What witch-hunters can teach us about today’s world

David Frankfurter, Boston University

It is hardly a new observation that political leaders seeking populist appeal will exacerbate popular fears: about immigrants, terrorists and the other. The Conversation

President Donald Trump plays to fears of immigrants and Muslims. Benjamin Netanyahu inflames Israeli fears by constantly reminding citizens about the threats around them. And many African leaders bring up fears of satanism and witchcraft. In earlier times, too, American and European leaders invoked threats of communists and Jews.

Such observations explain how leaders use fear to create popular anxiety. But this focus on fear and evil forces, I believe, does something else as well – it could actually contribute to a leader’s charisma. He or she becomes the one person who knows the extent of a threat and also how to address it.

This path to leadership takes place in much smaller-scale situations too, as I have studied in my own work.

In my book “Evil Incarnate,” I analyze this relationship between claims to discern evil and charismatic authority across history, from European and African witch-finders to modern experts in so-called satanic ritual abuse.

How charisma works

In popular parlance one calls a person charismatic because he or she seems to possess some inner force to which people are drawn.

Social scientists have long perceived this ostensible inner force as the product of social interaction: Charisma, in this interpretation, arises in the interplay between leaders and their audiences. The audiences present their own enthusiasms, needs and fears to the leader. The leader, for his part, mirrors these feelings through his talents in gesture, rhetoric, his conviction in his own abilities and his particular messages about danger and hope.

Witch doctors in Africa resting between dances.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

In sub-Saharan Africa, over the course of the 20th century, charismatic witch-finders swept through villages promising the cleansing of evil. In both Africa and Europe, communities had long been familiar with witches and their modes of attack in general. It has been common in many cultures throughout history to attribute misfortune to witches, who are both a part of society and also malevolent. Misfortunes can thus seem to be the product of human malevolence rather than some abstract divine or natural cause.

Witch-finders, as I see it, have offered four new elements to the “basic” image of witches:

  • They proclaimed the immediacy of the threat of witches.
  • They revealed the new methods witches were using to subvert the village or afflict children.
  • They offered new procedures for interrogating and eliminating witches.
  • And most importantly, they proclaimed their own unique capacity to discern the witches and their new techniques to purge them from community.

The witch-finder could show people material evidence of witches’ activity: grotesque dolls or buried gourds, for example. He – rarely she – could coerce others to testify against an accused witch. Often, he would present himself as the target of witches’ active enmity, detailing the threats they had made against him and the attacks he had suffered.

The witch-finder’s authority over – and indispensability to – the growing crisis of threatening evil shaped his charisma. People came to depend on his capacity to see evil and on his techniques of ridding it from the land. An uncleansed village felt vulnerable, awash in malevolent powers, one’s neighbors all suspect; while a village that a witch-finder had investigated seemed safer, calmer, its paths and alleys swept of evil substances.

Witch hunts, satanic cults

Of course, in order for a witch-finder to be successful in activating fears, there were many extenuating circumstances, both historical and social, that had to work in his favor. These could be catastrophes like the plague, or new ways of organizing the world (such as African colonialism), or political tensions – all of which could make his identification of evil people especially useful, even necessary. Also, he had to come off as professional and he had to have the ability to translate local fears in compelling ways.

Indeed, there were many situations in both Europe and Africa when such claims to authority failed to stimulate a sense of crisis or to legitimate witch-finders’ procedures.

St. Bernardino of Siena.
Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC-ND

For example, in 15th-century Europe, the Franciscan friar Bernardino was able to instigate horrific witch-burnings in Rome but failed to persuade the people of Siena of the dangers witches posed.

But there are times when this pattern has come together and witnessed outright panic and ensuing atrocities. As historians Miri Rubin and Ronald Hsia have described, various such charismatic discerners of evil in medieval and Renaissance Northern Europe (often Christian clergy and friars) promoted false charges against local Jews that they hungered for stolen Eucharists or for the blood of Christian children.

These charismatic leaders organized hunts through Jewish houses to uncover signs of mutilated Eucharist or children’s bones – hunts that swiftly turned into pogroms, as participants in these hunts felt a conspiracy of evil was emerging before them.

The contemporary West has in no way been immune to these patterns on both large and more restricted scales. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States and the United Kingdom found themselves facing a panic over satanic cults, alleged to be sexually abusing children and adults.

In this case, a number of psychiatrists, child protection officers, police and evangelical clergy were styling themselves as experts in discerning the abuses of satanists both in daycare centers and among psychiatric patients. Many people came to believe in the urgency of the satanic threat. Yet no evidence for the existence of such satanic cults ever came to light.

Needs of an anxious culture

In many ways we can see a similar interplay between charisma and the discernment of evil in those modern leaders that seek a populist appeal.

For example, in his campaign Trump insisted that he alone could utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism” which assured members of his audience that only Trump was calling out “the terrorist threat.” In Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened publicly to eat the liver of the terrorists there. These leaders, I believe, are trying to convey that there is a larger threat out there and, even more, they are assuring people that the leader alone understands the nature of that larger threat. Trump’s several attempts to ban Muslim visitors since his election have made his supporters feel understood and safer.

