Mexico, Africa, Zarqawi?

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

I’ve been struck by a couple of passages I’ve run across in my reading recently that remind me of what I can only call “brutality with religious overtones”.

1. Mexico

There have been a fair number of articles about the various Mexican cartels, but the excerpt from Ed Vulliamy’s book, Amexica: War Along the Borderline that’s now online at Vanity Fair is the one that caught my eye yesterday.

Here’s Vulliamy’s account of a conversation with Dr. Hiram Muñoz of Tijuana:

He explained his work to me during the first of several visits I have made to his mortuary. “Each different mutilation leaves a message,” he said. “The mutilations have become a kind of folk tradition. If the tongue is cut out, it means the person talked too much—a snitch, or chupro. A man who has informed on the clan has his finger cut off and maybe put in his mouth.” This makes sense: a traitor to a narco-cartel is known as a dedo — a finger. “If you are castrated,” Muñoz continued, “you may have slept with or looked at the woman of another man in the business. Severed arms could mean that you stole from your consignment, severed legs that you tried to walk away from the cartel.”
Earlier this year, 36-year-old Hugo Hernandez was abducted in Sonora; his body turned up a week later in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, but not in a single piece. His torso was in one location, his severed arms and legs (boxed) in another. The face had been cut off. It was found near city hall, sewn to a soccer ball.

That’s the brutality — I haven’t see the book itself yet, but I gather it also gets into the narco-corrida music and the “quasi-Catholic cult of Santíssima Muerte” — which brings me to the second part of my interest – the religious aspect.

As Vulliamy mentions, there’s the cult of Holy Death, to be sure, a sort of shadow or inverse of the Blessed Virgin — a Dark Mother for dark times, or perhaps a revival of the ancient Mictlancihuatl, lady of the Dead? — with her own liturgy, too:

Almighty God: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we ask for your permission to summon Saint Death. Welcome, White Sister: we find ourselves gathered here at this altar of the Romero Romero family and of each one of us, to offer you a Mass that we hope you will like…

Which brings us to the Robin-Hood-like bandit and folk-saint, Jesus Malverde, to whom prayers such as the following [FBI .pdf, see p. 20] are offered:

Lord Malverde, give your voluntary help to my people in the name of God. Defend me from justice and the jails of those powerful ones. Listen to my prayer and fill my heart with happiness. For you shall make me fortunate.

There are even miracles attributed to him:

Oh Malverde! The Vatican did not believe you to be holy and would not canonize you, but when they brought the Caterpillars to tear down your hood, you broke one machine and nobody could move you away, you broke another, leaving those who disrespect you speechless — and when the third one broke, they said, “Let Malverde’s chapel alone.”

Right beside the syncretistic quasi-Catholicism, there’s also a Protestant angle: La Familia is the group that, in Vulliamy’s words, “made its ‘coming out’ known in a famous episode: bowling five severed heads across the floor of a discotheque.” Time magazine reported on what it termed Mexico’s Evangelical Narcos:

Federal agents seized one copy of La Familia’s Bible in a raid last year. Quoted in local newspapers, the scripture paints an ideology that mixes Evangelical-style self-help with insurgent peasant slogans reminiscent of the Mexican Revolution. “I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve; I ask him for prosperity and he gives me brain and muscles to work,” Moreno writes, using terms that could be found in many Christian sermons preached from Mississippi to Brazil. But on the next page, there’s a switch to phrases strikingly similar to those coined by revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. “It is better to be a master of one peso than a slave of two; it is better to die fighting head on than on your knees and humiliated; it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.”

As I commented on Zenpundit a while back,

What’s troubling here is that there is only one undoubtedly “evangelical” phrase in all those that Time quotes, and it is one of then ones said to resemble the aphorisms of Emilio Zapata. “It is better to be a living dog than a dead lion” is a pretty direct borrowing from Ecclesiastes 9.4 in the King James Version: “To him that is joined to all the living, there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

But that’s not actually all. I didn’t mention it at the time, but “I ask God for strength and he gives me challenges that make me strong; I ask him for wisdom and he gives me problems to resolve; I ask him for prosperity and he gives me brain and muscles to work” is almost word-for-word the same as a poem attributed to Islam — or Judaism for that matter. Indeed, it can be hard to tell who is borrowing from whom – but one final source for the La Familia bible is known – it’s the book Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, the pastor of a ministry in Colorado Springs, who must have been surprised at the uses to which his writings were being put.

In any case, as I said on Zenpundit: These people have a theology, and we should be studying it.

2. Africa

My thoughts turned to Africa when I read another paragraph recently, this one from Johann Hari’s review, The Valley of Taboos, of V.S. Naipaul’s new book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief:

I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a “witch” who cast spells on her neighbors. I have stood in battlefields in the Congo where the troops insist with absolute certainty they cannot be killed because they have carried out a magical spell that guarantees, if they are shot, they will turn briefly into a tree, then charge on unharmed. I have been cursed in Ethiopia by a witch-doctor with “impotence, obesity, and then leprosy” for asking insistently why he charged so much to “cure” his patients. (I’m still waiting for the leprosy.) Where do these beliefs come from? What do so many Africans get out of them? Can they be changed? These are questions that are asked in Africa all the time, but we are deaf to the conversation.

