The Struggle over Cultural Perception in the Wake of Violence

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A Turkish media outlet, The Anadolu Agency, reported yesterday that ancient artifacts, stolen from the Mosul Museum, were turning up in European markets and being sold in order to help fund the terrorist activity. Which terrorist organization? Depends who you ask. Daesh. Or to some, ISIL  or the IS. Still to others ISIS. And once, as is reported, the group is an off-shoot of al-Qaida.

Tigris River, Mosul

Tigris River, Mosul

Since the organization’s formation, the world’s media and political agencies have struggled to agree on a single name. While many now officially rejected the term ISIS and ISIL, both terms linger. Some use the Islamic State, as requested by the group. However, over the past six months, more governments and media are using Daesh, an acronym taken from the group’s Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham.

When France officially swapped ISIL for Daesh, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius explained, “This is a terrorist group and not a state.” He also said, “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.” Agreeing with him, Egyptian officials asked the international media to stop using these terms because they “attach the name of Islam to bloody and violent acts committed by such groups” and promote stereotypes in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.

Last month, Australian officials joined France is using Daesh, because it is reportedly hated by the organization itself. A middle-eastern paper wrote, “In much of the Arabic speaking world, where people are most impacted by ISIS thuggery and violence, it was settled: piss off ISIS and use the pejorative Daesh.”

However, the term, as an acronym, still presents the same problem as ISIL or the IS. It links the group to Islam through its name and, therefore, fails in a secondary war over cultural perception.

In a religion’s struggle over public image, peaceful groups often find themselves on the defensive, having to distance their members and beliefs from the atrocities committed by those claiming the same religion. While this struggle is particularly brutal for Muslims, they are not alone. Islam is not the only religion that sees violence done in its name.

Unfortunately, such actions can be found across cultures In 2014, a trio in Philadelphia attacked a gay couple; an act which was quickly linked to their Catholic religious beliefs. In Myanmar, the 969 Movement, led by Buddhist Monk Ashin Wirathu, has been the cause of years of religious-based violence. In India, the government struggles against the atrocities committed by right-wing Hindu extremists, who in the past have attacked journalists and threatened rape.

These are only a few examples. In all cases, related religious organizations came out to condemn the violent acts and distance themselves from those that claim their beliefs.

Ryan Smith, co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, knows this problem all too well. When asked about the war over cultural perception, he said, “The best and most consistent strategy for dealing with such acts of violence is to clearly denounce them, explain in terms of one’s spiritual practice why such acts are disgraceful and worthy of condemnation, and make it clear this is a moral position. Merely saying, ‘they weren’t one of ours’ is not enough.”

Why isn’t it enough? Because in many cases, the perpetrators of these acts do, in fact, claim the religion; whether it serves another ideology or not. For those outside of that specific religious sphere, there is no way to know the difference. It is your word against theirs. In recent months, Muslim scholars did exactly that. They published a point-by-point document illustrating how their religious beliefs are antithetical to the actions of Daesh, Boko Haram and other similar organizations.

Just last week, the Heathen community was faced with a similar situation. As we reported Monday, Mesa police arrested and charged Ryan Giroux, allegedly a White Supremacist, with the killing and injuring several people. While Giroux never claimed Odinism, the media attempted to make the connection due to an old chin tattoo. A number of articles mentioned “Thor’s Hammer” as symbol for Odinism and a pre-Christian religion. However, very few noted that the tattoo had been removed and was no longer there.

Regardless, within 24 hours, HUAR published a statement. When asked why, Smith explained:

If the first voices speaking out on the matter are those of the violent organizations and those who benefit from portraying all Heathens, or even all Pagans, as dangerously violent then this narrative will take hold in the mainstream media. This should be no surprise to anyone as the 24 hour news cycle lives on high drama, instant updates, and anything that attracts viewers. If, instead, there are Heathen voices saying loud and clear such actions are unconscionable in Heathen practice and denounce their acts then it is possible to nip these arguments in the bud. Seizing the initiative in moments of crisis is critical in defining media perception.

The Arizona case demonstrates a secondary public relations problem facing minority religions. Unlike Daesh and other Islamic extremists, Giroux never claimed the religion. The connection was made solely by mainstream media due to the presence of a symbol and nothing more. This problem is not unlike cases in which a pentacle is found at a crime scene and the mainstream media immediately jumps to assume Witchcraft.

Alyxander Folmer, a blogger who also responded publicly to the recent Giroux story, doesn’t believe it matters whether the act is publicly linked via a symbol or the person’s actual religious affiliation. “Bad news will ALWAYS outsell good news,” he said. Folmer added, “Just as one betrayal can wipe out years of good faith and trust between individuals, ONE story like this can taint an entire culture in the eyes of the public. In the end it doesn’t even really matter if the perpetrator was a practicing Heathen at the time of their crime, because once that association has been made it can’t be undone.”

Folmer agreed with Smith that, in defense, time cannot be wasted. He added, “We Heathens don’t have that luxury. If we want the world to see beyond the extremists who wear our faith like a mask, it’s not enough to simply distance ourselves from them. We have to stand against them in earnest, and prove to the world through our actions that these people do not represent us.”

These words are not entirely different from those being spoken by Muslims around the world, and certainly not different from those be spoken by Buddhists in response to 980 or by any religious group, specifically minorities, who have faced similar problems of perception. The same phrases are always heard: “That is not us.” “They do not represent us.” “That is a misuse of our sacred symbol.”

While Christians, a majority faith in the U.S., do have their own version of this problem, the scarring on their public image is far less pronounced due to their privileged position within American society. The collective PR engine moves much slower, if it moves at all. Folmer explained, “Groups like ‘Hammerskin Nation’ pervert our faith and our Lore, so that they can use it to justify their actions. It’s no different from how the KKK often uses Christianity to rationalize their hate. The difference is that (as a majority religion) Christianity has enough sway in the public square to ensure that rogue elements like the KKK aren’t seen as representing the whole of the faith.”

Folmer laments that the current Arizona case is only one of many. However, the problem of cultural perception, in its essence, is not unique to Heathens, Pagans, Wiccans and many minority faiths. This battle for a religion’s reputation is ongoing around the world and turns up in many forms. Smith said:

Unfortunately, as apt as specific comparisons like Islam vs ISIL or Christianity vs the Westboro Baptist Church are, there are too many Heathens I’ve met who use the poor reputation Muslims have been unfairly smeared with as an excuse for doing nothing. They claim the efforts of Muslims worldwide to combat such damage to their reputation have done nothing to fix their problems …

After citing a number of positive responses across communities and the growing acceptance of Pagan, Heathen and Polytheists practices over the years, he said, “The worst possible thing to do in the face of a small, dangerous group twisting the beliefs, trappings, and practices of many to justify grossly immoral acts is remain silent.”