Who’s Reading Books on Wicca in the United Arab Emirates?

Who’s Reading Books on Wicca in the United Arab Emirates? June 11, 2012

Witchcraft and sorcery are illegal in the United Arab Emirates, but unlike their neighbors in Saudi Arabia they treat the matter as a fraud and nuisance, rather than a grave crime that can earn you the death penalty.

“Witchcraft and sorcery is strictly illegal in the UAE and most Gulf countries. In Saudi Arabia, it is a crime punishable by death. However in Dubai, authorities have treated it largely as the purview of scam artists and confidence tricksters. In the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, authorities take a more liberal stance. However, because of the large number of scam artists posing as sorcerers and exorcists in Dubai, police have set up a special task force to crack down on so-called ‘magic-related crimes.'”

Despite this no-doubt impressive task force, it was UAE’s airport security who caught two Asian men trying to smuggle over a thousand items related to sorcery and magic into the country.

Seized occult haul. Image Credit: Dubai Police

“Ali Al Maghawi, Dubai Customs’ Director of Airport Operations Department, said the two men were apprehended after their bags were scanned. “Two Asian passengers were suspected when their bags passed through the internal inspection machines,” he said. “Their bags were scanned and searched manually. Inspectors found out a great number of wicca literature, talismans and items which are usually used in witchcraft and sorcery work.” Al Maghawi pointed out that the 1,200 seized items fell into 28 categories used for black magic, sorcery and incantation.”

Did you catch that? “A great number of Wicca literature.” Later in the article, while listing what was seized, an official simply says “magic teaching books,” by why say “Wicca literature” in the first place unless there are actually books that say “Wicca” on them? Sadly, though I searched, there isn’t a clear picture of the seized books (Imagine the marketing coup for the company that published the titles!). So my question is, are there Wiccans in the UAE?

Certainly most of these items, including the literature, are being used in syncretic or indigenous magical systems, but even the most utilitarian Western Witchcraft spell-books usually have some information about Wicca and its beliefs in them. If the “great number” of Wiccan books seized here are simply the tip of the iceberg, as is the case with most black market busts, then it stands to reason there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people reading about modern Pagan faiths in the UAE. Does that mean there might be modern Pagans and Witches in the country as well? It’s not so far-fetched an idea. Wherever Western literature and Internet access has become easily accessible, small pockets of Pagans have also emerged. There are Pagans in Lebanon, and in Israel, and the country of Jordan has welcomed Patrick McCollum as a guest, so these materials can’t all be mere fodder for scam-artists.

Modern Paganism is now a global movement, and has been so for some time. While our critics would like to believe that Wicca, Druidry, and other faiths under our umbrella are merely the passing fancy of bored teenagers, radical feminists, and aging hippies, the truth is that the underlying appeal of reviving pre-Christian religion has sparked something far larger than even we could have anticipated. The harder the dominant monotheisms grasp, the more people start looking for alternatives. What’s truly exciting is to see how the ideas and concepts of modern Paganism change and grow in places like India, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Books on Wicca may be inadvertently helping to revive polytheism without a single missionary uttering a single word.

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65 responses to “Who’s Reading Books on Wicca in the United Arab Emirates?”

  1. “The harder the dominant monotheisms grasp, the more people start looking for alternatives.”

    I’m disappointed.  This was a perfect moment for the phrase “the more [the dominant monotheisms] tighten [their] grip, […] the more [people] will slip through [their] fingers.”


  2. “…may be inadvertently helping to revive polytheism without a single missionary uttering a single word.”

    I love that last sentence.

  3. I get a giggle that some Llewellyn Wicca-101 could be the Gideon’s Bible of pantheism in the Middle East.

  4. Christians don’t corner the market on martyrdom, either.  There are still countries that imprison, torture and execute for smuggling Bibles and teaching Christian doctrine.  These countries that are literally ruled by religion have plenty to lose if their people start embracing ideas that are not in line with what those in power want them to believe.  Either way, I’d be curious to know more about the books that were involved as well.

  5. In a sense it’s almost ironic, because in the middle ages the Islamic world practiced far more magick than the West ever did in that period of time. 

