Whipping up a storm

Religious fervour can have some strange manifestations. At the ancient Spartan festival of Artemis Orthia, for example, it was customary to severely beat teenage boys. It probably originated as a rite of passage, an ordeal proving the boy's incipient manhood, important for a warrior society. But the decline of Sparta as an independent city-state didn't end the practice, and by Roman times it had become a tourist attraction. Pausanias described it thus:

They claim that this (the statue of Artemis Orthia) is the idol that Orestes and Iphigenia stole from the Taurians...Astrabacos and Alopecos, the sons of Irbos, suddenly went mad when they found the statue, and when the Spartans sacrificed to Artemis she cursed them through this statue with quarrels and then with murders; many of them died at her altar and disease devoured the rest. This is the reason why they bloody the altar with human blood. They used to slaughter a human sacrifice chosen by lot; Lycurgus substituted the whipping of adolescent boys, and the altar still gets its fill of human blood. The priestess with the idol stands beside them; it is small and light, except that if ever the scourgers pull their strokes because of a boy's beauty or his rank, then the woman finds the idol heavy and hard to carry; she blames the scourgers and says they are hurting her, such is the taste for human blood that has survived in that statue from the time of the Taurian sacrifices.

I thought about this passage when I heard about the case of Syed Mustafa Zaidi, who has been convicted for coercing two teenage boys to whip themselves raw using a zanjeer zani - a wooden-handled implement containing five curved blades - during the Shi'ite festival of Ashura, which commemorates the 7th century martyrdom of Husain, grandson of Mohammed and spiritual lodestar of Shia Islam.

According to one report:

Manchester crown court heard how Zaidi, 44, flagellated himself at an event held in January in Manchester until his back was bloody and cut. Others at the event also flogged themselves. Some of those present, fearing Zaidi would seriously harm himself, asked him to calm down. Zaidi agreed, only to turn his attention to the two boys.

The 14-year-old, who was 13 at the time, told the jury that neither he nor the other boy wanted to injure themselves. He said Zaidi was insistent with the older boy, "pulling him and pushing him, 'keep doing it', telling people 'this is a sad moment and look, he's not doing it'.

"He goes, 'I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it'. He kept pressuring him, make him do the knife thing, pulling him, trying to get his T-shirt off, pulling and pushing him. He was saying, 'just do it, just do it'." He said the 15-year-old "swung it once or twice and said 'I don't want to do it any more'." The older boy was then pulled away by another man.

After the ceremony, the boys went home to their mother, who noticed several deep wounds on their backs and multiple slash wounds. She took them to Manchester Royal infirmary and the matter was reported to the police.

A disturbing, not to say horrifying case. Yet it would seem that, apart from the involvement of children, there is little we are meant to be shocked by. Beating oneself into a bloody pulp might not bear much superficial similarity to Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral, but it's still religion. The man's culture. We're supposed to respect that. Indeed, it's the sort of diversity we're supposed to celebrate in this vibrant multi-faith society of ours. As Riazat Butt's report continues:

Carol Jackson, for the Crown Prosecution Service, said the prosecution was not an attack upon the practices or ceremonies of Shia Muslims, adding that the prosecution relied partly on evidence given by the president of the local Shia community centre.

So why not put the alternative point of view? Let's hear it for the flagellants.

In case you've missed it, the Guardian have decided - presumably in the cause of mutual understanding, though in that case it has backfired somewhat spectacularly - to open their floor to Nadeem Kazmi, who would appear to be an out and out enthusiast for Shi'ite rituals of flagellation.

Kazmi writes
that he was "disheartened" to hear about Zaidi's conviction. As were most people who learned that children in 21st century Britain were being made to participate in bloody, violent and barbaric rituals in the name of religion. But that wasn't quite what Kazmi means, of course. No: what he finds most disheartening is that the case may cause some people to think negatively of Ashura. As he writes, "the danger of this case is that the ritual of self-flagellation itself is demonised." Indeed it is.

