Feb 8, 2013

The Burning Times Continue

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The highly publicized torture killing of an accused witch in Papua New Guinea is a brutal reminder that they still burn "witches" in some parts of the world.

A young mother was burned alive in Papua New Guinea this week after townspeople accused her of being a witch.

According to multiple reports, Kepari Leniata, 20, was tortured and killed in front of a mob of hundreds in the town of Mount Hagen. The woman, stripped naked and covered in gasoline, was burned alive on a pile of trash by relatives of a young boy who had died earlier in the week. The relatives had accused Leniata of killing him with sorcery.

If anything, it's a growing trend. Deep-seated cultural beliefs result in numerous murders, despite their illegality.

PNG's sorcery act dates back to before 1975, when the nation was a colony of Australia.

The law acknowledges the widespread belief in sorcery and tries to regulate it; however, the courts have increasingly backed away from sorcery cases.

But this incident threatens to inspire serious legal action, drawing passionate condemnation from the prime minister and international pressure to prosecute Leniata's killers.

"No one commits such a despicable act in the society that all of us, including Kepari, belong to," Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said in a statement.

"Barbaric killings connected with alleged sorcery. Violence against women because of this belief that sorcery kills. These are becoming all too common in certain parts of the country.

The dynamics appear to be startlingly similar to the burning times of ancient Europe. Women are the primary targets and in many cases it is to wrest property from them.

The UN's special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, in March last year gave a blistering assessment of the treatment of women in PNG, finding two-thirds of females in relationships have experienced domestic violence.

Ms Manjoo said sorcery allegations were usually used as a way of depriving women of land and property, while misfortune or death were used as a reason for the accusation.

But much as I discussed here, at some length, among the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, a belief in sorcery distinguishes between "good and bad magic."

This is where it becomes complicated. People in the West, like Rob Kerby, conflate ancient tribal beliefs in sorcery that they don't understand at all with Wicca, Paganism, and Western Alchemy. The drift of ancient tribal beliefs enshrined in the Bible, become a bludgeon in the hands of ignorant, bigoted Westerners. Worse, they further fuel torches and outrage for Christian converts in the third world. And the Rob Kerbys of the world marvel at the moral clarity of the third worlders who are taking their witch problem seriously.

Jason at the Wild Hunt also has some thoughts on how our other nearly religious obsession, Hollywood, may be cross-pollinating with myths about witchcraft and exacerbating the problem.

We live in a strange time. In America we concoct fantasies about killing “witches,” we build thrillers that suppose our own witch-killings were justified, while thousands are killed by mobs in towns and villages across the world.  Surely we should be feeling some cognitive dissonance, but we seem to accept “The Witch” as just like any other fantasy creature: zombies, werewolves, vampires, winged fairies. We make no real connection to how much our fantasy is built on the horror of killing innocents (and the propaganda that fueled it). Nor do we realize that Hollywood is a global business, and that our fantasies about witch-killing might be seen very differently in lands where witch-hunts have not become a relic of history. For modern Pagans and Witches living in countries where these witch persecutions happen, they are in a constant struggle to change a culture of misinformation and dangerous propaganda (South African Pagans are currently circulating a petition to their Human Rights Commission).

Yesterday I wrote about a large number of film projects featuring witches and witchcraft that are being released this year, and that those of us who identify as Witches should start discerning our response to them, because what pop-culture does impacts our collective thinking and beliefs. This is not because these films are about “us,” but because the lines are far blurrier than we realize. That it’s problematic that we are entertained by fake witches being killed while Christian groups in America fund witch-hunters overseas. Meanwhile, the unscrupulous have no problem issuing polemics that deliberately try to blur the lines further between modern religious Witchcraft and the witch-persecutions. We seem to forget that we are not immune to moral panics here too.

It's a good post in a long line of good posts on the issue and it's filled with linky goodness. But let me just emphasize the action step: Sign the petition.

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