Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blood Libel Against Africans & African Traditional Religion

Al Jazeera recently aired a half-hour documentary ("Magic and Murder") in which a British journalist, Charles Stratford, claims to expose the practice of ritual infanticide among practitioners of the Vodun religion in the African nation of Benin. Such an extraordinary accusation, especially when aimed so broadly (and recklessly) at an entire religious tradition, obviously requires extraordinary evidence. But Al Jazeera presented no evidence whatsoever that even one single child had been killed in anything like the manner claimed in the "documentary".

Despite the complete lack of evidence, this travesty perpetrated by Al Jazeera has been taken seriously by many people, including some who should know better. Even more amazingly, there has been little or no criticism or serious scrutiny of this hatchet-job, let alone anything like the kind of outrage that such blatantly racist propaganda should incite.

But this was not an isolated incident. Earlier this year there was a spate of stories coming out of Uganda claiming that an "epidemic of child sacrifice" was underway there. A typical example is an item from the Ugandan press with the very subtle title "Uganda's Epidemic of Child Sacrifice." The story opens with a gruesome tale about a 6 month old child who was beheaded by the father and stuffed into a plastic bag. At first the article states that according to Police the murder was part of a "a witchcraft-inspired ritual." But then we learn that: "Later examination, however, revealed that Sserubiri [the father] was a regular user of narcotics and had once been admitted to a mental health hospital." So, just exactly how does an isolated murder by a mentally ill drug addict amount to evidence of an "epidemic of child sacrifice"?!?

How is it possible for such unsubstantiated lies to be perpetuated not only by the African press and Al Jazeera, but also by "respectable" western media organizations? I would suggest that a major reason for this is that claims of "child sacrifice", "ritual infanticide", etc are not viewed as all that extraordinary -- so long as they are directed against Africans, and practitioners of African Traditional Religion in particular. Rather than being approached with anything like the kind of caution that such claims merit, these kinds of stories fit very comfortably with widespread preconceived notions about Africa, Africans, and their "superstitions". This accounts for the readiness to believe in such outrageous accusations without any need for actual evidence.

And this eagerness to believe horrible things about Africa and Africans isn't just a matter of pernicious racist assumptions about "Darkest Africa", or bigoted preconceptions about "primitive" religions, although there is a lot of that. In addition there is that dirty little secret of the Western psyche: Blood Libel.

But before going any further, let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that allegations of violence against, and even murder of, children in Africa should be automatically discounted simply on the grounds of "cultural sensitivity" or political correctness or anything of the sort. Child abuse in any form is a terrible crime, and anyone who abuses, much less kills, a child should be treated as the worst possible kind of criminal. And raising awareness about child abuse is necessary in order to combat it.

But when allegations are made targeted at specific groups of people, such as Africans, or specific religions, such as Vodun, claiming that these actively encourage and engage in violence against children, that is a completely different matter. And this is precisely the kind of racist, and/or religiously bigoted, smear that I am talking about. Historically the most well-documented example of this kind of insidious accusation is that of Jewish Blood Libel.

Background on Blood Libel
Throughout the Middle Ages, European Christians perpetuated the horrendous myth of ritual child murders committed by Jews. Such accusations are generically referred to as "blood libel."

The online Jewish Encyclopedia has an entry for "blood accusation," which reads, in part:
The first case in which Jews were actually accused of having killed a Christian child for ritual purposes was that of St. William of Norwich in 1144. According to an account recently discovered (Jessopp and James, "St. William of Norwich," Cambridge, 1899), the disappearance of the boy was explained by a Jewish convert, one Theobald of Cambridge, as due to a universal conspiracy of theEuropean Jews, who every year cast lots where the annual sacrifice of a Christian child at Passover should take place. In the preceding year the lot had been cast at Narbonne and had fallen on Norwich. Absolutely no evidence was adduced that a murder had been committed; it seems indeed that the lad had been merely in a cataleptic fit when found, and was buried alive by his own relatives. None of the Jews were tried or punished for the alleged crime, yet the mere statement of the Cambridge convert led to the bringing of similar charges at Gloucester in 1168, at Bury St. Edmunds in 1181, and at Winchester in 1192. In none of these cases was there any trial; but popular rumor was considered sufficient to establish the martyrdom of the lads, and this proved a considerable source of attraction to the cathedrals and abbeys of these towns.