As my work on witch-finders shows, an anxious culture may invest itself in a leader who, it feels, can discern and eliminate a pervasive and subversive evil. Perhaps, in today’s world, the terrorist has become the new “witch”: a monstrous incarnation of evil, posing a unique threat to our communities and undeserving of normal justice.

Do our leaders provide the charismatic leadership for this current era?

David Frankfurter, Professor of Religion, Boston University

How the hijab has grown into a fashion industry

Faegheh Shirazi, University of Texas at Austin

Nike, the well-known U.S. sportswear company, recently introduced a sports hijab. The reaction to this has been mixed: There are those who are applauding Nike for its inclusiveness of Muslim women who want to cover their hair, and there are those who accuse it of abetting women’s subjugation. The Conversation

Nike, in fact, is not the first corporate brand to champion the hijab. I am the author of “Brand Islam,” and I have seen how it is commonly assumed, particularly in the West, that Muslim women are indifferent to fashion.

Nothing could be further from the truth: My research shows that Islamic fashion is a rapidly growing industry.

History of sports hijab

The use of an official sports hijab in competition dates back to July 2012 when the International Football Association Board (IFAB), custodians of the rules of soccer, overturned a 2007 ban which had argued that the hijab was “unsafe” for sports persons as it could “increase” the risk of neck injuries.

While overturning the ban, the IFAB noted that there was nothing in “the medical literature concerning injuries as a result of wearing a headscarf.” The sports hijab is secured in place with magnets. If it does get pulled off, another cap remains underneath, to cover the sports person’s hair without causing any injuries.
In 2012, Muslim athletes wearing the hijab received considerable media attention. Wearing the hijab set them apart from other Olympic athletes. Since then, several lesser-known, sports hijab companies – much before Nike’s pro hijab – have come to be in this business.

History of Islamic fashion

The marketing of Islamic fashionable clothing, however, is older than the sports hijab.

In my research, I found that it started in the 1980s when ethnic grocery dealers in Western Europe and the United States began importing modest fashion clothing along with other items for the Muslim population. That proved to be a successful business.

Prior to that, most Muslim women would put together their own styles.

These small endeavors ultimately morphed into a competitive and lucrative Muslim fashion industry. Islamic fashion in general is understood as women wearing modest clothing with long sleeves, descending to the ankle and having a high neckline. The outfits are nonhugging, with some form of head covering that could be draped in a variety of styles. Women who prefer to wear pants combine them with a long sleeved top that covers the buttocks and has a high neckline, along with a head covering.

Over time, national and international designers came to be involved in the sale of chic Islamic fashions. Today, Muslim fashion is a lucrative global industry with countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey leading the way outside the Western countries. In 2010 the Turkish newspaper Milliyet estimated the global Islamic clothing market to be worth around US$2.9 billion.

The Global Islamic Economy report for 2014-2015 indicated Muslim consumer spending on clothing and footwear had increased to $266 billion in 2013. This represents a growth of 11.9 percent of the global spending in a period of three years. The report predicted this market to reach $488 billion by 2019.

The Islamic brand

This growth has had its share of controversies: Many designers use the term “Islamic” for their clothing. Religious conservatives and Muslim scholars have raised questions about what types of apparel would fit that category and whether defining clothing as “Islamic” was even permitted or lawful by Islamic principles – a concept known as “halal.”

In particular, critics have objected to the fashion catwalk presentations, which actually draw the gaze and attention of spectators to the bodies of models, while the purpose of a hijab is to distract and move the gaze away from the body. In Iran, for example, Islamic fashion is viewed by the ulama (religious scholars) as another Western influence and referred to as “Western Hijab.”

Defining clothing as Islamic has been controversial.
karmakazesal, CC BY

Nonetheless, the Islamic fashion industry has managed to initiate marketing campaigns that capitalize on the very core of Islamic precepts: Sharia, or the Islamic religious law. A Malaysian apparel company, Kivitz, for example, uses the phrase “Syar’i and Stylish.” In Malay, Syar’i is the same as Sharia.

In establishing a nominally Islamic brand, marketers make every effort to align their products with the core value of Islam. So, even when following the trendy fashionable seasonal colors and materials, clothing styles would include some sort of head covering.

Who are the consumers?

The question still remains: What led to such a rapid growth over a span of just three years?

My research has demonstrated that Muslims are more brand aware than the general population. However, in the past they were largely ignored by the fashion industry, perhaps, due to misconceptions that being a Muslim restricted people’s lifestyle.

And now, with a growing Muslim population, there is an increased demand for modest but also fashionable clothing for the youth, who have significant spending power. At the same time, traditional elite and wealthy Middle Eastern consumers who used to shop for fashionable clothing from European nations now prefer to shop from homegrown Muslim fashion designers.

Indeed, the halal logo on food and other products in addition to modesty in clothing has proved to be an effective strategy in creating a global Islamic identity.

As I have seen in my research, consumerism is changing what is means to be modern and Muslim today. As Vali Nasr, a Middle Eastern scholar, explains,

“The great battle for the soul of the Muslim world will be fought not over religion but over market capitalism.”

