Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Witch Hunts, Skepticism, and Social Justice

My post yesterday discussed Salem, its witch museum, and my dismay at the fact that the subject is not receiving a more sophisticated and dignified public treatment there (things are better online). Such treatment is important in this moment because neither the religious beliefs that form the basis for witchcraft accusations nor witch hunts - in the literal sense - have disappeared. Belief in witches and the persecution it leads to continue to bring great suffering to women and children in many countries around the world, and institutions dedicated to documenting and exploring this history need to publicly address the past in the present.

The problem of how best to respond to this terrible phenomenon is an urgent one for us all, because these witch hunts involve violations of fundamental human rights. Looking at some of the literature from organizations closely involved in protecting people from this form of persecution, though, I’m struck by how badly skeptical-scientific and social-justice perspectives and approaches are needed. Though they contain useful information, “Witchcraft Accusations: A Protection Concern for UNHCR and the Wider Humanitarian Community?”, presented to UNHCR by Stepping Stones Nigeria in April 2009, and “The Invention of Child Witches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Social cleansing, religious commerce and the difficulties of being a parent in an urban culture (Summary of the research and experiences of Save the Children’s 2003-2005 programme funded by USAID)” show a failure to address some root issues.

Like Save the Children (based in the US*), Stepping Stones Nigeria, headquartered in a town with a history similar to Salem's, calls attention to the problem:
Stepping Stones Nigeria is based in the city of Lancaster, a place that has witnessed some of the most famous witch trials in UK history. Witchcraft accusations in Lancaster led to the trial and hanging of 10 women and one man in what became known as the Lancashire Witch Trials. Today, nearly 400 years later, cases such as Victoria Climbiè, who was tortured and killed due to witchcraft accusation; Boy Adam, whose mutilated torso was discovered floating in the River Thames and Child B, an eight-year-old child brought to the UK from Angola, who was beaten, cut and had chilli rubbed in her eyes after her aunt and two others believed she was a witch, highlight the fact that such beliefs still abound.
At the international level, Stepping Stones Nigeria, along with numerous other civil society organisations around the world, is witnessing a dramatic rise in witchcraft accusations and subsequent gross violations of human rights that take place due to them. However, to date, this phenomenon has received little in the way of concerted attention from the wider humanitarian community.
Both papers characterize witchcraft accusations as part of a belief system:

A first step towards understanding the phenomenon of so-called child witches is to recognise that witchcraft is a real system of belief, rooted in popular mentality [?]. For the majority of Congolese and, to a certain extent, Africans, an invisible world exists below the surface of material reality. (STC) [This is also true of the majority of people on the planet.]
There are a number of commonalities that occur in the various interpretations of the belief system. The general belief is that certain people possess a mystical power which enables them to separate their soul from their physical body whilst asleep at night and enter into the spirit or witchcraft world. In this world it is often believed that the soul takes the form of an animal where it will then cause all manner of unimaginable horrors and destruction. (SSN)
SSN, undoubtedly because the organization recognizes prejudice and discrimination against immigrants that such reports feeds among racists, is concerned with emphasizing that although they deal with the problem in Nigeria, isn’t specific to a single country or region: “[A]s the UK government’s most recent report identifies, witchcraft belief and accusation is ‘not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions nor is it confined to recent migrants’.”

There’s no doubt about this. It would be illogical to essentialize cultural elements that have shown variation in their expression over time and arise in numerous cultural contexts, both in the past and present. And obviously the dualist beliefs that fundamentally underlie the notion of witchcraft – not to mention specific beliefs about souls, spirits, and devils – form part of Christianity. Given that evangelical Churches are fomenting much of the present horror, the idea that these beliefs are wholly indigenous to non-Western cultures is plainly unsustainable and it’s troubling that this would have to be emphasized so.