In Dec., 1235, five children of a miller residing in the vicinity of the city of Fulda, Hesse-Nassau, were murdered, in consequence of which thirty-four Jews and Jewesses were slaughtered by the Crusaders. The Jews were accused of the deed, and those put to the torture are said to have confessed that they murdered the children, in order to procure their blood for purposes of healing ("ut ex eis sanguinem ad suum remedium elicerent"). It is necessary to note here (1) that the reports say nothing of the presence of witnesses; (2) that the confessions were elicited through torture, and were consequently worthless; (3) that these confessions speak only of the intention to procure a remedy ("remedium"), and contain no reference to ritualistic ceremonies; (4) that the German emperor, Frederick II., in order to sift the matter thoroughly, invited a large number of scholars and distinguished Jewish converts to Christianity from all parts of Europe, who, in answer to the question whether the Jews required Christian blood for their Passover ceremonies ("Judei Christianum sanguinem in parasceve necessarium haberent"), replied: "Neither the Old nor the New Testament states that the Jews lust for human blood: on the contrary, it is expressly stated in the Bible, in the laws of Moses, and in the Jewish ordinances designated in Hebrew as the 'Talmud,' that they should not defile themselves with blood. Those to whom even the tasting of animal blood is prohibited surely can not thirst for that of human beings, (1) because of the horror of the thing; (2) because it is forbidden by nature; (3) because of the human tie that also binds the Jews to Christians; and (4) because they would not wilfully imperil their lives and property." The judgment of the emperor reads: "For these reasons we have decided, with the general consent of the governing princes, to exonerate the Jews of the district from the grave crime with which they have been charged, and to declare the remainder of the Jews in Germany free from all suspicion."

This judgment did not suffice to clear the Jews of Germany from the general suspicion aroused by the Fulda incident.

The affair may, however, have been a symptom, not a cause; since the accusation soon after became still more frequent in other countries. As early as 1247 a trial, conducted in the little town of Valréas (Vaucluse, France), showed that the judges of the Inquisition there had heard of the blood accusation against the Jews. On the Wednesday before Easter (March 27) a two-year-old girl was found dead in the town moat, with wounds upon her forehead, hands, and feet. The fact that the child had been previously seen in the ghetto sufficed to fasten the suspicion of guilt upon the Jews. They were brought to trial, and, after being tortured, confessed even to the most absurd charges. One Bendig, for example, declared that the Jews had desired to celebrate communion on Easter Saturday, in accordance with a custom observed annually in large Jewish communities and particularly in Spain, where a Saracen was bought for this purpose whenever a Christian could not be obtained. This confession appears to have been based on the rumor set afloat by the renegade Theobald of Cambridge in connection with St. William of Norwich. Bendig further declared that, fearing detection, the Jews of Valréas had poured the blood of the child into the cesspool. In the same year (1247) the Jews of Germany and France complained to Pope Innocent IV. that they were accused of employing the heart of a Christian child in the celebration of communion during the Passover festival.
["blood accusation" entry in online Jewish Encyclopedia]
If you have the stomach for it, check out Rabbi Ken Spiro's History Crash Course #46 - Blood Libel.

"A recurring cultural pattern in Western history"

In the book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, sociologist Jeffrey S. Victor explains how the Jewish Blood Libel is part of a "a recurring cultural pattern" that also manifested itself in the so-called "Satanic Panic" in the US during the 80's and into the early 90's:
Satanic cult stories are part of a recurring cultural pattern in Western history involving the spread of subversion myths and a search for scapegoats to blame for social problems. These stories arise again and again during periods of widespread cultural crisis. The social process through which this pattern arises links the motifs of ancient legends to currently popular explanations for social problems.

Satanic cult rumor stories derive from an ancient legend, usually referred to as the "blood ritual myth." It tells the story of children being kidnapped and murdered by a secret conspiracy of evil strangers who use the children's blood and body parts in religious rituals. This myth is enduring because it offers universal appeal to the latent fears of parents everywhere. Variations of the myth are commonly elaborated upon with symbols of mysterious evil: graveyard robberies and the mutilation of corpses, secret meetings of people engaged in secret rituals, strange incantations, strange symbols, and people clothed in black robes with black cats, making ritual animal sacrifices and sometimes eating human body parts in cannibalistic rites. These are all interpreted as omens indicating that purity and innocence is being endangered by powerful agents of absolute evil . . . .

