Witch-hunting: A Growing 21st-century Human Rights Problem

Ever since the antics in the 1950s of the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, the Euro-American world has come to use the term “witch-hunt” as a synonym for pointless persecution. This dismissive view is deeply entrenched, and has unfortunately led many in the developed West to see witch-hunting as little more than a historical curiosity. But this incredulity is dangerously out of step with wider global trends and realities, and this is something that should be of interest to many in Winnipeg, home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as well as many activists and researchers interested in matters of rights and social justice.

So, allow me to begin by recounting some recent events, because witchcraft still has power in much of the world, and those accused are subject to violence and often killed. In 2005, while I was PhD student in the UK, three Angolan women living in London were convicted of cruelty to an 8-year-old girl they believed to be a witch. Her tormentors, one of whom was the girl’s aunt, had attempted to simply, but brutally, beat the devil out of the wee girl. You might be forgiven for thinking or hoping this was an exceptional case, but you would be wrong. Accusations of witchcraft are part of a growing pattern of child abuse in the UK, a pattern often linked with the tragic case of Victoria Climbié.  Victoria was a young Ivorian girl of 8 years of age who was killed in 2000 after the brutal torture by her guardians who believed her to be possessed by a demon or evil spirit. Her case drew attention to the “hidden” “vastly under-reported” crime of child witchcraft in the UK. According to the Metropolitan Police Chief, Victoria’s case led to a spike in reports of similar cases.

In fact, so many cases were reported that in 2005 the Metropolitan Police created a specialized team called “Project Violet,” dedicated to investigating faith-based crimes of abuse. They apparently have their work cut out for them. In 2015 this unit again noted a significant increase in reports of child abuse cases linked to exorcism and witchcraft accusations.  It is feared that this problem in the UK may be larger still, for outside London the police do not typically have access to such specialized expertise as that found in the membership of Project Violet, and it is believed that in the rest of the country half of police departments are failing to record these sorts of cases.

This is just one recent manifestation of witchcraft beliefs, the violence of which recognizes no borders. In October 2009 in Jharkand, India, several women were accused of witchcraft by a cleric and seized by a mob of his followers and dragged before a large crowd where they were stripped and beaten; an encounter they survived only because the authorities intervened.  They were fortunate, as the National Crime Records Bureau reports that in 2015 Jharkand witnessed the greatest number of murders of suspected witches in India at 32, while the National Commission for Women has reported that between 2008 and 2013 in India 768 women had been killed for allegedly practicing witchcraft.

In April 2000, Tetsuo Yamahiro, a Japanese tourist visiting the mountain town of Todos Santos Cuchumatanes in the Department of Heuheutenango, Guatemala, was another victim of this type of rough vigilante justice. She had been taking pictures of some children, when a group of local men accused her of being sent by the Devil to take their children and harvest them for body parts, before stoning Tetsuo to death along with the tour bus driver who attempted to help her.[1] More recently, there has been a terrifying upswing of violent murders of those with Albinism in Malawi, where they are killed for their body parts, which are believed to have certain powers and fetch high prices on an especially fiendish black market.  Meanwhile witch-hunts in Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are so common, and in places so rampant, they are said to resemble a “hidden war” carried out largely against women and children.

saving-africas-witch-children-1024

One might easily go on, highlighting witch-hunts in Indonesia, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, but the point, I think, has been made: witch-hunts are still a very real and all-too-common problem. What is more, this dramatic and widespread problem has only remained “hidden” to the Euro-American world because we can only see witchcraft as a phenomenon with “a hole at the centre,” a hole that marks its non-correspondence with what our post-Enlightenment minds recognize and conceive of as real.[2]

The current prevalence of witch panics should not really surprise us, for in the end it is belief that makes witches real. Fear of witchcraft rests on fantasies of deviance, giving witch beliefs a timeless agility and relevance. Throughout time and space people have consistently believed that certain individuals are capable of causing harm by occult or mystical means.  Two misconceptions frequently obscure modern (western) assessments of witchcraft beliefs.  Firstly, communities that believe in the dangerous potential of witchcraft can support a range of differing views regarding the truth or likelihood of its power.  Belief in the efficacy of witchcraft, in other words, does not preclude the possibility of doubt in specific cases.  Secondly, witchcraft beliefs should not be understood as the result of a failure to understand real causes and effects: people believe in witchcraft not because they don’t understand, but because that is how they understand. Put another way, witchcraft beliefs are not a conceptual space-holder that endures only until a better explanation comes along. Rather these beliefs are the explanation, and a powerful one.

Witchcraft is the anti-social crime par excellence. The basic premise behind witchcraft beliefs is that the origin of misfortune is social. It is an offence typically seen as the ultimate form of human depravity, malice, or evil. What is more, witchcraft has the potential to explain misfortune and uncertainty in ways that rationalism or political ideology simply cannot, because it links human agency with supernatural and occult forces. Because deviance is at its core, Wolfgang Behringer observes, witchcraft fantasies are remarkably similar, and often centre on deviant social and sexual behaviour; avarice and intemperance; hideous physical features; an affinity for the darkness and the night; contact with demons, spirits and other unclean creatures; secret gatherings (usually nocturnal) associated with horrific crimes like sacrificial infanticide, ritual murder, or cannibalism.

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From this perspective it is easy to follow Behringer and Norman Cohn in recognizing how much witch beliefs have in common with conspiracy theories.  One might also be excused for drawing parallels with the clear demonology driving the politics of the U.S. today, along with its toupéed witchfinder-general. While snide, that is not intended to be funny. There are parallels worth drawing, particularly with the punitive messages and appetites and streams of abuse that have come to characterize American politics in recent months. Are the vicious and extremist political ideologies shaping the policies of Trump along with so many other aspects of American culture really so different from those propelling the violent purges of witches in other parts of the world?  Internet trolls and witch-hunting communities in places like Africa, for instance, seem to have much in common.  Both demonstrate a willingness to launch into full persecutory action on the thinnest of proof, or to concoct that proof outright. And both, often, will settle for nothing less than the annihilation of their victim.

Of course, for all the striking similarities between their violent and hateful bahaviour, their outlets are different, as are the bloody consequences of their behaviour. Internet trolls have not ritually buried their victims alive, or tortured, mutilated and burned them. Nor are the body counts they are responsible for nearly as high, or their hands actually bloody with actual gore. Simply put, the growing number of witch-hunts throughout the world manifest in fearful ways that are alien to the west. But this must not blind us to their terrible realities, or the dangerous potential of our own similarly violent appetites.

In 2009 the United Nations identified witch-hunting as “a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe.”  The same year The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network formed, and in 2010 held its first conference devoted to alleviating the crisis in developing countries. Since then both have remained very busy contending with this alarming issue, duly reminding us that witchcraft and witch-hunting is not merely the stuff of colourful history: it is a living problem with dire consequences for a growing many.

Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

[1] Jim Handy, “Chicken Theives, Witches, and Judges: Vigilante Justice and Customary Law in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 36 (2004), 536-37.

[2] Robin Briggs, “”Many Reasons Why”: Witchcraft and problem of multiple explanations,” in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. Johnathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts (Cambridge: 1996), 57.

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