Shariah’s Parallels to a Moral Panic from the Past
Proponents of Shariah panic like Robert Spencer and the Shrieking Harpy would have you believe that we are facing a once in a lifetime, existential threat to our very way of life. They have their followers convinced that the United States will become Saudi Arabia West if they don’t buy their books/donate to their organizations/vote Republican etc. In the spirit of Godwin, many self-proclaimed “anti-jihadists” even compare themselves to those who opposed the Nazis. In reality, they’re much closer to a more recent movement- the anti-Satanists of the ’80s and ’90s.
From the Wikipedia article on Satanic Ritual Abuse:
The SRA panic repeated many of the features of historical moral panics and conspiracy theories such as the blood libel against Jews by Apion in the 30s AD, Christians in the Roman empire, later allegations of a Jewish conspiracy alleging the killing of Christian babies and desecration of the Eucharist, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Allegations of horrific acts by outsider groups — including cannibalism, child murder, torture and incestuous orgies — may have served as a form of “Othering” for minority groups, as well scapegoating to provide simple explanations to complex problems in times of social disruption. Torture and imprisonment were used by authority figures to coerce confessions from alleged Satanists, confessions that were later used to justify their execution. Records of these older allegations were linked by contemporary proponents in an effort to demonstrate the contemporary Satanic cults were part of an ancient conspiracy of evil, though ultimately there is no evidence for devil-worshipping cults in Europe at any time. A more immediate precedent to the context of the United States was McCarthyism in the 1950s.
So we see that scapegoating minorities is nothing new. Just as medieval Christians thought they were fighting evil incarnate and 1950s wingnuts thought they were battling the communist menace, so to do anti-Muslim bigots (wrongly) think they’re “defending the West.”
The underpinnings for the contemporary moral panic were found in a rise of five factors in the years leading up to the 1980s: The establishment of Fundamentalist Christianity and political organization of the Moral Majority; the rise of the Anti-cult movement which spread ideas of abusive cults kidnapping and brainwashing children and teens; the appearance of the Church of Satan and other explicitly Satanist groups that added a kernel of truth to the existence of Satanic cults; the appearance of the child abuse industry and a group of professionals dedicated to the protection of children; and the popularization of posttraumatic stress disorder, repressed memory and corresponding survivor movement.
Replace “anti-cult” with “anti-Shariah”, “Church of Satan” with “radical Islam” and “child abuse industry” with “anti-terrorism”, and it’s uncanny.
But this is different! The Muslims have even infiltrated our government! Barack HUSSEIN Obama and all!
In 1984 MacFarlane (a social worker) warned a congressional committee of scatological behavior and animals being slaughtered in bizarre rituals which children were forced to watch. Shortly after, the United States Congress doubled its budget for child-protection programs. Psychiatrist Roland Summit delivered conferences in the wake of the McMartin trial and depicted the phenomenon as a conspiracy theory that involved anyone skeptical of the phenomenon. By 1986 social worker Carol Darling argued in a grand jury that the conspiracy reached the government. Her husband Brad Darling gave conference presentations about a Satanic conspiracy of great antiquity which he believed now permeated American communities.
They even got Congress involved. Steve King would be proud!
By the late 1980s therapists or patients who believed someone had suffered from SRA could suggest solutions that included Christian psychotherapy, exorcism and support groups whose members self-identified as “anti-Satanic warriors.” Federal funding was increased for research on child abuse, with large portions of the funding going towards child sexual abuse. Funding was also provided for conferences supporting the idea of SRA, adding a veneer of respectability to the idea as well as offering an opportunity for prosecutors to exchange advice on how to best secure convictions (with tactics including the destruction of notes, refusing to tape interviews with children and destroying or refusing to share evidence with the defense). Had proof been found, SRA would have represented the first occasion where an organized and secret criminal activity had been discovered by mental health professionals. In 1987 Geraldo Rivera produced a national television special on the alleged secret cults, claiming “Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in [the United States and they are] linked in a highly organized, secretive network.” Tapings of this and similar talk show episodes were subsequently used by religious fundamentalists, psychotherapists, social workers and police to promote the idea that a conspiracy of Satanic cults existed and were involved in serious crimes.
Religious fanatics? Check.
Sensationalist reporting? Check.
Law enforcement in on the act? Check.
Support from the same government that has supposedly been corrupted by the enemy? Check.
Belief in “a highly organized, secretive network” in the U.S.? Check.
Delusional armchair warriors? Check.
Speaking of religious fanatics…
Initial accusations were made in the context of the rising political power of conservative Christianity within the United States, and religious fundamentalists were enthusiastic in promoting rumors of SRA. Psychotherapists who were actively Christian began advocating for the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID) and soon after accounts similar to Michelle Remembers began to appear, with some therapists believing the alter egos of some patients were the result of demonic possession. Protestantism was instrumental in starting, spreading and maintaining rumours through sermons about the dangers of SRA, lectures by purported experts and prayer sessions, including showings of the 1987 Geraldo Rivera television special. Secular proponents began to appear, and child protection workers became significantly involved. Law enforcement trainers, many themselves strongly religious, became strong promoters of the reality of the claims and became self-described “experts” on the topic. Their involvement in child sexual abuse cases produced more allegations of SRA, adding credibility to phenomenon. As the explanations for SRA were distanced from evangelical Christianity and into the realm of “survivor” groups, the motivations ascribed to purported Satanists shifted from combating a religious nemesis to mind control and abuse as an end to itself. Clinicians, psychotherapists and social workers documented clients alleging histories of SRA though the claims of therapists were unsubstantiated beyond the testimonies of their clients.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these sorts of panics:
Some feminist critics of the SRA diagnoses maintained that, in the course of attempting to purge society of evil, the panic of the 1980s and 1990s obscured real child abuse issues, a concern echoed by Gary Clapton. In England the SRA panic diverted resources and attention from proven cases of abuse and resulted in a hierarchy of abuse in which SRA was the most serious form of abuse, with physical and sexual abuse being minimized, marginalized and “mere” physical abuse no longer worthy of intervention. In addition, as attention towards SRA turned negative, the focus by social workers on SRA resulted in a large loss of credibility to the profession. SRA, with its sensational makeup of many victims abused by many victimizers, ended up robbing the far more common and proven issue of incest of much of its larger significance to society.
Just as the SAR hysteria took attention away from actual abuse, so to does anti-Shariah hysteria make it more difficult to combat the very real problem of Islamic extremism. The War on Terror will be won in the hearts and minds of those most at risk of becoming terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, namely Middle Eastern Muslims. Not only are wingnuts like Geller and Spencer distracting us from this task, their hateful rhetoric and attempts to demonize Islam as a whole actually hurt any efforts to reduce radicalism.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool once every generation, and I’m a dumbass.