ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) recently got some media attention because they had beheaded two Moslem women accused of sorcery. For a Moslem the only thing unusual about this was how the women are killed. Public beheading is usually reserved for men. Sorcery, on the other hand, is quite common in the Islamic world, even though it is strongly condemned in the Koran. Many Islamic majority countries consider sorcery a capital (the guilty are executed) crime. But there’s a lot more to sorcery than that.
For example, back in 2013 Mehdi Taeb, a senior cleric in the Iranian government explained that the major reason so many nations went along with the increased economic sanctions against Iran was because Israel had been using magic to persuade the leaders of these nations to back more sanctions. Without the Israeli witchcraft, the sanctions would not exist. Taeb explained that the Israelis have used this magic before, as in 2009, against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was running for president. Many Iranians openly opposed Ahmadinejad, who won anyway. This, to Taeb, was proof that devout Moslems could defeat the Jewish magic.
What’s interesting with this observation is that, in 2011 Taeb and his fellow clerics tried to get rid of Ahmadinejad and his zealous (against corrupt clerics) associates. One method used was to send the police (which the clergy control) to arrest key Ahmadinejad aides and accuse them of witchcraft and sorcery. This led to street brawls between fans of Ahmadinejad and Islamic hardliners. Clubs, knives, and other sharp instruments were used. There was blood in the streets. All because of a witch hunt.
Ahmadinejad was quite popular because he has gone after corrupt officials, especially the clerics and their families, who feel they are immune from prosecution and can take what they want. In theory, the clerics can get rid of Ahmadinejad by simply declaring that he is not religiously suitable to run for election. That's the kind of power the clerics have. But Ahmadinejad was too popular for that sort of censorship and Ahmadinejad was not corrupt. His rants against Israel and the Jews, while a bit much for some clerics, is also not grounds for being declared "un-Islamic" and ineligible to run for election. Ahmadinejad is quite respectful of Islam and most Moslem clerics but willing to go after clerics who are dirty. This is also quite popular with most Iranians, and that scares the dirty clerics at the top.
So why had the clerics decided to accuse Ahmadinejad cronies of sorcery? That's because in most countries where there is a dominant religion, especially a state approved one, there is usually still a fear that the previous religion (or religions) will try to make a comeback. The former faiths often involved some really old-school stuff, including what many would consider magic and sometimes animal, or even human, sacrifice. It is not uncommon for there to be laws covering those accused to be practicing such sorcery and severe punishments for those convicted. At the very least, the accused will be driven from any senior government jobs they might hold, and that's what's being done to dozens of Ahmadinejad associates. In Iran Ahmadinejad was eventually removed from power by going after his more vulnerable associates and sorcery was one of the false accusations used.
All cultures have a certain belief in magic and what Westerners call “conspiracy theories” to explain otherwise unexplainable events. In the Islamic world, there is a lot of attention paid to sorcery and magic, and people accused of practicing such things are regularly attacked and sometimes executed. Conspiracy theories are also a popular way to explain away inconvenient facts and this is often found useful in countries that are hostile to other forms of sorcery.
For example, back in 2008, many Pakistanis believed that the then recent Islamic terrorist attack in Mumbai, India was actually the work of the Israeli Mossad or the American CIA and not the Pakistani terrorists who were killed or captured and identified. Such fantasies are a common explanation, in Moslem nations, for Islamic terrorist atrocities. Especially when women and children, and Moslems, are among the victims, other Moslems tend to accept fantastic explanations shifting the blame to infidels (non-Moslems).
After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, many Moslems again blamed Israel for staging those attacks. A favorite variation of this is that, before the attacks on the World Trade Center, a secret message went out to all Jews in the area to stay away. Another variation has it that the 19 attackers (all of them Arab, 15 from Saudi Arabia) were really not Arabs but falsely identified as part of the Israeli deception. In the United States some Americans insist that the attack was the work of the U.S. government, complete with the World Trade Center towers being brought down by prepositioned explosive charges. While few Americans accept this, the CIA and Mossad fantasies are widely accepted in the Moslem world. Even Western educated Arabs, speaking good English, will casually express, and accept, these tales of the Israeli Mossad staging the attacks, in an effort to trick the U.S. into attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans are shocked at this, but the Moslems expressing these beliefs just shrug when confronted with contradictory evidence.
American troops arriving in Iraq after 2003 went through a real culture shock as they encountered these cultural differences. They also discovered that the cause of this, and many other Arab problems, is the concept of "inshallah" ("If God wills it"). This is a basic tenet of Islam, although some scholars believe the attitude was a cultural trait that preceded Islam. In any event, "inshallah" is deadly when combined with modern technology. For this reason, Arab countries either have poorly maintained infrastructure and equipment (including military stuff) or import a lot of foreigners, possessing the right attitudes, to maintain everything. That minority of Arabs who do have a realistic attitude towards maintenance and personal responsibility are considered odd but useful.
The "inshallah" thing is made worse by a stronger belief in the supernatural and magic in general. This often extends to technology. Thus, many Iraqis believed that American troops wore sunglasses that enabled them to see through clothing, and had armor vests that were actually air conditioned. When they first encountered these beliefs, U.S. troops thought the Arabs were putting them on. Then it sank in that Arabs really believe this stuff. It was a scary, or amusing, moment for many Western troops.
However, many troops learned to live with, and even exploit, these odd beliefs. When troops at one base discovered that they weren't being attacked much, because many of the locals believed that the base was surrounded by a force field, the troops would casually make reference to their force field. They would do this inside the base if any Iraqis were nearby and especially when they were outside the wire and among the locals. This reinforced the force field myth and made the base safer. Other troops would invent new fantasies, like pretending that a handheld bit of military electronics was actually a mind reading device. That often made interrogations go much quicker. Not all Arabs believe in this stuff, and those that didn't and worked for the Americans, often as an interpreter, could only shrug their shoulders when asked about it.
This easy acceptance of fantasies is exploited by leaders throughout the Middle East and the Moslem world in general. Leaders who know better build on these fantasies as a way to maintain their control over the population. The problem is a dirty little secret in the Moslem world, that leaders and academics don't even like to discuss it openly, much less with infidels. But it is real and you can read all about it in the local media, or overhear it in the coffee shops.