The sentencing of Hossam Metwally for poisoning his partner, Kelly Wilson, in a series of “exorcisms” was always likely to attract attention. The former NHS anaesthetist from Grimsby in the east of England has been jailed for 14 and a half years for what a judge described as “entirely bogus” rituals.
Metwally told the court that Wilson was possessed by a jinn or evil spirit, blaming the entity for her apparently “aggressive” behaviour. He repeatedly attempted to “expel” the spirit by physically restraining her and administering near-lethal doses of drugs for no justifiable clinical reason.
It is probable that she only survived the final incident, which led to Metwally’s arrest and ultimate conviction, because another family member intervened and called an ambulance.
Stories featuring the paranormal and disgraced doctors inevitably grab headlines, but the colourful aspects of the Metwally case risk diverting attention away from the core issues. Domestic abuse linked to exorcism is a well-documented phenomenon, although more research has been done in relation to children in this field than adults. Whilst Metwally’s job gave him access to methods out of reach for most perpetrators, the underlying behaviour was not as rare as might be assumed.
What is exorcism?
The popular image of exorcism comes largely from horror films and paranormal documentaries. It tends to involve spiritual experts parachuting into a situation to rescue the afflicted, whether these are black-clad, crucifix-wielding priests, or mediums offering to cleanse a house with smudging. Either way, this trope of outsider specialists arriving to intervene creates a misleading impression; exorcisms are often carried out by family members in private.
Exorcism, defined as “any rite or practice intended to free a person, place or object from a negative, external spiritual influence”, is common to many religious, spiritual and cultural traditions. Most reporting of the Metwally case has, commendably, stressed that his attempts at exorcism were unorthodox, though the significance of this has not been fully drawn out.
It is indisputable that Metwally’s use of drugs as part of his cleansing ritual has no basis in “ruqya” or Islamic exorcism as it is ordinarily performed. The sensationalist nature of this case risks spreading damaging misinformation about mainstream Muslim practice.
A cover for abuse
When exorcism is carried out by family members in private homes, the power dynamics of these situations, and the lack of third parties to observe or intervene, means it can easily become a vehicle for abuse. In the vast majority of reported cases where exorcism has resulted in tragedy leading to criminal sanction, it is in family situations.
These scenarios deviate wildly from anything which the majority of members of their faith or cultural group would recognise or endorse. The sting in the tail is that the abusive treatment is often presented as a caring, helping act – as Metwally’s defence argued that it was in his case.
The very nature of these situations makes it difficult even for experts in the field to obtain accurate data about the scale of the problem, and commentators have called for further research. Children’s charity Barnado’s has said that abuse linked to faith and belief is likely to have increased during lockdown.
When exorcism is performed within the confines of domestic relationships, it often involves a parent and child, or a dependent or vulnerable partner. The disempowered person’s alleged failure to conform to expectations is interpreted as the fault of an external force or spirit. The perpetrator of abuse may then assert that their frustration, aggression and control are, in fact, benevolent acts. If the victim fails to cooperate, this is seen as “evidence” of an evil spirit continuing to resist.
Janet Moses was killed in New Zealand by relatives attempting to cure her possession by forcing her to ingest water. It was not coincidental that this happened in the absence of the minister whom they had consulted, and that other members of their Maori community did not endorse their approach to the mākutu, or curse-lifting.
This pattern makes it harder to devise law and policies to tackle the problem, as the challenge is not to get organised religious groups to change policy, nor to regulate those offering these kinds of services for payment, but to respond to private behaviours within a family setting.
Presenting stories like the Metwally case first and foremost as incidents of domestic abuse can shift focus back to reality. To prevent exorcism being used as cover for coercive or violent behaviour, there needs to be a wider social debate about the balance between respecting freedom of religion and freedom of choice on the one hand, and protecting the vulnerable from abuse on the other.
Greater awareness of the range of common spiritual practices and beliefs, combined with raising awareness of red flags of actions outside of legally acceptable limits (such as the use of violence or the administration of toxic substances to perform exorcism) would assist both victims and third parties to recognise abuse for what it is.
Ultimately, the key takeaway from the Metwally case should be that his behaviour was unlawful and abusive – his supposedly religious motivation is secondary.