That sent me in search of some early military anthropology related to guerrilla warfare I’d come across in earlier readings.

James R Price and Paul Jureidini’s 1964 Witchcraft, Sorcery, Magic, and Other Psychological Phenomena and their Implications on Military and Paramilitary Operations in the Congo, and Roger D Hughes’s 1984 Emergency in Kenya: Kikuyu and the Mau Mau Insurrection are both of considerable interest here — but it is LSB Leakey, the world-class British archaeologist initiated as a boy into the Kikuyu ways, who has written the most provocative summary of the relationship between political and religious violence and ritual that I’m interested in tracking.

I’m quoting here from the chapter on “The Mau Mau Religion” in Maj. Hughes paper:

Leakey’s original hypothesis in Mau Mau and the Kikuyu: “Mau Mau was nothing more than a new expression of the old KCA … a political body that was banned … because it had become wholly subversive.” Furthermore, “Mau Mau was synomomous with the new body called the in school, Kenya African Union…” However, Leakey admits to a reversal of his original hypothesis in Defeating Mau Mau, and goes on to say, “Mau Mau, while to some extent synonymous with these political organizations, was in fact a religion and owed its success to this fact more than to anything else at all.”
He then proceeds to attribute the origin of Mau Mau to an “ideology transfer,” wherein the religious beliefs of the Kikuyu transitioned from their ancient tribal religion to Euro-Christianity to Mau Mau. The first transition took place artificially, as the missionaries stripped away the traditional beliefs and supplanted them with “20th Century Europe’s concept of Christianity.” The second transition was more natural and evolutionary than the first. A reactionary hybrid of the old and the new developed, because the supplanted concepts would not hold up in their society. There were too many contradictions between the old and the new, mainly due to the 20th Century European “add-ons.”

Most of us have a pretty fixed view of what religion is, should be, or isn’t. Some of my readers no doubt hold to a evangelical Christian position, some are Catholic, some perhaps Buddhist, agnostic or atheist, and some perhaps Muslim. Each of us tends to take our own view of a particular religion as normative, but the reality is that the history of each of the great world religions contains sanctions for both peace-making and warfare — and human nature itself encompasses a range of behaviors that run from the kind of atavistic violence described above to the forgiving and compassionate impulse behind the Beatitudes…

And while economic pressures and political frustrations may be enough to power great struggles, when religious rituals, beliefs and feelings are added into the mix, it can quickly become even more lethal.

3. And Zarqawi?

All of which leaves me wondering how close the parallels are between the Mau Mau in LSB Leakey’s account, La Familia and the other Mexican cartels — and the brutalities of jihadists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

4 thoughts on “Mexico, Africa, Zarqawi?”

  1. Humans seem to be hard wired for religion. In Robert Ruark’s book, “Something of Value,” the Mau Mau are described as having had their traditional beliefs discredited by missionaries and not having replaced them with any useful code of ethics and beliefs in western terms. The rich white Europeans have adopted global warming and I wonder, aside from rhetoric, if they are far from the willingness of the evangelical narcos to use violence. Fortunately for the rest of us, they have so far limited themselves to the pages of left wing magazines but you can see the devotion and willingness to kill for Gaia.

  2. To me, what this marks is the need for alertness to the undertows of emotion in human affairs, not just the overt “tides” — and there are all sorts of undertows.

    Apocalyptic soon expectation is one of my markers, hence my interest in the “black banners of Khorasan”.

  3. I’m not sure what to make of this article.

    I am Catholic and take my faith, Church and Salvation very seriously.

    I suppose it’s easy to discount these violent actions as the result of, what was it you said… human nature. I call it Evil. The influence of sin and corruption on the soul. God loved man so much that he gave us his Son with human nature. Not because men are evil but because man is good. God who is holy and the source of all holiness, would not invest his son with humanity, if humanity were not holy.

    I can only turn to prayer and the holy eucharist when I read of these occurences. Love God with all heart and soul and treat my neighbors aas my brothers and sisters. I fall down alot but I get back up again.

  4. I appreciate your position, Anonymous. I was neither attempting to discount these actions, nor to take a philosophical position on human nature. I was trying to suggest that humans behave in all manner of ways, in a range that stretches all the way from these appalling brutalities to the astonishing generosity of the Beatitudes.

    I grew up under the guidance of a man who had been an English (Anglican) monk and school teacher in South Africa during the apartheid era. In the book he wrote about that experience, he said:

    On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

    He saw his Lord in whoever was before him, but it from was the ritual actions (of the Mass, or the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, of the Holy Office) that informed and maintained the love he felt for whomever he met.

    Nelson Mandela tells the story of a time when the South African police were coming to arrest him and a colleague at a protest meeting, and my mentor the monk shouted to the police, “No, you must arrest me instead, my dears”. It’s that “my dears” addressed to some tough-as-nails cops that makes the story ring true for me, that let’s me hear his voice again after so many years have passed.

    “Anchor yourself in the sacred,” he told me, “then go out into the world and touch it.”

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