  6. “More than 1,200 items were found, including some talisman with different sizes, tin cans for amulets, metallic papers, worry beads, animal skins, sorcery knives, magic teaching books, bags containing fish skeletons, animal bones, ampules containing blood & liquids, animal drawings used in sorcery works, strings, pieces of charcoals, finger rings, oysters, leaves, powders, cotton rolls used in sorcery works, thread and some dark materials, the statement added.”

    Although the report said all these items were intended to be used for “black magic or sorcery,” I notice that SOME of the items had to have EXTRA significance projected upon them: “SORCERY knives” “cotton rolls USED IN SORCERY WORKS”…as if the authorities needed to justify themselves.  What are they so afraid of?

    The articles that describe the confiscation seemed to connect all these to Con-games where people were tricked out of a lot of money.  But what if these items were simply sold to everyday people who wanted to practice positive magic in their own individual lives?  What would be so wrong with that?  This is exactly why it is so important to defend the separation of Church and State.

  7.  But this is not the US we’re talking about here, it’s other countries that have very different histories and cultures (and therefore, different definitions of what’s appropriate and what’s not).  Separation of Church and State would be quite unusual, and any “defense” of that would be viewed as the US further inserting its nose where it doesn’t belong. Basically, another manifestation of white colonialism. With regards to the Middle East, we’re walking on thin ice as it is given our highly negative shared history.

    Imo, it’s appropriate for pagans to support other pagans across the borders, but outside of that any defense of paganism in other countries will have to come from within their cultures in order for it to be effective and taken seriously. That includes defining what these items are meant to do, as no one is going to take a foreigner’s word for it.

  8. To answer the question for you Jason, we have 103 members in the UAE on Witch School, and we have had to put up special firewalls and database protections in place for all Arabic Countries.  Some of the members have been on site for more than 5 years.

    As you know you have seen that our memebrs have moved into positions of leadership in other nations including India, Uruguay, South Africa, and nations that have had minimal contact. UAE is very similar.

  9. UAE is a wonderful place. this isn’t a case of “are there Pagans and or Wiccans in the UAE”,it’s a matter of too bad they get lumped with the scam artists. What people have to remember about UAE is that they DEFINITELY have more immigrants than locals so these anti-magic/etc. laws arent’ about targeting a specific faith group at all, they’re about curbing some of the inherent problems of the kinds of immigration coming to their shores. They’re doing their best to protect those within their borders from the people who want to con others who are far from home and easy targets.

  10. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard separation of church and state called “another manifestation of white colonialism.” It’s a valid political idea anywhere in the world, and is found in the Middle East. I wouldn’t be telling those folks what part of their political conversation is politically incorrect.

    Given your position on this, *why*is it “appropriate for pagans to support other pagans across the borders?” Isn’t that a lower-key insertion of the same white colonialist idea, in this manifestation called “religious freedom?”

    For that matter, why be Pagan? Aren’t we a bunch of spiritually shallow white folks reaching into our eurocentric past?

    This kind of casual political correctness is a slippery slope for Pagans.

  11. I went to an english bookstore last year in Dubai I can say I was surprised there were some New Age books but not surprised that there were no Wicca books at all

  12. I was referring to the US or Americans doing yet another thing in the Middle East to promote US values there.  It gets perceived as colonialism-lite, which then obscures the real message of church/state separation.

    The OP talked about defending the separation of church and state, hence why I mentioned it. In general, it doesn’t matter if foreigners care about it, but it does matter if insiders do. We can support the cause, but unless we are actually a part of the cultures and/or political bodies we cannot effectively do the defending ourselves.

    I admit that I was interpreting more than was actually there in the OP’s statement. They didn’t say “we”, but I misread it as such, so my previous post was out of line.

    “Given your position on this, *why*is it “appropriate for pagans to
    support other pagans across the borders?” Isn’t that a lower-key
    insertion of the same white colonialist idea, in this
    manifestation called “religious freedom?”

    For that matter, why be Pagan? Aren’t we a bunch of spiritually shallow white folks reaching into our eurocentric past?”

    I may deserve the snark, but this doesn’t make sense. I didn’t say anything about Pagans except that it’s a community that isn’t bound by the usual political borders. So a Pagan in Lebanon is part of the same community, or can be, as a Pagan in Canada. 

