The case to intervene and stop East Timorese killing witches

Dr Nicholas Herriman
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Centre of Southeast Asian Studies
Monash Asia Institute
Monash University

30 May 2009 Warren Wright's fascinating article in a recent edition documents recent cases of killings of alleged witches in East Timor as instances of traditional justice (Witchcraft and Murder in East Timor 2009 ETLJ 6). He cites the “anti-democratic” and “maladaptive” nature of such killings as evidence for the claim that outsiders should sometimes intervene and stop certain cultural practices. However, as an anthropologist who is unsure about intervening in other societies, I would like to analyse his case to intervene and stop ‘witch’ killings. In this short essay, I recap Wright’s argument and then point to three areas where the case to intervene could be strengthened. First, I point to complexities in the anthropological position on relativism. Second, I indicate problems with intervening. Last, I suggest the need for criteria for a legal system which are not cultural specific. Rather than disproving the case to intervene and stop witch killings, these three objections indicate ways in which the case to intervene could be strengthened.

Wright documents four cases of attacks of alleged witches in East Timor: a 1999 torture of a woman; the killing of three ‘witches’ in 2008; an anecdote about a man advised by a United Nations police officer to deal with witchcraft in the ‘traditional’ way, and who subsequently killed the ‘witch’; and an anecdote about hot coals being fatally placed on a ‘witch’s’ back for punishment. Wright finds these attacks “draconian” and “anti-democratic”. Wright appears to be targeting “overly relativist anthropologists” who he implies would support these attacks. Wright criticises “many anthropologists who lack a comprehension of the concepts of democratic secular law and justice” and “are ardent supporters of traditional justice systems”. He implies that there is no role for traditional justice such as ‘witch’ killing. Nevertheless, he feels that traditional justice “will play an important role” if “we know how to take advantage” of its “positive aspects”. The grounds for this claim seem to be established if the traditional legal system is open, accessible, not draconian, respecting of human rights, and is secular and democratic. Wright’s argument that one can judge and also intervene in another society thus runs against relativism. I suggest three weaknesses in this case in the following three paragraphs.

Wright critiques many anthropologists for being relativists who fail to understand democracy. Is this the case? Relativism has been the subject of persistent debate in anthropology with regard to two issues. First, with regard to writing about or recording culture, anthropologists have debated whether they should merely describe (if that is possible) other cultures, or prescribe what they should do. Battle lines have been drawn over issues such as the wearing of a veil by Muslim women, clitorectomy and other forms of genital mutilation, the Hindu sati, cannibalism, and so on. To quote one undergraduate text book, “There is no easy answer to the question of when or if it is proper to judge the beliefs and practices of others to be right or wrong” (Robbins 1997:11). The same text also warns against the dangers of the “relativist fallacy”—“the idea that is impossible to make moral judgements about others”. Second, if moral judgements are accepted, it is debated whether outsiders (such as anthropologists often are) have the right or responsibility to tinker with society. This is the great debate as to whether anthropology should be “pure” (for knowledge’s sake) or “applied” (achieving practical results) (Keen 1999:33-5). In view of this, I suggest that it is not simply the case that “many anthropologists” misunderstand secular law or ardent supporters of traditional justice systems, rather, there is much debate and subtlety with which they approach the issue of relativism. As the debate regarding relativism is well documented in anthropological writings, I will focus on problems with intervening specific to ‘witch’ killings in Timor Leste.

One problem with stopping witch-killing is that it can cause consternation for local people and upset the balance of relations within the community. This has been the experience of some colonial and post-colonial regimes. For the Lozi of Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the 1940s, sorcerers…were “patent criminals protected by British law” (Gluckman 1955:159). The Bimin-Kuskusmin of PNG perceive that the nearby Oksapmin people attack them with witchcraft, yet they “can no longer stage revenge raids against Oksapmin, because the government has outlawed warfare(Zelenietz 1981:9). In Cameroon, “the State appeared as the objective ally of the witch (Rowlands and Warnier 1988:127). This was observed among the Navaho: white courts refuse to acknowledge the existence of witchcraft…Hence, “witches” are in a highly favourable position to practice indirect extortion—they are feared and yet almost immune from punishment, for white governmental agencies exert every force to prevent the killing of witches (Kluckhohn 1944?:116).