Kazmi is most anxious that everyone reading should realise just how normal the whole flagellation business is. It will "sound familiar", he writes, to anyone who has grown up in a Shia household (though some Shi'ites came on the thread to disagree). "There is nothing odd in the father of the household engaging in this particular practice," he claims. What he means of course, is that to anyone who has been brainwashed by - sorry, "brought up in" - this crazy practice it will seem normal. Just as someone who has spent his entire life in a sewer is unlikely to realise that he smells.

I have personally never seen anybody coerced into it, although coercion can, admittedly, take many indirect forms. There is also nothing strange in seeing participants who, immersed in what appears to be a spiritual ecstasy, are made to calm down, often to prevent further injury to themselves.

Before they actually kill themselves, you mean? Allah forbid.

Kazmi is good enough to point out that "Zaidi's actions crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable"; it's unclear whether he means by this the involvement of children, or the element of coercion, or both. But his description of the ritual is so lyrical that it seems unlikely that he really believes encouraging children to whip themselves with chains and knife-blades constitutes abuse. Certainly, the evidence from Iran, the heartland of this practice, would tend to suggest otherwise. Even young children - like this boy here - are permitted, even enjoined to take part. Babies are baptised in blood, and thus the tradition is handed down from father to son. As the Jesuits liked to say, give us the boy and we will give you the man. In Britain, of course, it doesn't do to involve children - as the Zaidi case shows. But don't pretend it doesn't happen.

This passage is revealing:

Those adults who engage in self-flagellation with knives, chains or blades, do so with a consciousness of the ceremonial nature of the act, keenly watched by onlookers, children and adults alike, who, though they have seen it all before, continue to be mesmerised by the sheer spectacle of it – the display. This excitement is, for most, mixed with an actual sense of profound identification with the suffering of Imam Hussain

Ah yes, group of men flaying the skin from their own backs. Seen it all before. In Kazmi's parallel universe, there's nothing whatever wrong with encouraging children to watch this bloodthirsty spectacle. It's probably essential. After all, if they're not inured to the sight of all that blood and ecstasy from an early age they might find the whole spectacle revolting. And that would never do, would it?

Zaidi claims that the Ashura ritual "paradoxically, provides an antithesis to extremism and violence." How? "The point about the apparent extreme self-violence is that extremism and violence in and of themselves are condemnable. Thus, without the essential dramatic immediacy that the practice conveys to both participant as well as audience, the rituals that comprise the passion of Hussain would be rendered meaningless." That is tantamount to saying that the only way for Christians to find meaning in the death of Christ would be to crucify themselves - like a few enthusiasts (always attended, and possibly egged on, by camera crews) do every Easter in the Philippines. As an explanation for the Ashura, it isn't very convincing.

But what was that word again? Excitement. Dr Freud, awaken from your slumbers. Watching bloodshed can be exciting, no doubt about it. Ask any fan of the Corrida. Ask one of those Romans who were unwillingly caught up in the fervour of the gladiatorial games - Seneca, for example, who wrote that "nothing is more ruinous to character as sitting in the arena". Or St Augustine, who has this tale to tell of his friend Alypius:

Although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows....When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness. Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness -- delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.

(Confessions, Book 6, Ch8)
But what of the excitement of those actually involved? Many have compared and contrasted this case - in which the "extreme" rituals of a religion are treated indulgently in press accounts - with the less polite hearing that BDSM practitioners typically receive when, as with Max Mosley and his four delightful female companions, they find themselves under public scrutiny. But there's a big difference, isn't there, between undergoing painful self-flagellation in the interest of religious piety, and just doing it for kicks. Isn't there?

Of course not.

