When the Saudi Arabian state beheads skeptics of Islam, Americans should never kid themselves that the U.S. is immune to such brutal piety.

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I can confirm firsthand from past decades I spent living and working in Saudi Arabia that the desert kingdom’s citizens are—as most Americans are—generally warm, generous, and kindly folks.

Extraordinarily so, in fact.

But the Saudi government and presumably most citizens also vigorously support the death penalty. Saudis are the Semitic Muslim, political equivalent of American white Christian nationalists. As recent history has shown, such official piety can, literally, have a very sharp edge in the kingdom, as elsewhere. I will discuss an eyewitness account of an official beheading a bit later.

I’m thinking about this because on a single day last month, March 12 to be exact, the kingdom’s theocratic government executed a record 81 people, including 73 Saudi nationals, seven Yemenis, and one Syrian, according to news reports from the New York Times, CNN, Al-Jazira and other credible international news organizations.

These executions are the opposite of justice.

Ali Adubusi, director, European Saudi Organization for Human Rights

Criminalizing ‘deviant beliefs’

Of particular note is that charges against some of the doomed convicts included “deviant beliefs,” which in the kingdom is generally code for apostasy.

Under the Saudis’ strict, fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, apostasy and other religious crimes such as sorcery “demand the death penalty,” Reuters reports. Indeed, in 2015 a Saudi Islamic court condemned to death a man who renounced his Islamic faith by ripping a copy of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and beating it with his shoe—on video.

Apostasy remains a capital offense in Saudi Arabia, prohibiting Saudis from openly rejecting, ridiculing, or criticizing Islam, the nation’s official religion (the phrase “There is only one God, and Muhammad is his messenger” is inscribed on its flag, along with a sword), and from promoting any other faith or unofficial Muslim denomination. One reason Saudi Shiite Muslims are as a matter of course viewed as suspect apostates in Arabia is because their version of Islam—also the denominational faith of neighboring Saudi arch-rival Iran—is markedly divergent from the kingdom’s official Sunni sect. It’s like the difference between Baptists and Catholics in the Christian world.

While white Christian nationalists have long schemed to transform America into a Christian theocracy, the Saudis have succeeded in creating an Islamic theocracy under the Sunni banner.

Heads-up, America

This should give us some idea of where the U.S. might end up if Christian evangelicals ever get their way, where a particular religious brand could wield near-absolute power.

Don’t think it will never happen, although beheadings for heresy are probably unlikely. Yes, America is among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced nations on earth, but still, roughly half of its citizens are committed Christians and most Americans still worship invisible deities glorified in millennia-old religious texts of very doubtful authenticity.

Although Saudi authorities claim that all the accused executed last month were provided fair trials governed by the kingdom’s laws protecting national security, human rights groups condemn government tactics against the accused that are contrary to international law, such as alleged torture-inducted confessions. Rights groups also decried earlier claims by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler “that the country was overhauling its justice system and limiting its use of the death penalty,” according to the Times. Ali Adubusi, director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, a watchdog group, told the newspaper:

“These executions are the opposite of justice.”

Adubusi said many of the charges levied in the recent mass executions involved “not a drop of blood.”

However, the executions themselves—almost always beheading by sword—involved, as always, quite a lot of blood.

Eyewitness to a beheading

I remember in the early 1980s when I was working in Riyadh, the teeming Saudi capital in the nation’s interior, an American friend decided he wanted to witness an official beheading. In Riyadh then, these reportedly gruesome public spectacles were conducted on Friday in Deera Square, locally known by its macabre nickname—“Chop Square”—after weekly prayers at an adjacent mosque.

My friend, a fellow English-language newspaper journalist for a rival Saudi daily, said when he went to Chop Square one Friday after prayers and was waiting for executions to begin, he felt a curious sensation. People in the crowd were slowly pushing him toward the inward edge of a crowd encircling the execution area.

He ended up in front as two blindfolded men, their hands tied behind their backs, were pulled from a vehicle and made to kneel in the center of the square. The executioner stood behind them.

My friend said the executioner seemed a bit aged and was having trouble hefting the heavy sword. He said it took not one but two swings of the blade to sever the head of each condemned prisoner, after poking each man in the back with the sword tip to make them involuntarily straighten their necks. I took my friend’s word for it because I had no way to verify what happened that day, since local newspapers, including ours, did not publish such details.

