king could also have considered stopping the recent beheading of Abdul Hamid Al Fakki for the crime of “sorcery.” Instead, he chose to do nothing. While the residents of Salem in 1692 would be proud, modern pundits would do well to hold their praise for the monarch.
Al Fakki was arrested in 2005 after he supposedly agreed to put a spell on a man to leave his second wife. In fact, Al Fakki was entrapped by a member of the Saudi religious police and reportedly beaten and coerced into a confession. The one-minute video of his beheading is surely one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed. For anyone who could not make it to Medina to see the execution (non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the city), a bystander captured the beheading on video and shared it with the world via YouTube.
There is much to learn from the scene. Dozens of policemen maintain order in the street as the executioner prepares. Hundreds of people watch from the sidelines. Ford Crown Victorias and Nissan Patrol cars scatter the area. “Oh mercy!” one man whispers to his friend in the crowd seconds before the beheading. “The executioner is from [the town of] Bisha?” he asks. “The one who cuts the head?” his friend queries. “Yes, he is from Bisha.”
The small talk ends as the executioner raises his sword and in one fell swoop chops off Al Fakki’s head. “There is no god but God,” the crowd murmurs. A Saudi dissident told me, “You noticed his head didn’t fly off. They have a technique to sever the spinal chord without the neck. Not everyone is skilled enough to do it.” Chopping off heads is an art form the Saudi government has perfected.
A representative of the government then reads out an official communiqué via loud-speakers mounted on a police-car. It begins with Koranic recitation and ends with a declaration: “The Interior Ministry announces this to stress to everyone the determination of the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [King Abdullah], God preserve him, for stability and apprehending the criminals that are attempting to tamper with the security of this country and its stability.”
One cannot help but wonder what Al Fakki would have said about the talk of Abdullah as a reformer. Imagine a conversation between Al Fakki and a gullible Western journalist:
Journalist: Isn’t King Abdullah wonderful? A man of such wisdom and moderation!
Al Fakki: My head is about to be chopped off for witchcraft. What on Earth are you talking about?
Journalist: But King Abdullah is fighting extremism and supports women’s rights!
Al Fakki: My head is about to be c-h-o-p-p-e-d o-f-f f-o-r w-i-t-c-h-c-r-a-f-t. What part of that do you not understand?
Journalist: But he will let women vote in 2015 for half of municipal councils!
Al Fakki: Tell my family I love them.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and cofounder of CyberDissidents.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.