The ‘protection’ of the perceived sorcerer or witch creates problems. This can be seen among the Korowai, who live to the east of Timor Leste, in New Guinea. Bereaved survivors of which attacks, until recently ambushed and killed the alleged witch outright, or by transferring him to a third-party who would assemble to execute the witch and eat his body. The consumers of the witch ’transferred’ the witch back by hosting and sago-grub feast and providing brides, to paraphrase Stasch (2001). Attempts by Indonesian police to stop this interrupted this exchange. For the Korowai, giving up homicide at the state’s behest “is tied to recognition of a larger transformation in the very make-up of the world” (Stasch 2001:47). Tinkering with one element of the system may cause larger, unintended, transformations. Intervening also risks denying indigenous people the ‘right’ to act according to their own will. Missionaries, colonial and neo-colonial states have attempted to eliminate witchcraft beliefs and recriminations (as well as many other apparently abhorrent cultural practices). East Timor’s struggle for freedom has more often than not been an attempt to stop foreigners telling its population what to do. Of course, the missionaries, colonisers, and neo-colonisers might have been right and the anti-colonialists wrong in some cases; but if this is to be asserted, the grounds for distinguishing what is right and wrong must be established. Such intervention can also come from within societies. Wright cites Xanana Gusmao’s antipathy to witchcraft and other feudal elements of traditional laws. It could be argued that this socialist critique of the killings of witches is typical of the modernising ideas of ‘indigenous’ elites in post-colonial societies. Indeed the first case of witch killing Wright refers to led to prosecutions of the alleged witch killers. However, even this kind of intervention can be harmful. For instance, government attempts to modernise and assimilate indigenous peoples has caused suffering and hardship throughout the world (Gomes 2007:2-4). This is part of a wider problem of state’s well-meaning attempts to modernise and improve populations with devastating results (Scott 1998). Before intervening we should be sure that it would not damage Timor Leste’s society, or that it would damage Timor Leste’s society but should be undertaken anyway.

The final problem with the case to intervene and stop East Timorese killing witches, is that the criteria Wright provide are themselves susceptible to a relativist critique. He advocates, for example, the criterion of “non-draconian”, implying a good legal system is not draconian. For some Aboriginals living in traditional communities, the White justice system which incarcerates them (often with fatal results) is more draconian than their system, which might resort to spearing an offender. For many Whites, traditional Aboriginal justice of spearing is draconian. Another problematic criterion for Wright’s legal system is “democratic”. Killing ‘sorcerers’ where I did fieldwork was wish of almost all local residents—often the ‘sorcerers’ own family, friends, and neighbours. In the sense that it is the will of the majority it is thus democratic. If a trial by jury were established, I strongly suspect that ‘sorcerers’ would be similarly condemned. I suspect that most villagers in Timor Leste would also wish to kill witches. To the extent that this is true, it appears that democracy is not antithetical to witch killings. As a final example, Wright implies that “adaptive” aspects of a legal system can be kept, while “maladaptive” aspects could be discarded. A clearer notion of “adaptation” is necessary here. Most commonly we think of adaptation as “survival of the fittest,” however many people believe that a system which protects the weakest and most vulnerable as ideal. For these reasons, criteria which are not susceptible to a relativist critique are required in establishing the case for intervening.

It might be that we are justified in morally judging and intervening in other societies. I suggest that engaging with the long debate over relativism in anthropology would be a good place to begin this debate. In any case, we should be wary that intervening in societies, even with the best of intentions, most often has a damaging effect. Finally the criteria we assert for changing a society—such as making the legal system “democratic”, “non-draconian”, and “adaptive”—should be defined in a manner which is not culturally specific. The case to intervene and stop witch killings in East Timor could be strengthened by taking this step.

Gluckman, Max 1955 The Judicial Process among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gomes, Alberto G 2007 Modernity and Malaysia: Settling the Menraq forest nomads. London: Routledge.

Keen, Ian 1999 The Scientific Attitude in Applied Anthropology. In Applied Anthropology in Australasia. S. Toussaint and J. Taylor, eds. Pp. 27-59. Nedlands WA: University of Western Australia Press.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1944? Navaho Witchcraft. Boston: Beacon Press.

Robbins, Richard H 1997 Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach. Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacock.

Rowlands, Michael, and Jean-Pierre Warnier 1988 Sorcery, Power and the Modern State in Cameroon. Man 23(1):118-132.

Scott, James 1998 Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stasch, Rupert 2001 Giving up Homicide: Korowai Experience of Witches and Police (West Papua). Oceania 72(1):33-52.

Zelenietz, Marty 1981 Sorcery and Social Change: An Introduction. Social Analysis 8:3-14

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