Heretics killed by the state

Although most of the condemned in last month’s spasm of Saudi executions were reportedly convicted of murder, rape, terrorism, and other brutal crimes of violence, it must also be pointed out that some convicts were equally dispatched just for the victimless “crime” of “deviant beliefs.”

That is, at least some were presumably killed by the state for publicly refusing to believe in or ridiculing the official Islamic orthodoxy, or in spreading alternative religious ideas.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that in 2020 Saudi Arabia was among five nations—including China, Iran, Egypt, and Iraq—that accounted for 88 percent of all state executions globally. China is by far the worst offender, with “thousands” of reported executions in 2020, followed by Iran with 246, according to HRW. Saudi Arabia was fifth on the list. Also of note, Christianity-dominated America was sixth, according to the market and consumer data purveyor Statista.

But the kingdom clearly seems to be picking up its pace.

The Kingdom’s previous busiest execution day was when it dispatched 63 condemned in 1980, a year after Iranian militants temporarily commandeered Mecca’s Grand Mosque during the annual Haj pilgrimage, CNN reported. Then one day in 2016, 47 prisoners were put to death, including Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric critical of the Saudi regime. Throughout 2020 (when a moratorium on executions in drug cases was effective), only 27 people were executed by the kingdom, but last year that number spiked to 67.

With apostasy remaining a capital offense in this devout Muslim nation whose execution count is surging, the religious beliefs—or, more importantly, religious skepticism—that individual Saudis choose to publicly express can have dire existential consequences.

This kind of punitive bigotry is not unique to Saudi Arabia, unfortunately. At least 10 other majority-Muslim nations also employ capital punishment for apostasy and blasphemy, including Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, according to the National Secular Society of the United Kingdom’s The Freedom of Thought Report 2021.

The report also noted that religious minorities in various countries, such as India and Pakistan (e.g., Hindus, Sikhs, and Baha’is), have “experienced egregious human rights violations.”

It could happen here

Americans should not kid themselves that they will always be immune to these kinds of draconian, government-sanctioned religious oppression. After all, it wasn’t so terribly long ago that U.S. government entities were burning and hanging “witches.”

The most notorious such event in American history was the Salem Witch Trials, in which 150 men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft, and 19 were ultimately executed in a wave of satanic hysteria in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Most of the victims were hanged but some were crushed to death with heavy stones.

In the so-called “Second Salem Witchcraft Child,” in 1878, the judge threw out an accusation that one local Christian Science Church member in Ipswich, Massachusetts, near Salem, used “mind control” over another, according to the historical website Time Spelunking. The judge said no law existed prohibiting mind control, even if it were employed.

The latter trial is acknowledged as the last prosecution in America for supposedly satanic crimes.

But witch hunts are not the contemporary worry in the U.S. It’s Christian Right extremism and nationalism, paranormal belief systems, and lust for power.

Bizarre fantasies, temporal and divine, still grip the minds of tens of millions of Americans, such as the Q-Anon curiosity. That untethered meme, with the supposed shadowy leader “Q” at its helm, holds that former “President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media,” the BBC reported.

In 2021, NBC News reported that nearly 20 percent of the American populace believed in the veracity of Q-Anon conspiracy theories, according to a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI-IFYC study). The study noted that 15 percent of Americans also believe that,

“Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Trump already has said women who have abortions—seen by fundamentalist Christians as an act of mortal apostasy—should be punished.

If the defeated ex-president regains power in 2024, who’s to say he wouldn’t also move to outlaw general apostasy against the Christian religion, or even toward Protestantism in particular. If Republicans take over congress and many state houses, as expected, how draconian might they make the punishment of heretics if Trump’s evangelical base demands it?

Note that elected state representatives of the mob of insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to obstruct the counting of electoral votes have since proposed 340 legislative bills in 47 states to make it much harder for disadvantaged minorities to vote—and much easier for GOP Christian nationalists to remake the nation in God’s image.

in a 2021 Time magazine article, Indiana University sociology professor Andrew Whitehead wrote:

In order to understand what led to the deadly Capitol insurrection and the spate of proposed voting laws we must account for the influence of Christian nationalism, a political theology that fuses American identity with an ultra-conservative strain of Christianity.

“But this Christianity is something more than the orthodox Christianity of ancient creeds; it is more of an ethnic Christian-ism. In its most extreme form it legitimizes the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6 and the recent flood of voting restrictions. Violence and legislation not in service of democracy, but instead for fundamentally anti-democratic goals.

That is the existential threat: potential state power conjoined with one religious sect—exactly what America’s Founding Fathers most feared.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...