Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Still more on African "Witch Hunts:" For Yvonne Chireau

In response to my earlier post, Yvonne Chireau wrote:
Good stuff you write here. One thing that observers of "traditional" African religions neglect to understand is the historical role of iconoclasm as a vehicle of spiritual expression and power. This can express itself in African religious cultures as social (or sexual) repression, anti-witchcraft purges, and perennial revivalism, most often manifested in Africa's indigenous prophet movements. This is the ugly face of religious renewal in a transforming culture, and any anthropologist will tell you that it's not just in Africa, and its not just Christianity.
Given that I've been writing about Omar Khayyam recently, I definitely agree with Yvonne on this one.  Iran is a perfect example of a society in transition redefining itself by purging "decadent" Western ideas and implementing a government organized around a very Persian vision of Islam.  In the Arabic-speaking world we see reactionary movements against corrupt, despotic secular rulers which favors a society based on shari'ah rather than a Western economic and political model.  (Is anyone surprised to see that Egypt's Coptic Christians have come under increasing attack with the fall of the secular Mubarek government: will anyone be surprised when a similar fate befalls Syria's Christian, Alawite and Druze minorities after the fall of the Assad regime?)

A classic secular example might be Germany's reaction to its World War I defeat and subsequent economic collapse. In that case a country which was known for its tolerance of Jews - at least as compared to places like Poland and Russia - had a notorious spasm of anti-Semitic violence which was also aimed at homosexuals, communists and others who were presented as a threat to a truly "German" way of life.  Closer to home, although not nearly so bloody, I might point to the rise of Evangelical Christianity as a political force in America.  One hundred years ago the idea that politicians would take "Holy rollers" seriously was laughable. While mainstream Protestant churches wielded an inordinate amount of power, "speaking in tongues" and suchlike was generally reserved for the downtrodden and dispossessed. But since the 1970s we've seen people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell - guys who would have been tent preachers at best in the Depression era - become kingmakers for the Republican party. And it's no coincidence that this rise started in the era of stagflation, Watergate, the Vietnam defeat and the rise of various civil rights movements. 

I don't want to come across as an apologist for Christianity or the various excesses of missionaries in the developing world.  I've written critically about monotheism in general: I acknowledge that there are Christians who would like to see an American theocracy and who are happy to push their vision of a "Christian government" in the developing world. But I also acknowledge a tendency among many Neopagans to yammer on at length about the "Burning Times" and "Christian persecution" as part of an extended live-action role playing game. These are the people who want to recast the deaths of the heretics killed during Europe's witch craze - people who overwhelmingly viewed themselves as Christian and who died praying to Jesus - as part of a great conspiracy against the followers of the Rede and the Threefold Law. And from where I stand it looks like they are fixating on the word "witch" - a word which means something very different to an African than to an American or European Neopagan - and trying to claim Africa's "witch killings" as part of the Great Conspiracy against them.  I find this, frankly, as distasteful as talking about the six million witches who went to their deaths wearing yellow pentagrams and singing "we all come from the Goddess." It cheapens the very real suffering of innocent people and reduces them to props in a Harry Potter v. Voldemort LARP.