    You know full well that Pagans =/= shallow white eurocentrics, and I said no such thing in my previous post. If I believed that was true I would have said so by now (hell, if I believed that was true I wouldn’t even BE involved with any aspect of Paganism). Now I have respect for what you say and normally you make more sense to me than this, but I honestly cannot tell if you’re making a personal attack or not. I’m going to assume no unless you want to indicate otherwise.

  13. I don’t really know much about the Middle East, but several snippets suggest there might be more Paganism (probably not Wicca, though) than generally thought:

    1. An Iraqi Kurdish friend of mine living in England had rejected his Muslim upbringing, and celebrated a form of neo-Paganism, revolving around fire worship and the Spring Equinox. He said that lots of Kurds do this covertly in Iraq. He didn’t actually seem to know much about the religion, and seemed to treat it mainly as an anti-Islamic position.

    2. I once saw a website for Iranian patriots who had rejected Islam, and were rediscovering pre-Islamic Iranian values, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and some sort of pre-Zoroastian Paganism. I understand that this is not entirely new, and the Safavid Renaissance, rather like the Italian Renaissance, had elements of neo-Paganism, as shown, for example, by the importance of the Shahnama until the 1979 Revolution.

    3. I once read that a lot of Bedouin are covertly Pagan, worshipping the moon and other gods. There is a history of hostility between the Islamic authorities and the Bedouin. The Ikhwan movement, which created modern Saudi Arabia, had forcing the Bedouin into settled life as one of its central foci.

    4.  There is this thing about the Sabaeans. The Quran permits a measure of toleration to the People of the Book – Jews, Christians and Sabaeans. Three of the four madhdhabs state that all other people should be exterminated, and there is therefore a lot of pressure for people to belong to one of these three groups. Lots of disparate groups describe themselves as Sabaean, and some of these sound Pagan, or perhaps Gnostic, whereas others are unusual Abrahamic creeds, such as followers of John the Baptist.

  14. I’m not into snark, nor the offensive (but PC) positions I suggested. What I am saying is that your statement about separation of church and state could be the premise for other assertions we don’t want to bolster. I gave examples.

  15.  When I was in university, one of my classmates (who had lived in something like, fifteen countries) said that she knew of fisherman who were ostensibly Muslim but still prayed to the sea goddess. Why? Because if they didn’t, she’d sink their boats! I wish I could remember more details, but since she was from Malaysia, she could have been referring to Mazu: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazu_%28goddess%29

  16. Folkways will survive in spite of state-sponsored religions, even in Islamic countries.

    I know of a man in a small village in Egypt who is a healer who works with “The Lion Lady (ie. Sekhmet) but officially keeps that under wraps.  

    Also, near Dendearah, at the Temple of Hathor, women will go to the temple in the dead of knight, taking scrapings from the stone off the walls into a glass of water in order to help them conceive, praying to “The Cow Lady” (Hathor).  

    Fishermen in that country yearly have a procession where they carry their boats on their shoulders much in the same way that they have always done in antiquity, quite similar to the processions carrying the Barque of Amun.

    Both Egyptian and Nubian women still go to Philae to pray to Aset (Isis) to this day.

    No matter if it was the Romans, who were ironically also pagan but insisted that the native Egyptians worship the Emperor instead of the gods, or the Christians or even the Muslims, the elder religions of the area will always survive.  The plaster crumbles from the walls of temples and the images of emperors give way to those of the Gods beneath. The Imams and the heads of state can try to outlaw the practice of magic, but it will never completely succeed. 

  17. Persian civilization was very old and very sophisticated when Islam arrived, and the Iranians haven’t forgotten that. To give you an idea how old, the Jewish holiday of Purim is partially derived from the Persian New Year, and the Iranians still celebrate Narouz with some pre-Islamic practices.

    Persia is also normally a fairly religiously tolerant place and probably will be so again if they succeed in reestablishing democracy, which they had in the 1950s before the CIA-sponsored coup.

  18. I wonder if this has anything to do with Yezidi. Unsure if it is about in the UAE, but I know it is present in Iraq.
    The forgotten Abrahamic faith, as it were.

