Pagans & Politics: The Power of Pagan Activism

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The Burning Times and the “War on Terror”

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I recently read “The Witch-Hunt of Early Modern Europe” by Brian Levack, one of the best books I’ve seen on the subject, and was really struck by the parallels between the factors leading up to the Burning Times and those changes in American society which have come about since 9/11. The so-called “War on Terror” has led to many of the same factors which contributed to the execution of approximately 45,000 people over the course of 300 years. (And yes, that’s 45,000, not nine million, based on evidence, not wild speculation. I strongly encourage Pagans to read the book to receive the latest scholarship on the Burning Times instead of endlessly repeating myths which cripple our credibility.)


When Levack investigates why the Burning Times happened, he discovers a plethora of factors, but the one thing which must be present is what I call a “miasma of anxiety.” People must be anxious that Bad Things Are About To Happen At Any Time — terror alerts, anyone? The most dramatic shift in our contemporary society in terms of anxiety happened September 11th, 2001. Suddenly we were under attack, seemingly out of the blue. Anyone looking different was a potential terrorist. Even Pagans were accused of plotting the attacks. As the news came out that the terrorists professed themselves Muslim, American Muslims and even Sikhs were immediately attacked. Since that time, Islamophobia has come in waves, with the Trump candidacy and then presidency normalizing it.


The Burning Times were initiated by male elites during times of great uncertainty. We see this same pattern in the aftermath of 9/11 when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, & Company started a “crusade” (incredibly poor choice of words) in Afghanistan first, then Iraq. Levack notes that the Burning Times couldn’t have happened without changes in the justice system, and that’s exactly what happened in the “War on Terror.” In the late medieval and early modern era, male elites looked more for crimes of heresy (thought) than for malefica (deed). As the “War on Terror” unfolded, the American military scooped up anyone who might have the slightest relationship to terrorism, regardless of their actual deeds, and in many cases interned them in private prison camps. In a highly significant judicial change, the Bush administration labeled these suspects “enemy combatants” rather than “prisoners of war.” The latter are subject to the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment, visits from the Red Cross/Crescent, etc. The former allows any means to be used to extract information, and “any means” were used.


Torture defined the Burning Times as much as anything else. Two of the most popular forms of torture were sleep deprivation and what we know today as waterboarding (simulated drowning). These were used extensively by the U.S. in the search for information on terrorist threats. One “enemy combatant” was waterboarded over 150 times. No intelligence was gained.


The Burning Times had rules governing the application of torture. There were no leading questions, testimony from the torture chamber was inadmissible in court, and details from “confessions” must be verified. I say that as if it actually happened. The truth is these rules went out the window in the Burning Times, just as they did in the early years of the “War on Terror.” Just read “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi or the torture report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012. 


In addition to the above, Burning Times rules included that the prosecutors must prove the crime was actually committed before they could apply torture, torture must be the only way to extract a confession, the accused must be warned of the use of torture before it was applied, no deaths must result from the use of torture, and there must be no repetition in the use of torture on the same person. During the Burning Times, these rules were also thrown out the window, and during the CIA’s heyday 2001-2006, many of these rules were nowhere in sight. The most obvious one is the need to prove that the crime already occurred. During the Burning Times, your neighbor could claim you poisoned his infant child, but prosecutors were to prove that it actually happened before they applied torture. During the early “War on Terror,” torture was applied at will. Can we forget the reports and nauseating, horrifying images from Abu Ghraib? Can we ignore the hundreds of “rectal hydrations” forced on hunger strikers in Guantánamo? The list goes on. Because the American anxiety level was so high, and because the judicial rules were changed, the CIA had a free hand in torturing Muslim prisoners, killing some in the process.


What made the Burning Times a “witch craze” instead of just isolated trials here and there was the “naming of names.” This was the process whereby a victim was tortured until they named as many people as possible who were allegedly guilty of heresy. In one town, over 1500 people were eventually accused, with the average person naming 20 other people. This same insistence on the “naming of names” still goes on in the investigations into terror attacks. While it is a legitimate law enforcement technique when used responsibly, Senator John McCain (himself a survivor of torture during the Vietnam war) has stated very strongly that when you are being tortured you will say anything to make it stop. Anything. And it’s always made up, an attempt to please your tormentors so they will stop abusing you. Senators McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin spoke out strongly against the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” because it said that actionable intelligence was gained through the use of torture. As the Senate report found, there was *no* actionable intelligence gained from the use of torture for seven years by the CIA and its affiliates.


Levack discusses elements of witch hunts today. According to him, these are campaigns against deviants involving pursuits of secret enemies of society; an assumption that this enemy if part of a larger movement or conspiracy; and the use of extraordinary legal means. For many white, Christian Americans, American Muslims constitute potential secret enemies of society with ties to a larger movement such as Daesh (aka the “Islamic State”). Every time there is a terror attack in this country it is assumed that it was carried out by “those Muslims.” By the time the news comes out that it was not Muslims, or it was perpetrated by people most Muslims disavow, it’s too late — the anxiety level has already spiked. And that anxiety is irrevocably linked to the presence of Muslims.