In any case, these organizations run into problems in seeking to confront the beliefs themselves. SSN insists:
It is of great importance for practitioners to understand that witchcraft belief itself does not necessarily translate into a protection concern. Rather it is the point where this belief system leads to accusations of witchcraft that the issue becomes particularly problematic, as it is at this juncture that violent abuses of human rights often take place. Indeed Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that the very act of accusing a person of witchcraft constitutes an act of emotional and psychological abuse and, as such, should be considered as a protection concern that may require some form of intervention.
This presenting the problem as though beliefs can be cleanly divorced from actions and suggesting that “practitioners” (a label which itself indicates a problematic distancing) should only concern themselves with the latter is patronizing and ineffectual. Indeed, the statement with which SSN opens the report is distressing:
Before progressing with this paper it may be of interest to the reader to note Stepping Stones Nigeria’s official stance on the issue of child witchcraft:

“Stepping Stones Nigeria does not believe that children can be ‘witches’ and is not concerned with proving or disproving the existence or non-existence of child witchcraft. However Stepping Stones Nigeria acknowledges the right of individuals to hold this belief on the condition that this does not lead to the abuse of child rights as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”.
Good grief. It is one – obvious – thing to say that people have a right to believe what they wish. It is quite another to take the position that you will not concern yourselves with debunking even those terrible beliefs that obviously contribute to persecution and violence. The belief that child witchcraft exists is patently absurd, and it violates no one’s rights to say their beliefs are false. If organizations like SSN fear that they will be seen as imperialist simply for making it a part of their mission to challenge such beliefs, then other groups who aren’t so timid and deferential to religion need to be playing a bigger role in this fight.

Save the Children’s recommendations for action are also illustrative of the problem. They provide documentation of the role of religion in inventing or thoroughly reshaping beliefs about child witchcraft in the Congo (such, for example, that it’s now seen as entirely negative)
Revivalist church pastors, recognised as experts by the people, generally agree that witchcraft is the art of doing evil. It comes directly from Satan, assisted by demons (or fallen angels), and stops at no despicable act in order to achieve its aims. Emphasis is placed on the unworldly aspect of witchcraft and it is described as an evil power capable of doing harm, bringing bad luck, spreading illness and killing.
Any idealisation of cultural practices and notions of survival must be avoided. This bad practice, which continues to undermine certain university-inspired pieces of research, is unable to distinguish between the admirable resilience of people and destructive or pathological social practices. The accusations of witchcraft made against children are thus more in line with a notion of social cleansing and the search for profit [on the part of churches] than an attempt to reintegrate children.
(The film End of the Wicked from Helen Ukpabio of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries in Nigeria is...suggestive here.)

So STC is very clear that child witchcraft accusations are immensely harmful and that “[t]he boom in revivalist churches is undoubtedly closely related to the accusations of witchcraft against children.” And yet, they hold to a respectful approach to “faith”:
We…attempt to understand the role of these churches in accusations of witchcraft without making any hasty judgements. In deed, it is very clear that the churches are responding to a need that has been expressed among urban families.
There is a need to recognise religious leaders, even the most radical, as people with whom dialogue should be established, creating forums for this purpose. Through these forums it is still possible to reduce violence against children, though it is also necessary to separate violence from beliefs and cultural practices.
No, it isn’t. It is necessary to recognize the very obvious roots of violent practices in religious beliefs and to say in no uncertain terms that these people are deluded or charlatans and that these beliefs, whoever holds them, are false.

The organization then, in sadly conventional fashion, offers as its first recommendation: “Continuing and strengthening the awareness raising work that has already begun with religious leaders.” STC presents “a working strategy based on recognising religious leaders as people with whom to dialogue” as “the opposite of a ‘repressive’ approach.” Since when is not creating forums for dialogue with or “implementing large-scale awareness raising programmes” for rights-violating religious “leaders” repressive? Since when should human rights groups call for dialogue with organizations calling children witches and torturing them? Given this abject accommodation, I was very happy to see that there’s a reasonable organization in Malawi (PZ! – Malawi has atheists!), the Association for Secular Humanism, that is squarely taking on this fight there (I know nothing otherwise about this group).