  19. I don’t necessarily agree David. I am from India but service a number of clients in the Middle East. I know that a number of my peers are in the business of visiting teh UAE for months at a time (particularly Dubai because it is safer) and meting out solutions to people. I have seen that most  Middle East natives are keen on seeking *solutions* for their problems via occult means such as witchcraft, few I know have expressed interest in pursuing such paths.

  20. As a matter of fact, I think that monotheistic religions commonly lose more followers to Atheism rather than any other belief system. I can imagine how people who leave are mostly just disgruntled by the lack of “chilled-out”-ness of their birth religion and wouldn’t want to touch any religion with a 10-foot stick

  21. I would REALLY like to know more about neopaganism in these, frankly quite unexpected places. I was happy and excited to read your earlier pieces on Wicca in India. Thank you for writing about this.

    We in Forn Sed Sweden participated in a conference in Haridwar for indigenous religions, hosted by a hindu organisation (whos name I can’t seem to recall right now) and we have members who are hindu and who consider ours the regional variety of the eternal Dharma. It is fascinating and exciting, but I must admit that the possible interaction between Wicca and Hinduism intigues me no end!

  22. “interaction between Wicca and Hinduism”

    It makes sense. From a traditionalist, Christian stance, Hinduism is a form of paganism, after all.

  23.  I imagine it is more to do with people seeing the inconsistencies in the Bible than any sense of ‘chill’.

  24. Yezidi is basically a kurdish tribal name, as I understand it. They practice a mix of sufi islam, zoroastrianism and kurdish folkways (but maybe you knew that). I’d say it’s highly unlikely that they’d be found in UAE.

  25.  Jew is basically a Semitic tribal name. 😉

    I don’t know a huge amount about them but I do know that, to the local Muslims (some of whom I have known personally), they are perceived as ‘devil worshippers’, due to their veneration of Tawûsê Melek – The Peacock Prince.

    It would be a simple leap, from that, to accuse witchcraft and sorcery practice amongst the adherents.

  26. Hello Jason 🙂 

    Everytime I get a whiff of someone talking about Wicca and India in the same sentence, it’s a direct summons for me! LOL Good writing as always. 
    Blessed be,

  27. Well, I too would like to place Hinduism and Wicca under the same umbrella term, together with Heathenry – though I guess hindus might resent the lable ‘Pagan’, I guess.

  28.  I could only see them resenting the term as it is used by Christians in a pejorative sense.

    Personally, I’m not really a fan of the term ‘Pagan’ as an umbrella term. It’d be like using ‘Jew’ as an umbrella term for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

    Unfortunately, it is a recognisably useful term.

  29. Haha..true Leoht. Any book religion has inconsistencies! I was referring more to the typical extremism monotheist religions encounter. 

  30.  I figured you were. I was thinking more of the numerical majority.

  31.  Just for clarification, when I said “This is exactly why it is so important to defend the separation of Church and State,” I was talking about the United States.  HOWEVER, I do (personally) feel that no State (worldwide) has the right to restrict the spiritual paths of its people. 

    All of the more dominant religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism) have co-opted and incorporated many many ancient Pagan practices into their traditions.  That’s how they became so big.

  32. The local culture of the Near East still has a lot of pagan elements in it, whether in folk habits, magic, lullabies…etc.  But there has been an increased interest in the last 5 years in reviving the old religions, not just as a cultural thingy, but as a living religion.

    As a native Lebanese pagan, during the last three years I have met and communicated with pagans in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Palestine/Israel and Lebanon, and i have seen many interested people in Egypt and UAE.
    There are also more advanced reconstructionist movements in Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Kurdish areas.
    In my humble observation, i noticed that almost half of the people i meet are interested in Wicca, the other half are interested in the pre-monotheist native religions like Canaanite, Khemetic, Kurdish, Hittie, Arab, Babylonian and Sumerian religions.

    Those who said that monotheist religions lose more to atheism are right, Atheism is growing very fast and it’s starting to have its famous figures and dedicated communities, (the number three most visited blogs on the Middle Eastern internet are the atheist ones). But this is a very positive thing, especially that it’s a common joke in the pagan and polytheist circles here to say that polytheism (or pantheism) is the natural step after atheism, because this is the case for most of us.