During the 2016 presidential race, candidate Ted Cruz kept hammering the point that Muslims should be self-policing, that “they” were best placed to identify threats in “their” communities. Never did he indicate that the rest of us should reach out to Muslims, get to know them, share community. Become a “we.” For a while in the campaign, several candidates were wildly suggesting that there should be a registry of Muslims in America. Naming of names, anyone? President Trump’s travel ban affects six Muslim-majority nations, none of whom has produced an attack on the U.S. mainland in the years since 2001. He said flat-out in his campaign that Muslim immigration should be halted. All this leads to anxiety over Muslims, which in turn leads to Islamophobia. 


A day or two after Trump announced his revised travel ban (which simply removed Iraq from the list of countries banned), I found this quote: “The fact remains that we are not immune to terrorist threats and that our enemies often use our own freedoms and generosity against us,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said. “We cannot risk the prospect of malevolent actors using our immigration system to take American lives.” Do you see how such vague fear-mongering leads to increased anxiety that Bad People Are Out To Get Us And They’re Probably Wearing A Hijab?


This miasma of anxiety leads to real-world consequences. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the leading civil rights group for Muslims in the U.S., released a report in July showing reports of hate crimes had spiked 91 percent in 2017 over the comparable period in 2016. The number of bias incidents in 2017 also increased by 24 percent compared to the first half of 2016. Perceived ethnicity was the top motivator for these crimes, as was the assumption that the victim was Muslim.


What can we do? Oddly enough, we can take our cue from the Burning Times. There were a lot of factors that went into ending the Burning Times (please read the book), but everyday people had their parts to play. They refused to denounce or testify against their neighbors, they boycotted public executions (where male elites issued propaganda), they protested about abuses to the local authorities, and when on juries they returned not-guilty verdicts. In today’s parlance, they resisted. They refused to participate. For those who were more conflict-averse, they just may not have shown up to today’s hanging. But for those who were willing to take a risk, they complained. They protested. They called out wrong behavior. They resisted. These are all things we can do.


Trump’s so-called “travel ban” (more accurately called the “Muslim ban”) is currently in the Supreme Court, which will rule on it in the coming year. That’s lots of time in which we can write letters to the editor and to our elected representatives. If you’re feeling courageous, ring your elected representatives office or visit in person to share your views. Watch for government overreach. Demand the closing of Guantánamo and the change in legal status for prisoners to “prisoners of war.” Most importantly, get to know some Muslims. This can be as formal as ringing up a nearby mosque and asking how you can participate respectfully in Friday prayers or joining interfaith work (easy way in: your local Unitarian Universalist church) or as simple as starting to patronize a restaurant run by Muslims. The more often you show up, the sooner it leads to friendly, casual conversations, and you’re off to the races of building community rather than living in a silo.


A specific example of resistance can be found in a segment on Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest owner of local news stations, which appeared on the July 2 episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Sinclair produces what they call “must-runs” which their local affiliates are then forced to broadcast. Sinclair is very right-wing and produces commentaries criticizing progressive causes nationwide in the most partisan way possible. But their most insidious must-run is a daily segment called the “Terrorism Alert Desk.” That’s right, every day you get terrorism thrust in your face, delivered by your trusted local news source. And this goes on whether there have been terrorist incidents anywhere in the world or not. On a slow news day, a segment ran on French burkini bans. Burkinis have nothing to do with terrorism. They do, however, have to do with Muslims, which just further adds to that miasma of anxiety surrounding Muslims and their “threatening” ways. But Seattle affiliate KOMO News resists by running such segments at times of low viewership — as in 4:54 am. This is resistance. Working within the system in whatever way you can to subvert it. It gives me hope.


So next time you hear about a terror alert being raised, notice how your body feels. What kind of thoughts you’re having. Are you really at risk from a terrorist attack? Is this terrorism coming from all Muslims? Are you surprised to find that your liberal self harbors suspicions of men in beards and women with head coverings? Challenge yourself to calm down, to think critically, to see how you might be being manipulated. Then take what steps you can to resist. Even if it’s as simple as posting your observations to Facebook, start somewhere. Over time, you will begin to see the patterns and be able to take bigger steps. 


Can the Burning Times come again? I think it’s highly unlikely. That period was freakishly unique. But there are many aspects of it that reappear, such as in the Stalinist purges, the Holocaust, and the Red Scare. Bad things can still happen to us, to our neighbors. Resist now to prevent escalation.

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Cairril Adaire is a solitary Celtic Witch and lapsed Discordian. She is the founder of Our Freedom: A Coalition for Pagan Civil Rights. She is an entrepreneur and also a professional musician with the world music ensemble Kaia. She blogs at  


  • Ariel Aron
    Ariel Aron Thursday, 24 August 2017

    I am so glad that you said this. I agree with you totally, and thank for the book recommendation. I am always speaking out on my social media pages about how I view the world's politics and current events and am amazed at how many people don't think about what is being told to them they seem to be like robots or autopilot and believe everything the media says without thinking themselves. I believe that Muslims are being targeted with no evidence most of the time it is not fair. I believe in equality among the humanity and hope that there are more like minded people that speak up. Would you mind if i posted this on my facebook page? So I can share your words with others.

  • Cairril Adaire
    Cairril Adaire Friday, 25 August 2017

    Thank you, Ariel, for your thoughtful words. I agree that we have to connect the dots. Feel free to share the post! Blessings.

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