Physical self-abuse can be found in many religious traditions, though rarely in so extreme a form as Ashura. Flagellation was a common form of penance in Christianity in the middle ages and beyond. But it isn't just organised religions that tend this way. Shamanic forms of spirituality frequently use pain - as they use drugs, dancing, and sometimes sex - as a means to achieve a trance-like state of mystical communion with the spirit world. And the reason is not hard to find. Sex, pain, and intense emotional or religious experiences are all associated with the release of the body's natural analgesics, endorphins.

Whether you're engaging in masochistic practices like self-flagellation for religious reasons, or for those of "sexual" gratification matters less, at a physiological level, than the endorphin rush that these intense experiences generate. Subjectively, the experiences will have much in common; they will produce the same high, the same emotional release. And they will be similarly addictive. With a ritual such as Ashura, however, the private mystical experience of the flagellant is allied to a powerful group dynamic. According to professor Robin Dunbar of Durham University,

In the classic case of Bushman trance dances, they are very much designed to bond everybody to the common project of the group. They are very experiential, of the person. There is no grand theology - it's very much a religion of "doing" and "being". And it's this ecstatic element that I think cues us in to what's going on, because something seems to happen when you engage in these ecstatic activities that makes you feel more part of the community. It gets everyone signed up to the group project once again, especially if relationships within the community have become rather tense and fractured. I put it all down to endorphins myself, but you can argue a case there are other neuro-endocrines such as oxytocins. The rituals of religion seem to be especially good at triggering a cascade of neuro-endocrines, and it is these that are responsible for that "kapow" effect we get in ecstatic experiences. But in my view, what's really underpinning it in the end is the endorphins. It seems to be the endorphins that create this sense of communal belonging, of being a member of the group, when you engage in these activities with others.
There's little doubt, too, that such rituals, over time, tend to become more extreme, just as a heroin addict needs increasingly large fixes to satisfy his need to get high. In his notes on the passage from Pausanias quoted at the beginning of this article, Peter Levi writes as follows:

What Pausanias says about human sacrifice is nonsense based on Euripides. This primitive ritual beating had in the classical period the character of a very rough initiation; in the Roman period the ancient disciplines of Sparta were not only revived by exaggerated to a horrifying degree. The disgusting 3rd century AD addition of an amphitheatre for tourists to watch boys being savagely beaten can reasonably be related to other entertainments of that age.

Those sadistic Romans would certainly have enjoyed Ashura.


Anonymous said…
Well thank goodness I missed this one with all the Big Butt stuff going on. Will have a look at the article tomorrow - i guess all the obvious jokes and the senible comments have been done.

Am unfamiliar with these rituals also and am sure Peter Levi is right (incidentally - as i am sure you know - some modern Spartan myths have been created by Stephen Pressfield in his Gates of Fire and are apparently being taught as fact!).

Actually, judging from your extracts, this guy seems a bit creepy, I may not bother.
Anonymous said…
The righteous fog of religion hides the nature of its practices from believers and from society at large. Imagine if someone from the BDSM scene was inflicting their lifestyle on children! I doubt the Guardian would be defending them.
Anonymous said…
Lost causes said in response to heresiarch's blog, "The righteous fog of religion hides the nature of its practices from believers and from society at large".

I have to say I find that a somewhat dispiriting comment to see on a heresy corner thread (which tries to invite deeper analysis I think) since it indulges in rather lazy stereotyping. If it had taken a more discriminating view and said, "The self-righteous fog of some religions hide the nature of their practices from believers and society at large" I could have agreed, but the assertion as made is just too sweeping to stand up to proper analysis. For example, AFAIK, no Quaker groups go in for self-flagellation, or flagellation of others so it's certainly not a feature common to all religions.

I also find myself wondering what the essential difference is between a religious believer who would wish to watch such an abhorrent spectacle or a non-believer, heck, let's use the word atheist if we are going to be lazy in our characterisations, who might volunteer to witness an execution for example, or a flogging if execution is too extreme an example.