     But we still have a very long way to go; sustaining this kind of path under the known circumstances is very difficult for most.

    Anyway, as a small treat, this is a short youtube video from modern pagans in Lebanon dedicated to the Canaanite god of Healing, Eshmun:

  33. “I do (personally) feel that no State (worldwide) has the right to restrict the spiritual paths of its people. ”

    I agree with the principle of this, however, I more strongly hold the sentiment that no state should force their views onto another.

    “All of the more dominant religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam,
    Buddhism) have co-opted and incorporated many many ancient Pagan
    practices into their traditions.  That’s how they became so big.”

    At the same time, Neo-Pagan traditions have incorporated or ‘borrowed’ ideas from other traditions into their own (I’ll note that, from the sixties onwards a lot of Western traditions had an element of ‘Eastern mysticism’ injected, such as the concepts of karma and pacifism.)

  34. Sadly I can see this happening to the U.S at some point in time. At 44 winters it might not happen in my life time but I think it might be possible of the goverment & the religous right have thier way. I can’t inmange living in a place where said religion is illegal & you can be put to death for it. My heart goes out to these people.

  35. Just
    my personal belief here but I have no problem with the term Pagan. I
    refuse to let someone else define me by using that term. I think many
    people forget that it’s true meaning is someone who lives in the
    country. I think Judea/Christianity & Pagan are very useful
    umbrella terms. Some people are just more sensitive about them it
    would seem or so I have learned though out the years.

  36.  If you want to go with original meanings, then it was a pejorative term used by the urbane Romans to describe the ‘backward’ countryfolk. (Think the Roman equivalent of red-neck or hillbilly.)

    The reason I dislike it is because it isn’t really representative.

    Technically, Christianity is a messianic sect of Judaism, but the adherents dispute that.

    In much the same way, using a Roman/Latin term to describe a tradition that has no connection to that culture is not seen as particularly wanted. (I’ve noticed several British Heathen groups vehemently reject the descriptor ‘Pagan’.)

  37. Well, as a category, we are pagans, in that a “pagan”(much like “heathen”) means an adherent of a non Christian, non-Jewish faith. Then again, “Pagan” and “Heathen” in the sense of revivals of pre-Christian European religion/spirituality… well of course that isn’t us Hindus, but I would hardly resent or be offended by it…

  38.  A Wiccan friend of mine attended that conference. She was invited to it as a result of attending a local interfaith event sponsored by the same group. She thinks she was the only Wiccan present. She was impressed by some of the northern European contingents, possibly yours, who wore traditional national dress in the procession.

    There’s an account of Rachael Watcher’s visit on the interfaith blog on the home page of the Covenant of the Goddesss  http://www.cog.org. Part one is only about her travails getting there; part two has photos and a description of the conference.

    I know another Wiccan who had a part time job at a local (California) Hindu temple and was regarded by them as a Hindu since he participated in puja and other practices.

    Both of these people are elders in coven based traditions.

  39.  It might depend on which Hindu you talk to, but at either the second or third Parliament of the World’s Religions, (late 1980s-1990s), the Hindus, Wiccans, Neopagans, Shintoists, and some of the environmental scientists attending formed a coalition/bloc under the Pagan label. AFAIK the alliance has held up.

    I may have the event title wrong, it could be World Parliament of Religions. The first one was in the 1880s in, I think, Chicago. Or maybe Cincinnati. The second one was on the centennial and they have been happening every five years since then. Most recent was in Australia, third was in Cape Town. It’s the largest international interfaith gathering in the world.

  40.  I simply dislike the notion that there are only, essentially, two religions in the world – Abrahamic and Pagan.

    It is extremely condescending and patronising in its determined refusal to recognise the huge diversity of faith beyond the cult of a minor desert spirit.

  41. I am no fan of the Shah or the CIA, but Iran still had plenty of religious freedom right up until 1979. Just as Iraq had a great deal of religious freedom under Saddam.