Faegheh Shirazi, Professor, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Blasphemy isn’t just a problem in the Muslim world

Steve Pinkerton, Case Western Reserve University

Ireland’s state police recently concluded their investigation of comedian Stephen Fry, who stood accused of criminal blasphemy. The Conversation

In an interview that aired on Irish public television, Fry had described God as “capricious, mean-minded, stupid,” and “an utter maniac.” And Ireland’s Defamation Act of 2009 clearly prohibits the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.” Yet on May 8 the police closed the case, explaining they’d been “unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.”

The mild resolution to this incident stands in stark contrast to recent news out of Pakistan – which has seen a spike in blasphemy-related violence – and Indonesia, where the outgoing governor of Jakarta was just sentenced to two years in prison for speaking irreverently against Islam.

The Irish case is also a timely reminder, though, that anti-blasphemy laws are hardly unique to the Muslim world. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one-fifth of European countries and a third of countries in the Americas, notably Canada, have laws against blasphemy.

In my research for a new literary study of blasphemy, I found that these laws may differ in many respects from their more well-known counterparts in Muslim nations, but they also share some common features with them.

In particular, they’re all united in regarding blasphemy as a form of “injury” – even as they disagree about what, exactly, blasphemy injures.

The hurt of blasphemy

In dropping their investigation of Stephen Fry, for example, the Irish police noted that the original complainant does not consider himself personally offended. Therefore they’ve determined he is “not an injured party.”

In the Muslim world, such injured parties are often a lot easier to find. Cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood says that many devout Muslims perceive blasphemy as an almost physical injury: an intolerable offense that hurts both God himself and the whole community of the faithful.

For Mahmood that perception was brought powerfully home in 2005, when a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Interviewing a number of Muslims at the time, Mahmood was “struck,” she writes, “by the sense of personal loss” they conveyed. People she interviewed were very clear on this point:

“The idea that we should just get over this hurt makes me so mad.”

“I would have felt less wounded if the object of ridicule were my own parents.”

The intensity of this “hurt,” “wounding” and “ridicule” helps to explain how blasphemy can remain a capital offense in a theocratic state like Pakistan. The punishment is tailored to the enormity of the perceived crime.

That may sound like a foreign concept to secular ears. The reality, though, is that most Western blasphemy laws are rooted in a similar logic of religious offense.

As historians like Leonard Levy and David Nash have documented, these laws – dating, mostly, from the 1200s to the early 1800s – were designed to protect Christian beliefs and practices from the sort of “hurt” and “ridicule” that animates Islamic blasphemy laws today. But as the West became increasingly secular, religious injury gradually lost much of its power to provoke. By the mid-20th century, most Western blasphemy laws had become virtually dead letters.

That’s certainly true of the U.S., where such laws remain “on the books” in six states but haven’t been invoked since at least the early 1970s. They’re now widely held to be nullified by the First Amendment.

Yet looking beyond the American context, one will find that blasphemy laws are hardly obsolete throughout the West. Instead, they’re acquiring new uses for the 21st century.

Religious offense in a secular world

Consider the case of a Danish man who was charged with blasphemy, in February, for burning a Quran and for posting a video of the act online.

In the past, Denmark’s blasphemy law had only ever been enforced to punish anti-Christian expression. (It was last used in 1946.) Today it serves to highlight an ongoing trend: In an increasingly pluralist, multicultural West, blasphemy laws find fresh purpose in policing intolerance between religious communities.

Instead of preventing injury to God, these laws now seek to prevent injury to the social fabric of avowedly secular states.

That’s true not only of the West’s centuries-old blasphemy laws but also of more recent ones. Ireland’s Defamation Act, for instance, targets any person who “utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”

With its emphasis on the “outrage” blasphemy may cause among “any religion,” this measure seems to be aimed less at protecting the sacred than at preventing intolerance among diverse religious groups.

Illustrations of prophecy: particularly the evening and morning visions of Daniel, and the apocalyptical visions of John (1840).
Internet Archive Book Images. Image from page 371.

The law itself has caused outrage of a different sort, however. Advocacy organizations, such as Atheist Ireland, have expressed fierce opposition to the law and to the example it sets internationally. In late 2009, for instance, Pakistan borrowed the exact language of the Irish law in its own proposed statement on blasphemy to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

Thus, Atheist Ireland warns on its website that “Islamic States can now point to a modern pluralist Western State passing a new blasphemy law in the 21st century.”

Blasphemy in modernity

That warning resonates with the common Western view of blasphemy as an antiquated concept, a medieval throwback with no relevance to “modern,” “developed” societies.

As Columbia University professor Gauri Viswanathan puts it, blasphemy is often used “to separate cultures of modernity from those of premodernity.” Starting from the assumption that blasphemy can exist only in a backward society, critics point to blasphemy as evidence of the backwardness of entire religious cultures.

I would argue, however, that this eurocentric view is growing increasingly difficult to sustain. If anything, blasphemy seems to be enjoying a resurgence in many corners of the supposedly secular West.

The real question now is not whether blasphemy counts as a crime. Instead it’s about who, or what – God or the state, religion or pluralism – is the injured party.

Steve Pinkerton, Lecturer in English, Case Western Reserve University