It's all a little too easy to suggest the desire to watch such spectacle is just a religious quirk, but since such sentiments, particularly fascination with violence, are widespread within the non-religious as well (why would WWF be such a financially lucrative franchise otherwise)that seems rather lazy thinking to me. Is the religion simply an excuse to indulge a tendency to glorify violence and the desire to watch it? Or is the religion actually causative of such a desire? Does anyone suggest that there are not non-believers who get turned on by such sights?

If such sights/practices turn on both some believers and some non-believers does that not tend to suggest that in fact there is no association with religion per se? If not, why not?

I suggest a spot more thinking and self-reflection is required on all sides here.

Though just in case anyone cannot work out my own view, I unequivocally condemn both the self-inflicted violence as well as the coerced violence and also ask why would anyone even want to watch such a spectacle anyway, so I guess I condemn that as well, though not all of those three are equally culpable. (And IMHO, any religion which does not teach/enable in its adherents a way to rise above such atavistic desires doesn't appear to me to be much of a religion ...


Anonymous said…
Come on! Kazmi does NOT try to justify it but attempts to explain its significance to some. If you read the whole piece his approach is social anthropology - don't shoot the messenger! He condemns the practise of allowing children to both watch and engage in it and says he was part of a consultation that discouraged it.
He points out the fact that children do watch the spectacle – he is NOT justifying allowing children to watch it. He also does not try and justify it but tries to explain its meaning. He clearly states in his piece that the guy's actions crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable.
Heresiarch said…
You raise some interesting questions, Peitha. Of course, I alluded to the psychological impact of watching violence by referring to the Roman arena; but there are obviously two contrary views here, both supported by some degree of evidence. One sees the watching of violence as purgative in some way; I think that was what Kazmi was trying to suggest in his defence of the Ashura rituals. One can point to other examples: for example, the coexistence of high degrees of violence in Japanese cinema and low levels of violence in Japanese life, or indeed the practitioners of quite violent forms of S&M (and most forms of S&M are not really violent, of course) who lead blameless lives and are certainly unlikely to drunkenly smash other people's faces in with beer glasses.

Peitha's example of public execution is a salutory one. At the time such practices were commonplace, they were commonly justified in terms of being a safety valve, of purging the community's sense of righteous indignation that might otherwise result in violent retribution, of chanelling aggression. Yet a society that has public execution is definitely coarsened by it, and the evidence shows that they were anything but solemn affairs.

It might be relevant to note that the country which has the most elaborate and officially sanctioned Ashura rituals is Iran, which also practices public executions, and it not known as a haven of liberalism.

As for the role played by religion, this is probably a chicken and egg problem, but I find Dunbar's view of religious activity as associated with endorphin release highly persuasive. Uncomfortable as most liberal, inoffensive modern Christians might find it, religion everywhere and throughout history (including Christianity itself in some of its guises) has been a theatre of blood and death, with bloody sacrifices, scarifications, circumcisions, mortifications of the flesh, ordeals seeking vision (as in some Native American initiations of the Man Called Horse variety), stigmata, Flemish altarpieces (and The Passion of the Christ), Autos da fé, omophagia, maenads, martyrdoms. All this divinely-sanctioned blood. In today's world, Ashura looks more unusual than it once did, I suppose: it is a throwback, an atavism. Perhaps that is what is most disturbing about it.
Anonymous said…
Peitha - you're right, I don't think I was clear enough and I think I did unfairly tar all religious activity with the same brush. To abuse that old cliché, some of my best friends are religious! Again, I'll agree that the Heresiarch analyses things more deeply than I ever could.

All I was trying to say in my (overly) flowery prose is that within the context of religion there are some pretty weird practices about which nobody bats an eyelid because of tradition and the privileged place of religion.

For some quick examples - what if I wanted to set up my own school to teach children that they are born wicked? That's child abuse. What if I want to erect effigies of men being tortured to death around town? That's public indecency. What if I want to tell women they're worth less than men? That's misogyny. Yet within the context of a religion, society will tolerate these things.

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