Today, the blood ritual myth is constantly being reworked by the mass media to serve as popular culture entertainment. Many horror stories in pop culture novels and movies are based on a theme of kidnapping and murder carried out for a variety of unsavory purposes, such as ritual sacrifice (The Believers), or the use of body parts (Coma). Similarly, some fairy tales depict children being kidnapped, usually by witches or monsters who may cook or eath them. In this way, popular culture keeps alive and makes familiar an ancient story's themes and symbols. Satanic cult stories are fabricated out of these cultural materials.
[pp. 75-76]
The ease with which this "recurring cultural pattern" can take hold of the modern Western psyche is shown by events in France in the late 60s, as recounted by Victor in the same book:
In France in May 1969, rumors that Jewish clothing store merchants were kidnapping teenage girls in their stores and selling them into forced prostitution provoked a series of community-wide panics in several small provincial cities. Stores owned by Jews and even ones presumed to be owned by Jews were boycotted and a few had their windows smashed. Some members of the local Jewish population received anonymous death threats.

Researchers traced the rumors back to stories about white slavery gangs, which were published in a national sensationalist tabloid magazine. The original story didn't mention Jews at all. Instead, the rumors built upon the folklore myths of European anti-Semitism which linked white slavery to Jews. As a result, the rumor stories were quite similar in different and distant provincial cities across France. Specific claims in different cities gave the stories local relevance, thereby providing the stories with apparent credibility .... Belief in the rumor stories persisted, even though no evidence could be found to support them and even though official sources continue to deny them.
[p. 74]
In addition to the "Blood Libel" mythos, there is a much more generic phenomenon sometimes referred to as "moral panic", a term credited to Stanley Cohen, (professor emeritus at the London School of Economics). According to Cohen, a moral panic occurs when there is a "fundamentally inappropriate" response to some perceived social problem or event. In his now classic study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen set out to investigate the response to a series of violent encounters between the "Mods" and the "Rockers" during the the summer of 1964 in the UK. In addition to Cohen's now classic study, anyone interested in the theory of "moral panics" should also check out Moral Panic: The Social Construction of Deviance, by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda.

"Moral panic" is a broad category that conceivably covers almost any kind of media frenzy, moral crusade, urban legend, etc. The difference between a simple "moral panic" and full-blown Blood Libel is (1) Blood Libel involves allegations of extreme forms of ritualized violence, usually fatal, against children, and (2) Blood Libel allegations are directed against some religiously and/or racially defined group.

The Mysterious Case of the Missing 40,000 Child Sex Slaves

Not long after the Ugandan press began running stories about an "epidemic of child sacrifice" (as mentioned in the Introduction to this post), a new meme was unleashed: that the World Cup games would result in a flood of 40,000 child sex slaves entering South Africa.

An early adopter of the "40,000 prostitutes" story was the New York Daily News, which ran an article on March 6th, claiming that there were "warnings" being issued by "officials", "world cup organizers", and even a United Nations agency. The Daily News wasn't satisfied, though, with the luridness of mere prostitution, so they upped the ante with the claim that these prostitutes would, in fact, be child sex-slaves:
"Especially troubling was the prospect that impoverished children would be lured into sex work by the country’s sordid drug and prostitution underworld."
But far from being "troubled" by this "prospect", the international media couldn't get enough of the 40,000 child sex-slaves story. It found it's way into The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The Hindustan Times, CBSNews, BeliefNet, The Christian Science Monitor, AssociatedContent.Com, GlobalPost.Com, etc.

There is no denying that prostitution and major sporting events go together. One can find similar, but much less sensationalistic stories, on prostitution related to the Super Bowl, the Olympics, NASCAR races, and even golf tournaments. But as time went on, more and more people came to suspect that there was something especially outlandish about the 40,000 prostitutes story.

Less than two weeks after the first major stories sporting the "40,000 prostitutes" claim, Brett Davidson at the wingspeed blog had pointed out that "The exact same claims were made ahead of the World Cup in Germany — but afterwards, an investigation by the Council of the European Union (documents 5006/1/07 and 5008/7) found a grand total of just 5 cases of trafficking — yes, just 5." Davidson's March 19 entry is titled: “40 000 prostitutes” – how rumours and lies become fact.

And when Davidson says "the exact same claims" he means just that. Prior to the 2006 World Cup in Berlin, media outlets were reporting that a very large number of prostitutes would be descending on that fair city. And just how large was that large number? 40,000. Exactly. Davidson also points out that he was not the first to notice this, uh, coincidence, and he provides a link to a spiked-online piece by Brendan O'Neill titled, very appropriately, "Stop this illicit trade in bullshit stories"! Bruno Waterfield, also writing for spiked-online, had written an earlier expose on the "lurid headlines" that preceded the 2006 World Cup: Exposed: the myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’.

Here are some other articles that have been written exposing this rumor:

The next installment of this series will focus on the two concrete examples of Blood Libel mentioned in the introduction: the allegation of ritual infanticide against Vodun practitioners in Benin, and the claims of an "epidemic of child sacrifice" in Uganda.