  42. I would like to ass that it does seem that Wicca has becone it’s own unbrella term as well.

  43. I would agree with that- I would rather things be more specifically described, as the term “pagan” in this sense is a term of exclusion- it means “not-Abrahamic”, as opposed to identifying people by what they really are. I have some very good friends of other “pagan” beliefs than mine(actually, the majority are not Hindu), and while we have some common ground, the term “pagan” doesn’t really cover any of that, nor does it acknowldge that we are different. I think we will continue to see this, however, until non-Abrahamic faiths are no longer considered “wierd” by mainstream society and media.

  44. To quote Rocky Horror, that’s a tender subject. Women had more equality under Saddam than they do now. Christians are looking over their shoulders in Egypt, where they were safe under a secular dictatorship and now are likely to be at the mercy of an Islamist democracy. Libyan women helped materially in the overthrow of Gadaffi and shortly after the dust settled expressed to reporters determination not to be left out of shaping the new society; we’ll see how that plays out. (Bad intitial sign: They were all headscarved in the accompanying photo.)

    Ideas we fondly call “Western,” work best if applied in an ensemble. Problem is, people adopting them afresh cherry-pick.

  45.  (I’m guessing you mean ‘add’ 😉 )

    The issue with Wicca, as I see it is a lot of people liked Gardner’s initial idea, but then decided they wanted to ‘tweak’ the tradition to fit their own biases.

    As such, there are now a myriad different branches of Wicca, few actually all that close to Gardner’s original vision.

    But, the umbrella term is accurate enough (akin to how there are lots of different branches of Christianity, yet they are still basically Christian.)

  46.  As mainstream society becomes more secular, even the Abrahamic religions are seen as increasingly ‘weird’.

  47.  You can’t force democracy where it isn’t wanted – the people will vote it out.

  48. Nice catch lol.. Sorry about that I didn’t eat my wheaties this morning. I agree with you about there are only two religions in the world. I’ve never heard of anyone else who thought that as well. 

  49.  I know that. I simply expressed an opinion that a majority of the Iranian people would be supportive of (at the very least) religious tolerance if they were consulted. They have been given plenty of reasons to loathe the religious police.

    The historical record of Islamic civilization on the toleration of other faiths is variable, like the record of Christendom.

    Being a member of a minorities that is geographically dispersed, I pay attention to such details, as well as to the sometimes unpredictable effects of regime change.

  50.  IMHO, a headscarf is a relatively minor accommodation to social pressure. Full coverage scarves are probably uncomfortable on a hot day but they don’t interfere with freedom of movement, unlike high heels.  As a symbolic homage to the highest authority in the culture, I’d put the female headscarf on about the same level as an American politician’s flag lapel pin. Perhaps these women place a higher priority on access to education and freedom to travel, work  and marry (or not) whom they will than on freedom to wear European style dress in public. The issue of course is how women who don’t wear the scarf are treated.

    The more moderate forms of modest Islamic dress are similar to what Orthodox Jewish women wear, or a traditional nun’s habit,  and a good deal more comfortable  than what Western women wore one hundred years ago.

  51.  Scholars of religion recognize a third category, Dharmic, and some have a category for animist religions of indigenous peoples.

  52. Oh, I shan’t argue your priorities.

    But this was a news-conference photo-op. It’s supposed to show in a picture what the interview says in words. It’s a jarring note.

  53.  Scholars have lots of categories and definitions, but it isn’t scholarly usage that I am on about, it is common usage, perpetuated by the dominant denominations.

  54. Actually, in desert climates, head-scarves are quite comfortable.  They stop you from getting sunburned, you can use them to stop getting dust in your face, and if you wet them down a little, they can cool you off quite well – hence why people started wearing them in the first place.

    -Eran, who wears a keffiyeh on really hot days in the summer

  55. Technically, Christianity is a messianic sect of Judaism, but the adherents dispute that.”

    No, it was a sect of Judaism. Within the first few centuries, it rejected Jewish practices (circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, celebration of Passover, etc.) and emerged as it’s own religion. No one, neither Christian nor Jewish, considers modern Christianity a sect of Judaism.

  56.  No-one, other than me. Apparently. I keep a simplistic view – Jesus was a Jew, the Christian ‘God’ is the same god as the god of the Jews. Same god, different angle = sect.

    It has to be said, Christians do still keep the Sabbath holy, they just shifted the day. (Many calendars start their week with Monday.)

    They get the whole going to church and exclusion from work thing.

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