But the economic and political context of this violence also has to be appreciated, both because it is unacceptable on its own and because living conditions provide a large part of the explanation for religious opportunism in fostering these beliefs and actions. Secular organizations can’t focus on challenging superstition and pseudoscience while ignoring the poverty, suffering, and disruption that provide fertile ground for them. The SSN report is decent at considering some of the proximate causes joined to extreme poverty, noting that witchcraft accusations flourish in places and periods of conflict, health crises, and environmental devastation; the report also discusses the vulnerable groups that tend overwhelmingly to be the victims of the accusations. The dislocation and trauma associated with global capitalism and international power relations has created, and will continue to create, dislocation, trauma, and fears (including rational ones) about violent and mysterious forces operating seemingly beyond people’s control.**

I mentioned Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums in a recent post, and Davis talks specifically at one point about the struggles of poor people in Kinshasa. I’ll end with portions from his section “The Little Witches of Kinshasa” (pp. 191-8):
One great city, officially expelled from the world economy by its Washington overseers, struggles for bare subsistence amidst the ghosts of its betrayed dreams: Kinshasa is the capital of a naturally rich and artificially poor country…Of the world’s megacities, only Dhaka is as poor, and Kinshasa surpasses all in its desperate reliance upon informal survival strategies….

…The Kinois negotiate their city of ruins with an irrepressible sense of humor, but even flak-jacketed irony yields before the grimness of the social terrain: average income has fallen to under $100 per year; two-thirds of the population is malnourished; the middle class is extinct; and one in five adults is HIV-positive. Three-quarters are likewise unable to afford formal healthcare and must resort instead to Pentecostal faith-healing or indigenous magic….

Kinshasa, like the rest of Congo-Zaire, has been wrecked by a perfect storm of kleptocracy, Cold War geopolitics, structural adjustment, and chronic civil war. The Mobuto dictatorship, which for 32 years systematically plundered the Congo, was the Frankenstein monster created and sustained by Washington, the IMF, and the World Bank, with the Quai d’Orsay in a supporting role….

…With the national economy in ruins and the Congo’s wealth locked in Swiss bank vaults, Mobutu was finally overthrown in 1997; ‘liberation’, however, only led to foreign interventions and an endless civil war that the USAID estimated had taken more than 3 million lives (mostly from starvation and disease) by 2004. The rapine by marauding armies in the eastern Congo – resembling scenes from Europe’s Thirty Years War – propelled new waves of refugees into overcrowded Kinshasa slums.
In the face of the death of the formal city and its institutions, ordinary Kinois – but above all, mothers and grandmothers – fought for their survival by ‘villagizing’ Kinshasa: they reestablished subsistence agriculture and traditional forms of rural self-help. Every vacant square meter of land, including highway medians, was planted in cassava, while women without plots, the mamas miteke, went off to forage for roots and grubs in the bush….

…But the Kinois’ talents for self-organization and se débrouiller have real material limits as well as a darker side. Despite heroic efforts, especially by women, traditional social structure is eroding….There are huge pressures on poor urban families – shorn of their rural kinship support networks, or conversely, overburdened by the demands of lineage solidarity – to jettison their most dependent members….

This crisis of the family, moreover, has coincided with both the Pentecostal boom and a renascent fear of sorcery… [L]iteral, perverse belief in Harry Potter has gripped Kinshasa, leading to the mass-hysterical denunciation of thousands of child ‘witches’ and their expulsion to the street, even their murder. The children, some barely more than infants, have been accused of every misdeed and are even believed, in the Ndjili slum at least, to fly about at night in swarms on broomsticks. Aid workers emphasize the novelty of the phenomenon: ‘Before 1990, there was hardly any talk of child witches in Kinshasa. The children who are now being accused of witchcraft are in the same situation: they become an unproductive burden for parents who are no longer able to feed them. The children said to be “witches” are most often from very poor families’.

The charismatic churches have been deeply complicit in promoting and legitimizing fears about bewitched children: indeed, the Pentecostals portray their faith as God’s armor against witchcraft….

…The child witches of Kinshasa, like the organ-exporting slums of India and Egypt, seem to take us to an existential ground zero beyond which there are only death camps, famine, and Kurtzian horror….
*In Connecticut, where, in fact, several people were tried and executed as witches in the 17th century.

**STC, in contrast, while downplaying the role of revivalist churches by presenting them as a “symptom,” dismisses a strawman version of the argument that dire poverty is a major factor, attributing the “mentality” primarily to “the transition to urban family life and the changing image of the child.” At one point, they acknowledge that “In the Democratic Republic of Congo, parents and families don’t generally have any real alternatives when it comes to taking on parental responsibilities. Access to basic services is very limited and few initiatives truly respond to their concerns, though it is not at all certain that access to money would bring about a change in their mentality.” Right - physical security and access to basic services would obviously do little for this problem.

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